We used to work through social problems with novels, writes Tim Parks, but what if we’ve now entered the era of “reality fiction”?
Readers have become so canny about the way fiction works, so much has been written about it, that any intense work about sexuality, say, or race relations, will be understood willy-nilly as the writer’s reconstituting his or her personal involvement with the matter. Not that people are so crass as to imagine you are writing straight autobiography. But they have studied enough literature to figure out the processes that are at work. In fact, reflecting on the disguising effects of a story, on the way a certain set of preoccupations has been shifted from reality to fiction, has become, partly thanks to literary criticism and popular psychology, one of the main pleasures of reading certain authors. What kind of person exactly is Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, and how do the differences between their latest and previous books suggest that their personal concerns have changed? In short, the protection of fiction isn’t really there anymore, even for those who seek it.
Parks goes on to consider the thoughts of David Lodge, who wrote recently in Lives in Writing that “as he gets older he finds himself more interested in ‘fact-based writing’ than in fiction and goes on to offer an account of the lives of eleven writers, most of them novelists”:
Lodge explains his new interest in fact rather than fiction in his typically low-key manner, as merely “a common tendency in readers as they age, but it also seems to be a trend in contemporary literary culture in general.” Very casually, without any further elucidation, that is, Lodge has suggested that both as individuals and as a culture we can expect to grow out of fiction. It was a phase. All the same, the facts that Lodge turns out to be interested in, when we turn to his recent novels or to Lives in Writing, are the lives of people who wrote fiction—Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Anthony Trollope—and what interests him is how these people transformed their personal concerns into novels. …
So has fiction now outlived one of its sustaining purposes? That is the question Lodge, Dyer, Coetzee, Knausgaard, and many other writers are posing (one thinks in particular of David Shields’s madly provocative Reality Hunger). It could be we are moving towards a period where, as the writer “gets older”—as Lodge has it, carefully avoiding the positive connotation of “matures” or the negative of “ages”—he or she finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical. Far more interesting and exciting to confront the whole conundrum of living and telling head on, in the very different world we find ourselves in now, where more or less anything can be told without shame. Whether this makes for better books or simply different books is a question writers and readers will decide for themselves.