For a few weeks I’ve been mulling over a “theory” about the nature of contemporary fiction. The quotes are because this is a theory in the way that normal people have theories; they don’t know much and just make up plausible (to their mind) models that are ultimately grounded in a whole lot of ignorance. I really don’t know much here, and I strongly suspect I’m wrong, but I can’t help but express an opinion in public though I feel I shouldn’t because of my admitted ignorance. To some extent I’m putting this post up to be enlightened by readers who do know a great deal more about letters (e.g., The Man Who is Thursday, who should also resize the little dog so his front page load doesn’t go well north of 300 K).
Here’s the argument: contemporary mainstream fiction is very different from the storytelling of the deep past because of a demand side shift. Women consume most fiction today, and their tastes differ, on average, from those of men. How do they differ? To be short about it men are into plot, while women are into character. This means that modern literary fiction emphasizes psychological complexity, subtly and finesse. In contrast, male-oriented action adventure or science fiction exhibits a tendency toward flat monochromatic characters and a reliance on interesting events and twists. Over my lifetime I’ve read a fair amount; but the vast majority of the fiction has been science fiction & fantasy. Many males outgrow this bias, perhaps as they become more psychologically complex and nuanced, but I haven’t (though I don’t read much fiction in general at this point). I know many other males who are similar; we aren’t dumb, and not all of us have Asperger’s. We just aren’t interested into characterization or character. We are people of exotic ideas, novelty of story arc and exploration of startling landscapes. Contemporary mainstream fiction, high, middlebrow and low, does not usually satisfy these needs.
But ancient fiction; epics, myths, etc., do fulfill these requirements. I didn’t seek out fiction in any form before I was 13 or so (I was assigned books in school of course); but I had read Bullfinch’s Mythology as well as translations of the Iliad and Gilgamesh. In hindsight I suspect that my interest in these works is due to the fact that they are recognizably High Fantasy. Either they are explicit myths, or, they refer to peoples and places whose lack of banality is due to their distance in time & space (obviously I have never been to the Zagros mountains!). I also have read historical fiction which is sufficiently distant in time, e.g., the whole of Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series.
To some extent if you know me in person you can see that I’m not interested in the details of the characters of other human beings. I’m somewhat along the autism spectrum toward Asperger’s. I’m not the type to lose myself in a story, and I’m not really interested in most horror films because I have a hard time getting scared or identifying with the characters (I can’t forget it’s just a movie and the people aren’t real). It seems clear to me why I have a hard time being interested in mainstream fiction; not only am I not interested in the characters, but I’m just not like most of the people depicted in terms of their values or personality. I can’t “relate,” and I’m not interested in “relating.”
If you read Isaac Asimov’s biography, In Memory Yet Green, I think you get a sense of why his novels depict flat characters. Though Asimov seems to be a gregarious individual, he was very narcissistic and self-involved. I don’t get a sense that he was a socially sensitive soul (though he did resent the anti-Semitism he had experienced or slights from strangers). Asimov wrote something of an apologia for science fiction as a genre of ideas, but I think it reflects the set of values which I’ve expressed above and which many science fiction oriented individuals embody; plots, not people. (if you want every stereotype of science fiction readers confirmed, check out William Sims Bainbridge’s Dimensions of Science Fiction, which is based on surveys at science fiction conventions)
For whatever reason Our Kind of People don’t become literary critics or arbiters of taste & sophistication. Science fiction & fantasy can never be Great Fiction. If a work of science fiction & fantasy is Great Fiction then by definition it is not science fiction & fantasy. Slaughterhouse-Five, Brave New World and 1984 are not science fiction. Within the science fiction ghetto authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury, who admit or manifest little interest in science as such and emphasize literary values and social messages (especially Le Guin for the latter), are held up as the great authors who are acceptable. In other words, authors for whom psychological exploration just happens to involve a spaceship in the background.
Why does any of this matter? For one, I think that it is somewhat peculiar that many of us find fiction from the past more engaging than popular contemporary works. Aupelius’ Golden Ass gets my attention; most contemporary fiction does not. I am arguing here that this is partly due to the fact that in the past those who read copiously were, on average, much more like me than they were like the typical human. Not only were readers by and large men (usually of some means and comfort), but they were often also disproportionately eggheads who were eccentric by their nature. How many elite scholars were there such as Claudius who were not attracted to the public life of politics and do not appear in the annals of history? With the printing press, cheaper paper, and the rise of mass literacy,1 things changed, the distribution of taste shifted. And so did the distribution of genres.
So am I full of crap?
Addendum: I also think there is a supply-side issue; female authors tend to produce a particular type of work. This is evident within science fiction; female authors are underrepresented in hard science fiction. Here is something from the Wikipedia entry for the Tales of Genji:
The Tale of Genji…is a classic work of Japanese literature attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century, around the peak of the Heian Period. It is sometimes called the world’s first novel, the first modern novel, or the first novel to still be considered a classic. This issue is a matter of debate. See Stature below.
The Genji is also often referred to as “the first novel”, though there is considerable debate over this – some of the debate involving whether Genji can even be considered a “novel”. Some consider the psychological insight, complexity, and unity of the work to qualify it for “novel” status while simultaneously disqualifying earlier works. Others see these arguments as subjective and unconvincing. Related claims, perhaps in an attempt to sidestep these debates, are that Genji is the “first psychological novel”, “the first novel still considered to be a classic”, or other more qualified terms. It is, however, difficult to claim that it is the world’s first novel without denying the claims of Daphnis and Chloe and Aethiopica in Greek, which author Longus and an unknown sophist respectively wrote, both around the third century, and in Latin, Petronius’s Satyricon in the first century and Apuleius’s Golden Ass in the second, as well as Kadambari in Sanskrit which author Banabhatta wrote in the seventh century. (The debate exists in Japanese as well, with comparison between the terms monogatari — “tale” — and shosetsu — “novel”.)
The first psychological novel? Sounds really boring (though it seems like she makes an attempt at plot, so perhaps I should check this out. I enjoyed Musashi, whose author was influenced by the Tales of Genji).
1 – I am not convinced that even the Athenian democracy was characterized by mass literary. See Ancient Literacy.