Frontiers are always changing, advancing.

Frontiers are always changing, advancing. Borders are fixed, man-made, squabbled about and jealously fought over

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Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Frontiers are always changing, advancing. Borders are fixed, man-made, squabbled about and jealously fought over. The frontier is an exciting, demanding – and frequently lawless – place to be. Borders are policed, often tense; if they become too porous then they’re not doing the job for which they were intended. Occasionally, though, the border is the frontier. That’s the situation now with regard to fiction and nonfiction.

For many years this was a peaceful, uncontested and pretty deserted space. On one side sat the Samuel Johnson prize, on the other the Booker. On one side of the fence, to put it metonymically, we had Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad. On the other, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Basically, you went to nonfiction for the content, the subject. You read Beevor’s book because you were interested in the second world war, the eastern front. Interest in India or Kerala, however, was no more a precondition for reading Roy’s novel than a fondness for underage girls was a necessary starting point for enjoying Lolita. In a realm where style was often functional, nonfiction books were – are – praised for being “well written”, as though that were an inessential extra, like some optional finish on a reliable car. Whether the subject matter was alluring or off-putting, fiction was the arena where style was more obviously expected, sometimes conspicuously displayed and occasionally rewarded. And so, for a sizeable chunk of my reading life, novels provided pretty much all the nutrition and flavour I needed. They were fun, they taught me about psychology, behaviour and ethics. And then, gradually, increasing numbers of them failed to deliver – or delivered only decreasing amounts of what I went to them for. Nonfiction began taking up more of the slack and, as it did, so the drift away from fiction accelerated. Great novels still held me in their thrall, but a masterpiece such as Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus made the pleasures of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin seem fairly redundant. Meanwhile, my attention was fully employed by shoebox-sized nonfiction classics such as Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Robert Caro’s life of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, or Taylor Branch’s trilogy about “America in the King Years”: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, At Canaan’s Edge. I learned so much from books like these – while I was reading them. The downside was that I retained so little. Which was an incentive to read more.

While it’s important not to convert prejudices into manifesto pledges, my experience is in keeping with actuarial norms: middle-aged now, I look forward to the days when I join that gruffly contented portion of the male population that reads only military history. More broadly, my changing tastes were shaped by a general cultural shift occasioned by the internet, the increased number of sports channels and the abundance of made-for-TV drama. Not, as is sometimes claimed, because they’re making us more stupid, rendering us incapable of concentrating on late-period Henry James (which I’d never been capable of concentrating on anyway), but because our hunger for distraction and diversion is now thoroughly sated by all the football, porn and viral videos out there.

As a consequence, the one thing I don’t go to fiction for, these days, is entertainment. Obviously, I still want to have a good time. I share Jonathan Franzen’s reaction to the joyless slog represented (for him) by William Gaddis’s JR but I don’t want the kind of good time that ends up feeling like a waste of time. Chaired by Stella Rimington, the Booker year of 2011 was in some ways the belated last gasp of quality fiction as entertainment – or “readability”, as she called it. It was belated because David Hare had provided the epitaph a year earlier when he wrote that “the two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’” (which sometimes feels like the aspirational, if commercially challenged, cousin of genre fiction).

Within the sprawl of nonfiction there is as much genre- and convention-dependency as in fiction. Nicholson Baker has argued persuasively that a recipe for successful nonfiction is an argument or thesis that can be summed up by reviewers and debated by the public without the tedious obligation of reading the whole book. In exceptional cases the title alone is enough. Malcolm Gladwell is the unquestioned master in this regard. Blink. Ah, got it. Some nonfiction books give the impression of being the dutiful fulfilment of contracts agreed on the basis of skilfully managed proposals. The finished books are like heavily expanded versions of those proposals – which then get boiled back down again with the sale of serial rights. Baker’s study of John Updike, U and I, on the other hand, is irreducible in that there is no thesis or argument and very little story. The only way to experience the book is to read it. Which is exactly what one would say of any worthwhile piece of fiction.

The appeal of Touching the Void is dependent absolutely on Joe Simpson being roped to the rock face of what happened
Don’t let me be misunderstood. The novel is not dead or dying. But at any given time, particular cultural forms come into their own. (No sane person would claim that, in the 1990s, advances were made in the composition of string quartets to rival those being made in electronic music.) Sometimes, advances are made at the expense of already established forms; other times, the established forms are themselves challenged and reinvigorated by the resulting blowback. At this moment, it’s the shifting sands between fiction and nonfiction that compel attention.

Adapted from theguardian.

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Jack Westin
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11 Comments


  1. Fiction and nonfiction are both changing along with history, there is a continuous shift between what cultures prefer, whether they want to read for entertainment or for knowledge.

    Reply

  2. Nonfiction books = valuable for their content but the author learned a lot from fiction books as well. Fiction/nonfiction = changing.

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  3. Nonfiction and fiction = changing. Reader’s preference to choose what you want out of each kind of novel

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  4. MI: Nonfiction finding a comeback in literature where literature fails in content, and today even style. Author tone: Much prefers nonfiction and assured that it is making a turn-around.

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  5. Author’s mood constantly changes to pick up what kind of novels he wanted to read at a particular time period when his/her age constantly changes year after year. The extended part of TV’s and Sports made people more busy nowadays than usual.

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  6. fiction vs non fiction, experience = norms + cultural shifting, author favors non-fiction over fiction

    Reply

  7. Theme: Borders and frontiers are both defined as limits/ boundaries. However borders are fixed, stagnant, boring and don’t change (policed, often tense….too porous then they’re…) but frontiers are dynamic (changing, advancing) so genres like fiction and non-fiction though are separate domains, they are evolving continuously (border is the frontier…with regard to). Author is leaning toward non-fiction because fiction no longer is appealing to him but he maintains that fiction is not going to be lose its appeal (novel is not dead or dying). Instead he feels that they will continue to re-invent themselves to appeal to audience. He associates string quartets to established forms and electronic music to advances (analogy). (central).

    Tone: neutral, favours non-fiction work but is hopeful that fiction will not disappear from the literary landscape given the revival of interest

    Style was expected from fiction (obviously expected, sometimes conspicuously displayed) while not so much in non-fiction (inessential extra, like some optional finish). So author assumes that fiction tends to be more stylish than non-fiction work.

    Author alludes that he got lesser value from fiction over the years and gradually turned to non-fiction where he learned a lot more but retained little. This spurred him to read even more non-fiction.

    To be honest, the author is reading more non-fiction simply because as people get older they tend to gravitate towards non-fiction related material (join that gruffly contented portion…..only military history) but he admits to tuning to fiction due to the influence of the internet and TV (sports channels….made-for-TV drama…football, porn and viral videos). He admits he isn’t into mindless entertainment (feeling like a waste).

    Testable: know that Booker accolade is awarded to fiction. Even fiction has different forms ie literary fiction (not that popular, lesser readership, less market revenue) and genre fiction (more popular, higher commercial value). Samuel Johnson prize is accolade for non- fiction works.

    Testable: Even for non-fiction, there are sub categories (genre and convention-dependency) ; to be successful it has to be well-known even though not many people have read it so Malcolm Gladwell is known for writing genre non-fiction (unquestioned master in this regard) and when successful enough, the title gets published into a series. However, there are other good non-fiction works which gets less publicity and hence people do need to sit through it.

    Testable: Know that author alludes that the popularity of fiction or non-fiction works is cyclical and interest in each work maybe be generated by the other and vice versa so no particular genre dominates (shifting sands….)as reiterated earlier (frontiers are always changing; genres guarding their own individual turf, ie boundaries and frontiers) (analogy)

    Reply

  8. MP: there is a movement toward nonfiction rather than fiction because of advancements (e.g. TV)

    Reply

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