Frontiers are always changing, advancing. Borders are fixed, man-made, squabbled about and jealously fought over
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June 14, 2017 – Free MCAT CARS Practice
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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MCAT CARS Instructor.