Fiction in an age of full disclosure

In an already much-linked piece in the New York Review of Books blog Tim Parks wrote about literature in a brightly lit world.

If fiction has often been a means of expressing the socially inexpressible, then what happens when nothing is unsayable, and in any case fewer and fewer transgressions can be hidden?

Love relationships and marriages are no longer conceived of as fortresses of propriety, such that every difficulty or infidelity must be strenuously denied. And in any event it’s becoming harder and harder to deny things. Everyone’s posting photographs on Facebook, everybody’s leaving traces of what they do or say on email and Twitter. Those who suffer abuse of any kind are more willing to speak up. With or without the NSA, the kind of collective reticence and sense of privacy that allowed Dickens to keep his young woman hidden from the public eye for so many years is a thing of the past.

Parks suggests that many modern novels manifest a change in motivation. Here he is speaking of David Lodge, and his growing interest in “fact-based writing”:

Again, as with Dyer, we have the sense that a situation that once made the novel extremely important, as space where difficult questions could be fielded with impunity, has now altered, such that the author brought up on this model is now bound to reflect on what to do with his ambition and creativity.

As well as Lodge and Dyer, Parks discusses Coetzee, and Roth — who present ambiguously fictional incarnations of themselves. He could also, of course, invoked Teju Cole and WG Sebald. The emphasis in this form of writing, he suggests has shifted from fiction as a vehicle for smuggling truth to the real presented in playful relation to fiction.

Such “confessions” would have been dangerous a hundred years ago. By calling these books novels you might say that Coetzee is holding onto a fig leaf. More interestingly, I suspect he is telling us that the word “fiction” was always a fig leaf, that literature can always be deconstructed to arrive at a play of forces that is essentially autobiographical, so that in a sense these more candidly autobiographical works are no more revealing than the fiction that came before them.


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