Fiction, Non-Fiction, Essays, Posterity

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post disagreeing with Katha Pollitt’s claim that (roughly), Even the best non-fiction writers only get read by future generations if they are lucky enough to have written some quality best-selling fiction. Pollitt had referred to “columnists and essayists and book reviewers” in her original post, but in my response, I broadened the category to “non-fiction.”

That post triggered some interesting responses. Corey Robin wrote in to say that he disagreed with the small list of “essayists” I had generated (while agreeing with my disagreement with Pollitt):

Arnold, Barzun, Burke, and Bacon are not known and remembered primarily for their essays; they have other bodies of work that we mainly remember them for. You’re right about Montaigne, Johnson, and Sontag, and I’d also throw in Hazlitt, Chesterton, maybe Benjamin, and James Baldwin.

Another commenter, Lauren Hahn, wrote,

The examples you give of essayists who did not write fiction are problematic. Ben Jonson, of course, wrote brilliant plays (Volpone!) and poetry as well as essays. Matthew Arnold wrote brilliant poems. Hitchens did not write plays or poems.

Later, Corey and I also got into an interesting Twitter dialogue with Jeff Sharlet; Katha Pollitt herself showed up to clarify her initial claim (with some interesting examples; do read the comment); and later, Mukul Kesavan suggested, using Borges and the standard New York Review of Books piece as examples, that Pollitt’s claim was correct:

[W]e can be certain that the generic ‘literary’ essay that is the stock-in-trade of the NYRB and its imitators, has the shelf-life of fresh produce. Or fish.

These discussions threw up some interesting points of contention:

  1. The distinction between “essayists” and other “non-fiction writers”; I started too broadly but this was inevitable, given that many writers who wrote essays also wrote other material: philosophical and political tracts most notably. Consider Barzun, who has written many “general” essays but is a historian of ideas and culture and a philosopher of education. Or Burke, who I had down as an essayist, is perhaps most straightforwardly considered a political theorist and philosopher. (Incidentally, in response to Hahn above, I would say that my examples were intended to be not of writers who confined themselves to essays but rather those that we remember primarily for their essays; Sontag, as I noted, wrote fiction too, but I’d be surprised if anyone remembers her writing for that reasons).

    This disagreement in general suggests the category “essayists” is too narrow, and “non-fiction” is too broad when it comes to picking the appropriate target for comparison with “fiction” in reckoning how well one’s writing will endure. I think if a comparison between “non-fiction” and “fiction” is made, the case is hopelessly muddled. But even restricting the comparison to “essays” and “fiction” is hard. Because I don’t think we have great agreement on who an “essayist” is or what an “essay” is. Is this defined by subject matter, writing style, length of piece, forum of publication, or something else? “Essay” is a vague predicate when applied to works of prose, and our categorization of writers as “essayists” is an exercise in classification that will always reveal boundary cases that don’t quite fit in. 

    I suspect “essay” is often reserved now for a piece of prose that is intensely personal (i.e., there is an element of autobiography in it); even the quasi-philosophical piece can become an “essay” then if the writer makes explicit that his view is not from “nowhere” but from his personal standpoint. I’d be interested to hear from folks on what they would include in the category and what they would leave out, and how a line would be drawn between different kinds of writing so that we could more accurately classify writers as “essayists” or something else.

    I think if nothing else, this discussion made me realize the original comparison between different kinds of writers’ ability to earn posterity’s recognition is not a very interesting one if “essayists” is restricted too narrowly.

  2. The “popular” and “serious” distinction. In the discussion that Robin, Sharlet and I had on Twitter, the central disagreement was about my rather loosely-worded claim that “Well, fiction is always more likely to reach a broader market than the non-fiction a writer puts out.” Sharlet contested this point, and he was right. The implicit suggestion in this claim of mine was that “fiction” is somehow “popular”, while “non-fiction” is “serious” and the greater accessibility to markets comes about because of the “pop” nature of fiction. This conflation of “fiction” with “popular fiction” was careless on my part. Sharlet later suggested that by my examples, I was attempting to point out “exceptions to the rule” but he’d suggest rather, that “nonfiction is the new rule.” When I asked if this meant that in the modern context, “nonfiction writers and fiction writers stand equal chance of access to markets of readers”, Sharlet replied, “my understanding is except for a few stars, nonfiction far outsells fiction now.”

    The question then remains: What kind of non-fiction? Essays? Reportage? Political tracts? Literary criticism? Another interesting question this prompts is why this might be the case now. Have fiction markets become saturated? Is there an expressed preference for the consumption of “non-fiction” now? Have bloggers had something to do with this?

  3. Why might it be the case that fiction ensures greater enduring fame? Now, I think the original discussion, and the examples of Montaigne, Johnson and Sontag, show that even with “essayists” there are some counterexamples to Pollitt’s claim. But why might Pollitt and Kesavan think that fiction ensures greater fame? The facile answer to this is that fiction is not a creature of its time in the way that essays might be. Some fiction can speak to universal themes that span space, time and cultures. But other pieces of fiction are, of course, hopelessly parochial in those same dimensions. And when one considers the category “essays” to include political tracts or philosophical speculation, those can often cease to be confined by temporal boundaries as well. It isn’t a conceptual feature of fiction that it will always be less parochial.

    But where fiction does come off best is in comparison with those pieces that are necessarily creatures of their time: journalistic pieces (see my post on “Essays and Expiry Dates”); book reviews; some kinds of travel writing (not all; see for instance travel writing that has now become an important historical sources in its own right); topical political commentary (like the tedious modern pieces of election analysis).

    In general, I’m not sure that a general sort of claim can be made about how well some kinds of writing endure based on their fictionality as a parameter. Rather, when it comes to assessing enduring fame or a place in posterity, there is only one way to do it: keep checking over time. In Law and Literature, Richard Posner suggested that coming up with necessary and sufficient conditions for a work to be judged a “classic” was a doomed exercise and that the best way to exercise that judgment was to see how long it continued to be read. I agree.

3 thoughts on “Fiction, Non-Fiction, Essays, Posterity

  1. I’m skimming back through your blog archives and thought I’d leave a (possibly useless) late comment. I say “possibly useless” because I don’t think I’m in the intended audience — quite a few of these apparently famous essayists are people I’ve never heard of, and I only know of Jonson because we read Volpone in year 12 English. The only olden-days essayist I could name, apart from Orwell, would be Frederic Bastiat.

    One important reason I see for why old works of non-fiction to go unread is that the first exposition of an argument or theory is often poorly formulated. (I may be influenced by my maths and physics background here.*) Over time, arguments are refined, notation and vocabulary become more precise and more powerful, and there is no use in reading the original except for historical purposes. I guess I’m saying that with non-fiction it’s usually the ideas that are important and not the words which first conveyed them.

    This sort of gradual revision and improvement doesn’t happen with fiction (or at least it’s rare), and so we continue to read the original works.

    I’ve written the above two paragraphs in the hope that it’s relevant to your point 3 (i.e., fiction v non-fiction, rather than the original topic of non-fiction writer v non-fiction writer who also wrote fiction).

    *This might be a larger bias than I think. I’ve sometimes seen economists go right back to quoting Smith or Keynes, sometimes even to other economists.

    1. David,

      Great to see you here. Not a useless comment at all. Far from it. This line – ” with non-fiction it’s usually the ideas that are important and not the words which first conveyed them.” is actually quite suggestive. I might try and respond to it in a post later. I’m not sure I agree with it just because it seems to me there are ideas that endure in fiction, and it is to tap into those that we read fiction even if the form of expression is now archaic. Anyway, more later.


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