In this post economist Tyler Cowen asks “What is the optimal lag time before deciding a work of fiction is worth reading? Few novels require urgent reading, so how about 15 years?” The spirit of this seems right to me, but I would change 15 to 150. I based my whole grad-school period on similar reasoning, studying 18th century novels that were utterly irrelevent save for their being old and arguably typical of their time period. My idea was that these novels inadvertently revealed “important” things about the shift in mind-set that the emerging capitalist economy had on emerging middle-class people who just started to read for pleasure. “Important” is in quotes, because I was ultimately unsure how important these speculative insights of mine were.
But I tend to agree that the sheer passage of time serves as the best kind of filter for what interests me, and only the things that survive in the public consciousness have relevance to understanding what characterizes that public, its desires and the nature of its pleasures.
Admittedly, this is a peculiar way to define relevance. It restricts me to what is popular and illustrative of social character rather than allow for idiosyncratic personal pleasures. Such a view rejects the notion of discovery, of finding something unchampioned and finding significance or joy in it. Lots of reasonable people would balk at the idea that you should read to figure out why other people are reading rather than to simply enjoy yourself.
In order to find pleasure in unheralded fiction, you have to enjoy fiction in the abstract. And in general, I long ago ceased to enjoy reading it (another grad-school by-product). Reading for pleasure? I want to learn something when I read, generally, and be encouraged to think imaginatively and critically—old fiction permits me to do this, as it forces me to make the effort to extrapolate the consciousness of the period that produced it, make that mental leap across history and consider the varies ways in which society has changed, been ruptured, or stayed the same. Contemporary fiction just seems like lazy non-fiction.
Once I was true believer in fiction. I even majored in creative writing as an undergraduate. I thought that politics were contingent and ultimately insignificant and that artists who meddled with it demeaned themselves, ignoring the eternal verities (love, beauty, truth, etc.) while sullying their work with overt messages and oversimplified analyses. But now I’ve come to see everything as political, and fiction seems beside the point, another layer of mystification preventing one’s grasping things as they are. Reading fiction sometimes seems like an ostrich-like practice of sticking one’s head in the sand and rejecting the world around one in favor of something simplified and reassuring. (And if fiction isn’t enough, you can turn on Fox News for something more advanced.) Especially trying is self-congratulatory literary fiction; though the authors are probably well-intentioned, I always think of how important they must feel they are when I am expected to take their invented worlds and their points of view as seriously as the real world itself. It makes me understand why novels took such a turn towawrd solipsistic language play—the mass media made it impossible for them to compete with the real world, and all that was left for the novel to do was perform language in ingenious self-referential ways, to become an intricate kind of crossword puzzle.
All this has lead me to considerable confusion and cognitive dissonance. On my bookshelves I have hundreds of novels, but I have a hard time remembering why I ever felt the need to read them or what I got out of them. So like an amnesiac trying to piece together his former personality, I’m trying to learn again what the function of fiction is. I’ve already ruled out entertainment—much more entertainment can be found through other media. Films and television are much more immersive without disrupting one’s relaxed passivity, and non-fiction is more than adequate when one wants to be more actively engaged with a cultural product. With technology having extended the possibilities of research for even the most casual of writers, a non-fiction equivalent could be found for virtually any story one would wish to tell, with the true story having the advantage of drawing on all the improbabilities of historical reality to make it compelling and relevant.
I think I appreciate genre fiction now more than I have since I was in junior high, reading Michael Moorcock novels. Perhaps genre fiction serves the function of restoring predictability to an unpredictable modern reality, soothing readers who want that kind of machinelike comprehensibility out of representations of life. Fiction should perhaps be considered a species of engineering, assessed by the same criteria and operating from the same principles and the same desire for a functioning world understood through formulas. What’s best about genre fiction is the subordination of the author’s ego to the pleasure of the reader. The author doesn’t pose as some moral arbiter with some privileged Wordsworthian access to the soul of man. Really, creative writers have no particular insight into human behavior that can’t be gleaned more authoritatively elsewhere. Often, all they have are powers of observation matched with a titanic, voracious ego. Anyway, lump this in with my occasional attacks on the cant of individual creativity (creativity as a way of feeling special and isolating oneself from the people one wants to be superior to rather than a process by which social cooperation is harnessed) and originality (a consumerist myth designed to promote obsolescence).
I also think there is a relevance lag to pop music too—anything worth hearing will survive its initial popularity, and you hear the stuff as music and not as a tangible piece of the momentary zeitgeist. You get the music minus the hype and the crowd psychology. But of course, most pop music listeners don’t care about pop as music; they care about it only insofar as it resonates with the zeitgeist, and they are probably much happier with it, unburdened with the curse of feeling obligated to evaluate it aesthetically (the fruitless pursuit of cultural capital in lowbrow source material). Anyway, this leads to me getting into music years after it hits; hence, my recent discovery of Oasis (one of maybe five rock bands from the 1990s worth listening to). There’s something totally lame and self-protective about this tendency of mine, but even in the era of free music, it seems better than chasing down every newly hyped band that comes down the pipe only to find out that they sound like something you were already into 20 years ago. Better for the dust to settle, and see which acts continue to be remembered and referred to. But this raises the question of what perpetuates a band’s memory after their style becomes passe—is it label pressure and PR? celebrity notoriety? sheer popularity? the degree to which they epitimize a moment in pop? (For Oasis, all of the above.) And where do I get my sense of what has survived from an era? From combing through contemporary pop criticism looking for references to things past? From seeing what friends have in their collections? Nostalga compilations? Or just the vague inkling that’s left after a hype wave blows past, the sort of thing that will have me checking out the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand in about 2011.