Defending the Unpopular Kid: Fiction and the Rise of the Essay

When I was in sixth grade, I was asked one morning by a neighbor if I would be willing to walk her first grade son to school that day. Perhaps I would have forgotten performing this act of charity if not for a startling comment that the boy made as we approached the school’s entrance, informing me that he was “the third most popular kid in first grade.” I was quite taken aback– not because of the blunt, startlingly specific nature of his claim, but mostly because I felt unworthy to stand in the presence of this either extremely self-aware, or dangerously self-deluded hotshot, given that, as a first grader, I was liked much better by my teachers than by my classmates.

First graders share a surprising amount in common with novelists. Both revel in creating and occupying fictitious universes, both have not realized what career pathways actually provide a steady and reliable income, and both tend to possess a curious mix of self-importance and self-consciousness. Like my young friend, novelists are ever mindful of their own personal popularity, but in order for a novelist to be popular his or her novels themselves must be relevant.

The novel is dead. I want to take my turn saying it. In a New York Times Sunday Book Review feature from August of this year entitled, “Why Do We Always Proclaim That The Novel Is Dead?” Benjamin Moser makes the assertion that “the death of the novel is a rhetorical motif—all the more venerable for never having produced a corpse.” Novels are, in fact, still being written, but perhaps my pronouncement, once it reaches that part of Brooklyn where all novelists live, will put an end to that enterprise. For now, sort of like the soldiers in the Battle of New Orelans, novelists will futilely continue to type and pen away.

The novel certainly has not maintained its former popularity, but that is hardly surprising. Reading a novel requires patience, concentrated discipline, and isolated detachment from immediate surroundings and circumstance. The majority of us, having been weaned on television and raised on the internet, may not be willing to give so much of ourselves in order to be informed and entertained– though the purpose of the novel should hardly be boiled down to those two ends.

Nevertheless, reading, I believe, will always retain a semi-popular appeal, whether out of a superficial desire to come off as cultured or intelligent, a need to occasionally escape our constant barrage of pixilated entertainment, or a genuine appreciation for and enjoyment of art. It can already be observed, though, that the type of reading we are doing is changing.

At the moment, non-fiction, particularly the essay, has taken off. In a review of a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan, the New Yorker literary critic and Harvard professor James Wood writes that “the contemporary essay has been gaining energy as an escape from, or rival to, the perceived conservatism of mainstream fiction.” Wood quotes Geoffrey Dyer, an extremely successful non-fiction writer who made the switch away from fiction, who presents an argument for the essay at the novel’s expense:

“Increasingly, the process of novelisation goes hand in hand with a strait-jacking of the material’s expressive potential. One gets so weary watching author’s sensations and thoughts get novelized, set into the concrete of fiction, that perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.”

Non-fiction and all the forms it takes—the essay, memoir, or those over-quoted, too-often-referenced-in-conversation books Malcolm Gladwell writes—do not inherently hold less literary merit. I certainly cannot bash something as brilliantly self-serving and self-obsessed as the memoir. And the Swedish Academy’s decision to award the latest Nobel Prize for Literature to Belarussian journalist and non-fiction writer Svetlana Alexievich, who according to the BBC is the first journalist to ever win the award, serves only to further affirm the respectability of contemporary non-fiction prose writing. My impetus for writing this piece comes, in large part, from recognizing my own reading tendencies and my increased consumption of non-fiction. There is something irresistibly explicit about the form: you feel connected to the writer, who holds on to you and seems to care deeply about keeping your attention.

My concern, however, is that the current popularity of non-fiction might relate to its relative difficulty (or lack thereof). Non-fiction does not intimidate like a poem, which demands careful attention to the energy stored within each word and phrase, or a novel, whose mode of communication is decidedly denser. Non-fiction, especially the essay, seems better suited for the digital age and quick, skimmed gleaning of little nuggets of easily shared information.

I know that there is a place for fiction in the modern world. I can see it in my favorite essays—the essays that are willing to scoff at staid formal conventions and the don’t-you-dare-use-contractions-or-first-and-second-person types, the essays that are brilliantly creative, the essays that are willing to incorporate narrative elements we normally think of as belonging to a novel.

In a recent conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson in the New York Review of Books, President Obama said, “The most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.” As long as making sense of existence is a relevant issue, the novel should survive.




Andrew Hauser is a first year in Columbia College. He is a member of the Editorial Board of The Columbia Review. 




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