I recently read with great interest B.P. Rouleau’s Why Men’s Fiction Is Suffering A Great Decline. Rouleau’s perspective as a fiction writer is invaluable, and without doubt he accurately diagnoses the malaise that surrounds much of American fiction today. Yet, more than once I found myself sitting up in my chair as I read, begging to differ with him on one or two points. I intend to elaborate on those here.
Was there ever a “golden age” for the consumption of fiction in America? I am not so sure. Much of the best fiction, as I see it, was surrounded by obscurity and lack of appreciation from the moment of its initial appearance. The literati here comprised an islanded class, aristocratic in its presumptions and preferences. Was there ever a time when men “appreciated” fiction? Here again, I am not so certain of the answer. Like all great things, great fiction has always been an elite pursuit; it has never been for the masses.
There is some correlation between female taste and sales of fiction titles. I suspect that in every age, perhaps since Petronius’s Satyricon and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass first appeared on the Roman scene two thousand years ago, women have been greater consumers of fiction than have men. Let us give women their due. In feudal Japan, women practically invented fiction. Noblewoman and ladies-in-waiting like Murasaki Shikibu constructed elaborate mythological tales (e.g., Tale of Genji) for the amusement of their lords, and thereby created a genre. Only half jokingly, we might say that men write the great fiction books, male critics praise them, and women read them.
Fiction in feudal Japan: an elite pursuit created by women
But I digress here. Is great fiction suffering from a decline? Yes and no. Great fiction has always been suffering from a decline in the sense that its appeal was limited to the educated elites. It was born into decline, in fact. Only rarely has great fiction appeared to universal acclaim and widespread appreciation in a writer’s lifetime. Yes, publishers are unwilling to take financial risks for uncertain literary products, and this hesitancy would doubtless condemn many old classics to oblivion today if their authors were knocking on doors, searching hungrily for a publisher. Necessity drives content.
But was there ever a time when this was not so? And has this trend not now been counterbalanced by the revolution in self-publishing and small publishing, where even the faintest printed voice can now be heard? Perhaps we are at the dawn of a new golden age of fiction, where previously unheard authors can now find a place in the chorus. In the ancient world, anyone could publish a book as long as he could hire a scribe to make enough copies; initial “printings” usually consisted of one thousand copies. The author needed only to sell them through dealers. Perhaps we are re-entering a period much like this.
Yet Rouleau’s article forced me to consider what works of American fiction I believe to be the most important, and why. Great fiction will always be relevant, and there is no better well to draw from than the classics. What better wellspring can we hope to find, unless it be the old Russian masters? Contemporary fiction be damned. I found myself continually drawn to the classics of American fiction, rather than the more modern material.
If we want to spend our time with fiction, why not choose the best? Out of countless exemplars, I decided to go with two old-school American masters. If you think these two writers are out of date, think again. For pure visionary power, maturity of symbolism, and mystical intensity of language, these American masters have never been surpassed.
Edgar Allan Poe
It is easy to forget what a towering genius Poe was. The older I get, the more I appreciate his incredible ability to evoke a mood, create a sensation, or analyze the decomposition of the human psyche. He is a consummate psychologist who was successful in many literary genres: he invented the detective story (The Purloined Letter), he was a great literary critic, he was an unrivaled poet, and he brought the horror tale to a height of maturity that has never been equaled.
Poe’s genius has no parallel in American letters
If you want to see what perfect writing looks like, read (or re-read) The Tell-Tale Heart. This short story is just about the most expertly constructed bit of writing that has yet appeared of comparable length. Poe’s special power was to dissect the breakdown of the human psyche, and he did this with unerring success in The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, and in his gothic tales like Ligeia and The Fall of the House of Usher. What concerns Poe is the destructive power of human passions like love, rage, and hatred, and his stories reveal with uncompromising clarity the irrational forces that inhabit our souls.
Now this is a novelist. He led a life that was exciting, rebellious, and full of angst and pain. In other words, he was made for writing. Typee chronicles his youthful experiences among the South Sea cannibals, and is a good warm-up to some of his more serious writing. Typee established Melville as the bad-boy of American fiction. Having lived among the South Sea natives, he could never quite adapt himself to polite society again. He tried and he tried, but it was no good. He had seen and experienced too much, and it had forever changed him. His later writings show his obsession with philosophical and moral problems, with which he was unable to untangle himself.
Which brings us to his greatest book of all. About Moby-Dick, what can one say about this strange and wonderful book that has not already been said? Perhaps one who is a native of southeastern Massachusetts, who has walked countless times the streets of New Bedford, and has visited the Seaman’s Bethel many times, cannot write neutrally about this difficult and brilliant book. But let us try.
It begins almost like a conventional sea-story, with picturesque scenes of Ishmael and Queequeg sharing a pipe and a fraternal bed together in New Bedford, and signing up for what appears to be a routine whaling voyage.
A dead whale, or a stove boat
And then things get progressively stranger, and stranger still. We are drawn into a surreal world where the characters speak like Shakespearean actors and behave like fanatics. Mystical undertones begin to rise overtly to the surface. We have a whaleboat filled with a multinational crew, headed by a rage-soaked lunatic, on a quest that ends in complete destruction. Among countless great chapters, read and imbibe the beauty of “The Grand Armada”; chew on the marvelous soliloquy by Ahab in Chapter 70 (“The Sphinx”); and experience the grandeur and desolation of the final chapter. This book deserves every bit of its reputation as the greatest, profoundest, and most difficult of all American novels. It doesn’t yield up its secrets easily, but when it does, they come in torrents.
And so we return to our original question: is American fiction dead? No. Genius, like weeds and ivy, will always find a way to persist and regenerate. It has a way of cropping up in the unlikeliest of places. We may not find the great treasures we seek in mainstream publishing, but on blogs, in self-published tomes, and in niche markets, there is a tremendous amount of creative vitality.
We have only to keep an open mind, and cast a wide net on the open sea.
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