I used to fall naturally into fiction. Novels and stories were literature, preeminently. When you’re a kid, you read out of instinct and rumor. That, coupled with the resolve to finish every book I started reading, meant I plowed through shelves of fiction, genius and junk. For a very different approach to reading, here is the Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981) in The Gray Notebook (trans. Peter Bush, New York Review Books, 2013) on June 9, 1919:
“Despite my passion for literature I have never been able to warm to novels. I take no issue with the way novels begin and set the scene; when tensions and the fiction of the denouement begins, I can read no more—it inevitably falls from my hand.”
That never bothered me. I read fiction for mixed reasons, starting with a compelling story. I like the sense of dwelling in an alternative world, even one that closely resembles our own, and for this reason I loved (and love) equally Middlemarch and Tristram Shandy. Pla goes on to write, “Novels are children’s literature for adults,” but I don’t see that as dismissive. Serious readers maintain a small but important childish sense, and we still seek pleasure, even “escape,” a quality held in contempt by sophisticates. Pla remembers his grandmother telling him and his siblings stories by the fireside. When she would pause, the children would ask, “And what now? What now? What happened next? How did it all end?”
Later, novels became a criticism of life, part of my ongoing education. The basic stuff of fiction is human behavior and morality. How many of us have learned about life from, and even modeled our behavior on, Pierre Bezukhov and Ralph Touchett? Some time in my thirties the allure of fiction faded, though never entirely, and I replaced it with poetry, history and biography. Some novelists remained loyally with me – Melville, Conrad, Svevo, Ford, Nabokov, Christina Stead. This is too schematic a description, but suggests a general shift in sensibility that I can’t otherwise account for.
Lately I have experienced a resurgence of interest in fiction, mostly in the form of wishing to reread some of the nineteenth-century novels I read and enjoyed long ago and want to revisit – Balzac, Shchedrin, Zola, Perez Galdos, Eça de Queiroz and, of course, Tolstoy and James. The last thing I want to reread are cold, shiny artifacts of postmodernism – Barth and Barthelme, Coover and Hawkes. Truly, that is “children’s literature for adults.” Pla’s repudiation of fiction seems rooted in a distrust of artifice. He writes:
“In real life, nothing ever ends, except as a result of death or oblivion. However, novels don’t usually end on that note. Nothing seek to demonstrate one thing or another—generally the greatness of whatever moral code is in vogue. I think that the seven or eight great novels that represent masterpieces of this genre would gain in stature if they had no endings.”
This is silly and sounds like a young man posturing, but I might have suggested Pla read War and Peace, Washington Square, Nostromo and, in a few years, Parade’s End.