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Literature, now more than ever

In a fractured, traumatized time, it's the power of fiction to alter our interior world, and connect at deep levels, that keeps it vital.

October 16, 2005|David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writer

THERE'S a moment in the life of every writer when he or she questions the relevance of literature. Usually, this comes as a reaction to what Annie Dillard has called the "intrinsic impossibility" of composition; "I do not so much write a book," she acknowledges in "The Writing Life," "as sit up with it, as with a dying friend."

Occasionally, though, it is an external disruption that provokes a literary crisis of faith. That's what happened to Jane Smiley, who had always found writing an unencumbered, even joyful, process -- until Sept. 11, 2001. When those hijacked jets slammed into the twin towers, Smiley was in the middle of her ninth novel, "Good Faith," which revolves around infidelity and real estate and takes place early in the Reagan years.

Suddenly, she could no longer connect to fiction: It didn't seem to matter anymore. "I came up with all sorts of diagnoses for my condition," she writes in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel," a new nonfiction work that grew out of her need to reaffirm her belief in literature. "The state of the zeitgeist was tempting, but I refused to be convinced. I reminded myself that I had lived through lots of zeitgeists over the years, and the geist wasn't all that bad in California.... [But] I felt scattered. Even after I lost my fascination with the images and the events, my mind felt dissipated and shallow."

Four years after Sept. 11, with "Good Faith" long since published, Smiley elaborates by phone from her Carmel Valley home. "I think I underestimated what a shock those attacks were," she says, her voice soft, textured with a Midwestern twang. "I expected to get back to work. And then, the stuff that came afterward -- anthrax, Afghanistan, Iraq -- just compounded the feeling of intrusion. It was impossible to get away."

Part of the story of Sept. 11 is that it altered everything, although whether that's accurate remains a subject for debate. More certain is that many writers, and especially fiction writers, have had trouble taking on the attacks and their aftermath in any convincing way. As to why this is, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul recently told the New York Times Book Review that fiction's time is over: "What I felt," he argued, "was, if you spend your life just writing fiction, you are going to falsify your material.... I thought nonfiction gave one a chance to explore the world, the other world, the world that one didn't know fully."

Still, for all that Naipaul's comments reflect a larger issue -- the perception that fiction or, more broadly, literature is no longer able to address our historical moment -- there's a way in which they miss the point. Fiction, after all, has never been about history; rather, it has to do with (in E.M. Forster's phrase) the "buzz of implication," the subtle nuances of how we live.

"The act of reading is collaborative, conversational," says Anne Fadiman, Francis writer in residence at Yale University and former editor of the American Scholar, whose recent anthology, "Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love," gathers essays by, among others, Luc Sante, Vivian Gornick and Phillip Lopate. For Fadiman, who won a 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction for "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," such engagement is hardly limited to fiction but to any work that requires an emotional investment on a reader's part.

Her new book, like Smiley's, makes the case for our continued faith in reading as a necessary filter on the world. "I think it's wrongheaded," she contends, "to assume that people don't want to use their imaginations, or that imagination has become less necessary than information, somehow. That's what makes literature so special. It calls up that instinctive, imaginative work."

What Fadiman is getting at is one of the inalienable truths of literature, that it depends on the relationship of two perspectives -- the writer's and the reader's -- as they come together in an intimate way. It's a matter of interiority, a one-to-one connection, the idea that reading involves a mutual possession at its heart.

"The novel," Smiley points out, "is essentially a form in which the interior of one person's mind comes into the interior of another person's mind. When I read Dickens or Jane Austen, word by word they're showing me the idiosyncratic nature of their minds. It's as if they were inside me. There's no novel that doesn't unfold the author's sensibility. So the more novels I read, the more sensibilities I have in my head, and the greater my sense of empathy."

In her view, there's a political component here, since the more empathy we develop, the more likely we are to understand opposing attitudes. "If you have leaders who don't read novels," Smiley says sharply, "look what big trouble you get into. They can't imagine other points of view."

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