Commentary Magazine

Literary Blog

The Death of the Middlebrow Novel

Time magazine has published its annual Top 10 lists of “everything” in 2011, but the fiction list is the most conspicuous. Rather than make you click through ten different screens, here is the list in a shorter form:

(  1.) George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. To quote Kingsley Amis from New Maps of Hell: “I think it better to say straight out that I do not like fantasy.” Speaking for myself: I stand by my earlier assertion that, if a fantasy novel is the best work of fiction this year, then an epochal change occurred in the literary culture while no one was watching.

(  2.) David Foster Wallace, The Pale King. The half-finished manuscript that Wallace left behind when he committed suicide.

(  3.) Ann Patchett, State of Wonder. Patchett is our greatest author of overlong Tendenzromane — romances of political tendentiousness. The politics can’t conceal the sentimentality at the heart of Patchett’s vision.

(  4.) Teju Cole, Open City. About a Nigerian immigrant to New York. Fascinating voice. Nothing happens.

(  5.) Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog. Fifth volume in a series of mysteries.

(  6.) Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang. A first novel about performance artists who use their kids as props. Ha, ha.

(  7.) Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant. A collection of cartoons. Don’t ask me what it’s doing on a fiction list. “[I]t ought to be somewhere,” Lev Grossman says, “so let’s put it here.” Um, okay.

(  8.) Lars Kepler, The Hypnotist (trans. Ann Long). You’ve read all of Stieg Larsson? Not to worry. Here’s another grisly Swedish thriller. Better title: Cruelty in a Cold Climate.

(  9.) J. Courtney Sullivan, Maine. An increasingly common genre: the multi-generational saga of women. In Maine this time, for the sake of difference if not originality.

(10.) Daniel Clowes, The Death Ray. A graphic novel about a Chicago boy who acquires a working death ray.

Time magazine, the press secretary for middlebrow thought in America, has now officially abandoned its readers. A fantasy, an unfinished philosophical jawbreaker, two mysteries, a collection of cartoons, a far-fetched debut, and a graphic novel — these are the “best books” it can recommend to readers with limited time for reading and a non-specialist interest in new fiction? Where are the big fat reads? The thick novels, thick with characters and incident, in which readers can lose themselves? Jonathan Franzen tried to write such a novel last year in Freedom, although he insisted that his nearly 600-page book — in the 19th century it would have been called a triple-decker — belonged “solidly in the high-art literary tradition.” (It didn’t.)

My wife’s favorite novel this year was Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (2009), a book that was recommended to her by another professional who is more interested in people than in literary form. This is a perfectly respectable kind of novel, serious fiction without pretensions to difficulty. That’s pretty much the 19th-century conception of the novel, in fact; and good writers can still do wonderful things with the kind. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is the ideal cross-over novel, for example, appealing both to serious part-time readers and those who want to “keep up” with the latest in literary thinking. Its absence from Time’s list says far more about the magazine’s desperate efforts to seem edgy and clever than it does about the best fiction of 2011.