Commentary Magazine

Literary Blog

Why No One Reads Contemporary Fiction

Roger Kimball is the latest to admit he doesn’t read a lot of contemporary fiction and to speculate why. Short version: there’s no common culture. Or in a few more sentences:

We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance. The novel in its highest forms requires a certain level of cultural definiteness and identity against which it can perform its magic. The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions. Whatever we think of that process — love it as a sign of social liberation or loathe it as a token of cultural breakdown — it has robbed the novel, and the novel’s audience, of a primary resource: an authoritative tradition to react against.

I complained about something similar just the other day. What E. D. Hirsch Jr. called “cultural literacy” may no longer be possible, not only because the works of the past are no longer considered indispensable to becoming human, but also because no one could possibly agree what the indispensable works are, even if anyone still believed as a general rule that some are.

But this isn’t the whole story. Even if Kimball does not, some people read a lot of contemporary fiction. I know: I’m one. And though I am as eager as the next pundit to bemoan the loss of a common culture, I know that even now there are novels being written that are worth reading. It is true that the publication of a major new novel is no longer a public event, but this truth is entirely beside the question. The question is not whether a new novel passes what my friend Joseph Bottum, also writing in the Weekly Standard, called the “cocktail-party test.” The question is whether a new novel is worth reading.

To answer this question, though, you must read contemporary fiction. If you are troubled by the loss of a common culture, and especially by the novel’s loss of rank within the culture, then you need to start doing the work of restoration. And, sadly, this means that you must sort through a great many lousy novels to find a few good ones — although in this respect the present is no different from any other age in literary history. You must, in short, be prepared to do the work of a critic. The only reason no one reads contemporary fiction is that no one wants to do the work.