Monday, October 17, 2005

the buzz of implication

In the LA Times, David L. Ulin reflects on how literature is more important now than ever.

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.