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When Fiction was King

Robert McCrum writes,

Thomas Keneally, celebrated for his Booker prize novel Schindler’s Ark, which became the Oscar-winning movie Schindler’s List, has a new book out, The Daughters of Mars, and has been over in the UK to promote it.

Kenneally, one of Australia’s finest contemporary writers, is 77. Inevitably, the questions have turned to the past. With almost equal predictability, the veteran novelist has been sounding an elegiac note. In Sunday’s Observer, he closed a Q&A about his life and work with “Fiction was king. Now it isn’t.”

He’s right, of course. But also – profoundly – wrong.

Keneally’s right to recall the palmy days of fiction, which happened to coincide with the moment when he was at the peak of his powers. In the English-speaking world of the 1980s (Schindler was published in 1982), fiction was indeed king, with poets and playwrights snapping at its heels.

But the thing is, Kenneally doesn’t say anything about the 80s. He does not say when it was that “fiction was king.” And who in his or her right mind — strike that, who in or out of his or her right mind — has ever thought of the 1980s as the Golden Age of fiction? I seriously doubt that Kenneally, whose work shows a strong historical sense, has ever considered that possibility.

The idea that the cinema displaces fiction, in multiple ways, goes back at least to Walter Benjamin. Adorno and Horkheimer were complaining about fiction’s displacement by the “culture industry” in the 1940s — though they saw that the nineteenth-century novel began this process.

And if there was an age when “fiction was king,” surely it was the Victorian era, when writers like Dickens and George Eliot and (in a very different American context) Harriet Beecher Stowe were treated as profound social critics and moral sages. Almost all major novelists since then have at least occasionally suffered from the feeling that they came on the scene too late.

For a few — relatively speaking, a very few — fiction will always be king. But it’s impossible to imagine it having the kind of stature again that it had 150 years ago.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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