The quality of fiction vs. the quality of non-fiction

by on March 3, 2011 at 9:49 am in Books, Education, The Arts | Permalink

Marcos Jazzan, a loyal MR reader, requests:

The quality of fiction seems to be decreasing relative to the quality of non-fiction, or am I just biased against active fiction writers vs. dead ones?

I agree with this assessment, and I see a few mechanisms at work:

1. A lot of good non-fiction is based on current affairs, which are always changing, or progress in science or social science, or biographies of previous uncovered subjects.  Fiction doesn't have a comparable source of new material, at least not since the modernist revolutions.

2. The internet makes it easier for people to be interested in a "culture of facts."  It doesn't help long narratives in the same manner.

3. For a given level of IQ, people are more likely to agree on what is a good non-fiction book than what is a good fiction book.  Internet reviews therefore make non-fiction purchases more reliable to a greater degree than they do for fiction.

4. Arguably literary fiction peaked in the 1920s, with Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Mann, and other important writers.  Could it be that fiction took a bruising from the rise of radio and film at that time?  Even if we compare the 1960s to today, fiction seemed to be more culturally central then.

What mechanisms am I missing?

1 Paul Ralley March 3, 2011 at 5:58 am

Another Mechanism:
On the supply side, non fiction is produced by those with falling income (journalists) and those supported from other sources (econ professors). Perhaps it is much harder for a struggling fiction writer to survive?

2 will perkins March 3, 2011 at 6:12 am

the perspective of time changes things too – I'm guessing we won't remember too many contemporary non-fiction books 20 years from now (their topics will become outdated for one) but a few good novels will survive and be remembered. Then the people 20 years from now will ask why their non-fiction seems to be better than their fiction.

3 various_positions March 3, 2011 at 6:21 am

Will Perkins beat me to it, but I will second the idea that we might be judging old non-fiction too harshly. A changing world might make the last generation's non-fiction seem dated without affecting our enjoyment of the fiction. Conversely maybe it takes longer for the best fiction to be identified.

4 kiwi dave March 3, 2011 at 6:26 am

Not to be atavistic about it, but in my (limited) anecdotal experience, things are divided by sex: it seems to me that women make up a significant majority of the fiction-reading public today, and whether it's a cause, or effect, or a feedback loop, it seems that most fiction is either expicitly or implicitly aimed at women and themes that are attractive to female sensibilities (interiority, emotion, love and relationships). I don't think it was always like that.

By contrast, non-fiction tends to be more empirical and focused on the outside world, and is probably more attractive to men.

In my household's case, at least, this holds: my wife's leisure reading is >100% fiction, and my leisure reading is (with a few exceptions, including Wodehouse and Waugh), mostly fiction.


Spot on! No-one will ever write another "Handful of Dust" or "Code of the Woosters."

5 Luis Enrique March 3, 2011 at 6:34 am

aren't you just missing the common (yours too?) tendency to prefer non-fiction as you age. for all we know, young people are bowled over by the marvels of contemporary fiction.

6 Steve Sailer March 3, 2011 at 6:41 am

There was a lot of terrific nonfiction (check out Orwell's 1930s-1940s journalism, for example), but very, very few journalists are remembered for more than five minutes after they retire.

7 Erik March 3, 2011 at 6:46 am

I would say that your reason #1 is closest to the mark. It's trite but it's true: all the good stories have already been told. In fiction, novelty is mostly about a new and interesting execution on a basic story that has been told 1,000 before.

In non-fiction, not only are there new discoveries to contend with, but new interpretations of old facts, deep-dives into an ever-expanding array of topics, etc. The vast majority of non-fiction has yet to be written.

Also, it's easier to "go down the rabbit hole" in non-fiction. If you read Michael Pollan, then it's easy to find the NEXT book about the modern food system. If you read Brian Greene, it's easy to find the NEXT book for armchair physicists. One naturally leads to the other, in a way that typically screens for quality. There is no such reliable path of breadcrumbs in the fiction world.

Some of the best and most interesting new fiction, in my opinion, also represents fictionalized stories resting on new "non-fiction" topics, such as Neal Stephensen's "Anathem", which jumps off from the "non-fiction" concept of the "long clock".

Finally, fiction isn't dead, it's just harder to be innovative, which leaves things simply up to the quality of execution, which is not only rare in and of itself, but it also isn't the basis for modern marketing of fiction.

8 sd March 3, 2011 at 6:46 am

The only one of your hypotheses that I buy is #3. For a host of reasons not only do people of similar mindsets tend to agree on what makes for good non-fiction, they are mostly correct.

It is incredibly hard to judge fiction though. My closest friends, people whose judgment I generally trust and whose worldview is close to my own, will recommend novels that I find terrible. Probably vice versa.

Also, I'd add a hypothesis: the quality of the content of non-fiction isn't any better now than it was 50 years ago, but the quality of writing style is much better. Its actually pleasent to read a lot of non-fiction, which was not always the case. This is likely driven by the increasing commercialization of publishing, and thus the freedom that editors now feel they have to run roughshod over an author's prose to make the work more marketable.

9 UpHere March 3, 2011 at 6:48 am

The criteria by which "success' is determined is now financial rather than, in previous periods, acceptance by the (admittedly all male, narrowminded) intelligensia. The reduction in snobbery, while likely positive over the longer term, has also led to horrors like the honorific "billionaire" in front of Dan Brown's name.

So, in summary, i blame the French.

10 Steve Sailer March 3, 2011 at 6:50 am

I don't know what the answer to the question is, but I do know of a way to answer: look at individual writers who did both. For example, in the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh would go on trips to exotic places such as Ethiopia to garner material for books. Upon his return, he would write a nonfiction travel book, then follow up with a novel set in that location, such as Black Mischief, Scoop, and the end A Handful of Dust.

So, in Waugh's case, fiction was valued more than nonfiction.

Or you could look at career transitions. Do writers move from fiction to nonfiction or vice-versa? Tom Wolfe moved from nonfiction to fiction. On the other hand, Normal Mailer moved from all fiction to a sizable amount non-fiction. So, find a list of famous writers and see if their career paths in this regard have tended to shift.

11 chris March 3, 2011 at 6:51 am

What mechanisms am I missing?

The one suggested by Marcos: you're implicitly comparing the best fiction of the past to all fiction of the present in order to show a "decline". If you go far enough back the only people remembered at all are megageniuses like Shakespeare, but I'm sure there was plenty of crap in his day too; we just don't know about it anymore (or only a few specialists in period fiction do).

12 Pat Mathews March 3, 2011 at 7:04 am

Genre fiction has been better than literary fiction for some time now, ever since the litfic got all pretentious and obscure, with authors writing for an inner circle rather than for a wide audience the way, say, Dickens did.

For one thing, genre fiction has – must have – a plot. A beginning, a middle, an end, and high stakes to play for. That leaves out some of the tiny pointless vignettes that might be better off as poetry.

Before people rush forward with the latest horrible example, such as the Twilight Series — genre fiction also came up with Sturgeon's Law. "90% of science fiction is crud. 90% of *everything* is crud."

13 Viator March 3, 2011 at 7:14 am

Fiction is imbued with critical theory, relativism, anti-capitalism, political correctness and other ills. No wonder much of it is bad. It is parochial and self referential.

14 babar March 3, 2011 at 7:24 am

your taste in fiction was formed by reading older fiction, and newer fiction appeals to a different taste.

15 McKay March 3, 2011 at 7:37 am

Something perhaps worth noting, and this has been alluded to by a few commenters, is the fact that some of the best non-fiction is being written by fiction writers. Look at long-form journalism in the past two decades: some of the best and most interesting articles (mainly in Harper's, though in other places as well) have been written by literary(-ish, in some cases) fiction authors — Vollmann, Wallace, Franzen, Tower, Smith, etc. Their perspectives — in-depth description, heavy character development, keen eye for detail — make for much better writing than what we see from many journalists. For the same reason, some of the best sportswriting comes from non-sports people (think Lewis and Klosterman). Maybe the outsider perspective is what makes for writing we judge to be good.

16 Ben March 3, 2011 at 7:47 am

Finch nails it — we remember Kafka and Joyce but forget all the "minor" authors of the time. And non-fiction is easily superseded: a few people still read, say, The Golden Bough or The Outline of History, but non-fiction by and large becomes source material for current scholarship.

If would suggest that in 2100, we'll look back on the literary 1990s-2000s as a reasonably strong literary era: Bolano, Sebald, late Kundera, Murakami, late Naipaul, and surely several others who are yet to be "discovered" by mainstream literary opinion.

17 SimeonJ March 3, 2011 at 7:59 am

The fiction no longer reigns as a popular medium; Therefor fiction need not rely on lowering the bar to be easily digested by people who don't want to "work" when they read. So a lot great fiction is perhaps more difficult that it used to be (Joyce was more difficult than Flaubert who was more difficult than Cervantes).
There are great writers out there today, including Pynchon, Alexander Theroux, Jerome Charyn, Joseph McElroy; all of whom are still alive and writing.
As well as Gilbert Sorrentino, John Gaddis, Italo Calvino, Nabakov and many other GREAT writers who wrote in the latter third of the last century.
There is a lot more, of course, and plenty for people who are really interested in interesting fiction.
By and large, really good non-fiction is much easier to understand, and therefor a consensus about what is good, is more easily arrived at. Great Fiction is difficult, and at a certain level always was.

18 Jack March 3, 2011 at 8:28 am

Part of the answer is definitely that we're living in the Golden Age of television. What is strange is that the dramatic increase in the quality of fictional television seems to have been accompanied by a drop in the quality of non-fictional television.

19 frosty zoom March 3, 2011 at 8:33 am

Posted by: chris at Mar 3, 2011 10:51:15 AM

guess i should have read the comments first.

what he said.

20 DannyD March 3, 2011 at 9:05 am

I agree with "will perkins at Mar 3, 2011 10:12:22 AM"

Non-fiction may seem better because it is usually more current and related to the general conversation. In time, fiction doesn't lose it's relevance as quickly as non-fiction – fiction is more timeless.

I'd argue that if you were to graph out the 'perceived quality' of non-fiction and fiction over time, non-fiction would start out strong and immediately start to deteriorate, while fiction may start out slower, but either increase or stay steady for a much longer period of time.

21 IVV March 3, 2011 at 9:28 am

Regarding Jon Sealy's point about the role of publishers:

Would it be possible that publishing advances might see an increase in "indie" or "experimental" fiction? To get a book printed, released, and marketed takes a huge investment, and thus the backing of a major publisher. But it's much cheaper to release an e-book, and so it's more conducive to risk-taking. Sure, a lot of bad fiction (and a lot of bad nonfiction) will see the light of day that would have in earlier times not found buy-in at a publisher, but certainly there may be a (precious few) avant-garde gems that would not have otherwise surfaced.

Tyler, what were your experiences in publishing TGS? What sort of implications do you see for fiction and nonfiction as a result?

22 Anon. March 3, 2011 at 9:58 am

My two favourite types of non-fiction, history and philosophy, have undeniably declined severely in the last couple of decades. Fiction on the other hand…I have no clue, and I doubt anyone else does either. It's extremely difficult to both find and judge contemporary fiction; *many* of the books considered masterpieces today were all but ignored when they were first published.

23 anon March 3, 2011 at 10:16 am

It is always a woman* that plays the "dead white men writing about white men" card. Usually a white woman with socialist leanings and a PhD in humanities. Am I right, meg?

*meg at 11:25:42 AM

24 Rahul March 3, 2011 at 10:29 am

Additional mechanisms:

5. The Great Stagnation for fiction? All the low hanging fruit in terms of plots have already been picked and exploited?

6. To produce as well as appreciate good fiction requires long attention spans which is incompatible with the structure of modern life.

I've got to try this out: Might I enjoy fiction better on a full bladder?

25 Ted Craig March 3, 2011 at 10:58 am

All types of magazines used to run both fiction and fact. That allowed a career for both types of writers. Today you can only sustain yourself for the most part by writing non-fiction. (By the way, why is it we call it fiction and non-fiction, rather than fiction and fact?)

26 Anon. March 3, 2011 at 11:06 am

I see many people above trying to explain the supposed decline of fiction due to the fact that original plots are more or less impossible today. This is pure bullshit. Shakespeare pretty much copied the plot of every single one of his plays from either historical sources or previous literary works. Plot is, essentially, completely irrelevant to the state of fiction.

27 Rahul March 3, 2011 at 11:38 am

one merit of good literature is the degree to which a work resists translation to any screen

Reminds me of the British number theorist G. H. Hardy who wanted his maths to be "pure" and devoid of any application. He took special pride in the fact that most of his work was "useless" and of least amenity to the world.

28 dirk March 3, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I'm going with cultural centrality. Novelists used to be like rock stars. Nowadays writing a novel is hardly worth the effort.

29 Snookybutts March 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Literary fiction was never America's best art form anyway. We do much better in movies.

30 Steve Sailer March 3, 2011 at 1:18 pm

The real problem is the decline of the market for short stories. When I read writers' accounts of what they got paid in the 1920s or 1930s for their first short stories, my reaction is usually something like, "$250! That sounds pretty good these days."

F. Scott Fitzgerald made $36,000 per year writing 9 short stories annually for the Saturday Evening Post.

The short story market provided a plausible entry way into fiction writing for novices and a steady source of income for veterans. It let writers practice and get paid at the same time.

31 dirk March 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I agree that the former short story market allowed fiction writers to learn "on their feet" with a real market judging their work. Creative writing programs offer support and criticism but lack a genuine market. So the problem is not that fiction writers have grown "different for the sake of being different" and thus inaccessible. Just the opposite: fiction writers have grown "the same for the sake of being the same" and thus boring. Growth in style has stagnated, or perhaps suffocated due to a lack of air.

32 Mark March 3, 2011 at 3:13 pm

IVV's comment regarding "independent fiction" calls to mind the very successful self-published short story collection Machine of Death, which I will emphatically recommend.

33 nicole March 3, 2011 at 4:42 pm

one merit of good literature is the degree to which a work resists translation to any screen

Mr. Burke is quite right. Why shouldn't we put greater value on something that more closely marries form and content and takes full advantage of the unique abilities of its respective medium? Should a great novel not make use of the special intimacy the writer is afforded with the reader?

Think about it in reverse. A movie that could be easily translated to a book would be lacking in some way of its own. Prose can create excitement and emotion, but can even the most brilliant writing match the feeling of a stunning visual on the big screen, paired with an effective score?

34 dirk March 3, 2011 at 5:34 pm

I disagree with all of Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.'s statements now and in the future.

35 Kyle March 3, 2011 at 7:22 pm

I would argue a lot of the fiction writing talent is being directed towards kids and teenagers. Obviously you have big sellers like Harry Potter and Twilight, but generally the quality of children's literature has improved dramatically in the last 30-40 years. I read most of the Newbery Medal books as a kid and the ones before the 60s were awful (the first winner, A Story of Mankind, is insanely boring), and the consistency doesn't really pick up until the 70s. People have realized it's a big market and there isn't nearly the same amount of historical books competing for attention.

36 Troy Camplin March 3, 2011 at 9:21 pm

High Modernism was still literary. Postmodernism is anti-literary, yet pretentious, condescending, and holier-than-thou. Literature is currently still influenced by the anti-aesthetic of postmodernism. When literature finally sheds pomo, it will become better. Of course, those of us trying to write such literature have to get past the editors who are still influenced by pomo. That's the biggest barrier right now.

37 Ted Craig March 4, 2011 at 3:44 am

Simeon, why would you say "we can agree?" Who can agree? You and Prof. Cowen? I doubt that. You and the other readers of Marginal Revolution? I completely disagree with you and find your comment exceedingly arrogant.

38 ChrisW March 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm

As others have mentioned, the mainstream may have stagnated, but "genre" stuff is positively soaring. Virtually all of my fiction reading is SF. I can tell you that the progress in this area is absolutely stunning.

The early SF writers are, by and large, hacks, despite this era being called "the golden age of science fiction". That stuff fell into two categories: action novels with some tech trappings, or space and technology showcases (but generally having a poor understanding of science).

By the 21st century, we have authors creating real, deep characters. They'll still use a technological ploy to add spice, but you're more likely to find them using it as a means to frame a deeper philosophical question.

Today's writers in SF, at least the top ones, are much more skilled. Take Vernor Vinge, who can use themes of computing and ubiquitous networking so well because he's a Comp Sci professor. Or Neal Stephenson, who of late is illuminating the philosophy of science — and doing it in a way that fresh and interesting.

39 David Watson March 14, 2011 at 5:50 pm

David Foster Wallace had lots to say on the decline of fiction and the writer’s point-of-view. There are quite a few decent interviews to be found on youtube – Charlie Rose among them. And Infinite Jest certainly sets a standard in post-modern fiction. But that’s more akin to reading a thousand page tome about the innards of a compiler. There will always be a limited audience for books that require discipline, focus, and deep thought from the reader. The uncompleted manuscript for the pale king and the commencement address from kenyon college had hints at where he was going with this, but it was a mind-crushingly difficult task to undertake what he called “an orgy of spectation” oriented toward alleviating boredom – the latter of which was the subject of the IRS workers in his uncompleted novel. I think he had come to understand and pursue what all great thinkers eventually conclude is the meaning of life, but that’s a difficult subject indeed. Unfortunately, that kind of wisdom is uncommon.

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