Hornby’s Case for Contemporary Fiction

May 27, 2010 @ 7:36 am | Filed under:

“The received wisdom is that novels too much of the moment won’t last: but what else do we have that delves so deeply into what we were thinking and feeling at any given period? In fifty or one hundred years’ times, we are, I suspect, unlikely to want to know what someone writing in 2010 had to say about the American Civil War. I don’t want to put you off, if you’re just writing the last paragraph of a seven-hundred-page epic about Gettysburg—I’m sure you’ll win loads of prizes and so on. But after that, you’ve had it.”

—excerpt from Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’m Reading” column in the May 2010 issue of The Believer, which you can begin reading here but have to track down a hard copy to finish.


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10 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. RecollectedStephanie says:

    Interesting … hm …

    I’m taking a course right now in Creative Nonfiction, and the author of the moment is David Shields, and Mr. Shields is of the opinion that genres are dying and novels are dead. (No one in the course is willing to go quite that far, by the way.)

    But I think our Mr. Hornby is making a very interesting point. I’ve been reading an autobiography of Beverly Cleary’s, and it’s just like her children’s fiction – straight forward and subtly wry – and very much of her moment. And it’s delicious!!

    I’d say Hornby has it right, and not just for the novel. I think it’s true for the narrative nonfiction writer as well. (But the limits are reached when we are getting our sociological and historical perspectives from reporters who write books.)

  2. Melissa Wiley says:

    Much as I love Hornby, and I do see his point, I think he’s generalizing. Austen & Dickens wrote brilliant contemporary fiction—but on the historical fic side we have Hawthorne & Shakespeare. Seems to me it’s more about the author’s skill than the genre…

  3. Tina says:

    I totally disagree. I’m a degree toting poetry major and love contemporary fiction but sometimes i just want to be carried away in a piece of historical fiction, sometimes even historical lusty-romance fiction. I love the predictability, the petticoats and all the sword fighting, gun toting manhood.
    Sometimes there is nothing I want more than something about the Civil War…and I’m not sure I am really concerned with what folks are going to be reading 100 years from now. Do the writers of historical fiction write for posterity or for us?
    There are more thoughts on this topic but I’ll stop here.

  4. sarah says:

    I agree that we need contemporary fiction (although I am embarrassed to think of what future generations will think of us after having read most of what passes for “modern literature” these days!) but let’s also not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I believe we benefit from constantly reanalysing the important stories of the past, because in doing so we make them relevant to ourselves and we understand ourselves so much more.

    I also partly agree with the Mr Shields Recollected Stephanie mentioned. I absolutely see that genre is dying, if not already dead. The Time Traveller’s Wife is one example of many that prove the point. This is a good thing! Perhaps not so good at the moment for publishers who are still stuck on “shelving” issues, but good for everyone else with a flexible and exercised mind.

    But the novel itself is not dead and probably never will be. Never mind about Kindle, there are too many of us who like the smell and texture and individuality of a paperback.

  5. RecollectedStephanie says:

    Well, he’s not saying that the period novel is a bad thing — he’s just saying that the period we should cover is our own if we’re writing fiction.

    And I’m not sure I’d go as far as he does. But he does have a point. Why make a parody of a time, when we HAVE a time to write about? There are exceptions to this, of course. People can catch a flavor of times they did not live in. But most authors set their book in other times and places as a way to mask their dearth of understanding about people. We have people now – and people are people.

    However – there ARE exceptions … say … a certain author filed under the Wiley section in the J Fiction …

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    LOL and thank you, Stephanie. Yes, obviously I have a personal fondness for historical fiction. 😉 But I suppose I just plain love good fiction—contemporary, genre, historical, crossover.

    I mentioned Dickens above as a master of contemporary fiction, but of course he rocked the historical novel as well. A Tale of Two Cities is one of his best books, period. (Ha! Pun not intended.)

    Hornby pokes so much fun at everything that it’s seldom safe to take him at face value, so I don’t know how serious he was with that statement. I’ve no doubt he could stipulate a list of exceptions. We do hold as relevant and engaging Dickens’s take on the French Revolution and Hawthorne’s take on the Puritans. Or Elizabeth George Speare on the Puritans, for that matter. Or how about Twain on St. Joan of Arc?

    But his remark does make me take a fresh look at the merits of contemporary fiction. As I say, I don’t need to be persuaded of its worth, but it’s a new dimension to consider today’s contemp fiction from the perspective of the future. Hornby’s own JULIET NAKED is, I think, an example of a book that could be of great interest to an audience a hundred years from now, looking back at how people were responding to change when internet relationships and social connections were new (and particularly the decreasing number of degrees of separation between celebrities and fans).

    Or Cory Doctorow’s novels, exploring the ways we react to early 21st century technologies. I’m not sure a future historical-fiction writer will be able to grasp exactly how it feels to be part of the first Facebook generation, both delighted and plagued by new media.

    Or maybe that future historian will just mine our blogs for source material. 😉

  7. RecollectedStephanie says:

    >>Or maybe that future historian will just mine our blogs for source material.<<

    OY!! Now THERE'S a scary thought!! lol!

    You know the old saw about aliens figuring the dogs ruled our world because all the humans who follow the dogs around attached by leashes pick up and carry the droppings for the dogs? um … yeaaahhh ….

    (blogs as historical records – wow – I think you blew my circuits)

  8. TPC says:

    Of greater importance is the fact that Nick Hornby is writing this column again. I have loved several books that I otherwise would not have known about from reading his column. Pictures at a Revolution, in particular, stands out as an excellent book that I otherwise was not even aware of.

  9. Maureen E says:

    I see what he’s saying, but I think he is overstating his point a little (okay, a lot). I haven’t read tons of adult historical fiction, but in the children’s/young adult world there are fabulous authors like Rosemary Sutcliff or Elizabeth Marie Pope. They do manage to make us care about the characters. They open a new world to us. Isn’t that what fiction in general is about?

  10. Amy C. says:

    Totally agree with the first sentence, and totally disagree with the rest of the paragraph. IMO, he’s set up a false dichotomy here. The value of contemporary fiction is independent of the value of historical fiction. It’s not better to write one or the other; it’s better to have authors writing both, each according to their passions and talents.

    Also, though the question of lasting value is interesting, I think it’s equally interesting to consider how a particular book of any genre feeds its readers in the present time. Even if nobody remembers a book 100 years from now, its effect now can be of inestimable value (or, perhaps, of inestimable harm) to any number of readers, individually or as a group. Books can be valued as daily bread, not just for their staying power.