An old adage says the role of literature is to delight and to instruct, but contemporary novels often seem more intent on instruction than pleasure. It’s a confusion of veracity with authenticity, a reluctance to let a novelist’s research stay where it belongs—in the background of the book, if it’s in the book at all.
Of course American fiction has always had a keen eye for detail, often intellectually demanding—think of Saul Bellow’s eponymous hero Herzog writing imaginary letters to Spinoza, or John Updike’s Reverend Marshfield in A Month of Sundays, whose sermons split theological hairs with the likes of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich. But it’s not intellectualism that’s the problem; it’s the recent tendency of writers to succumb to information overload.
It’s hard to say where the rot set in. Some point as far back as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a fantastic compendium of erudition, full of parabolic trajectories and Poisson Distributions, which has even spawned two editions of A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion. But it doesn’t seem fair to blame Pynchon’s masterpiece for a host of imitators, who seem to have soaked up their mentor’s capacity for recondite explanations without any of his flair for language—or for memorable characters.
I blame Google instead, and its capacity for unearthing information in a nanosecond where once it would take days, if not months. Sebastian Faulks, author of the classic WWI novel Birdsong, has described how, when writing the novel, he would spend the morning deep in an archive of first-person accounts of life in the trenches, then hotfoot it home to write down what this had triggered in his imagination. The research was a springboard, not an end in itself.
Today there’s no need to leave your study, when Google can reply to a query such as “tunnels and World War One” with 9.51 million hits. And the problems come when authors fall in love with the ease of this research and put the fruits of this amour, largely undigested, straight onto the page. This loses sight of a simple point: you don’t teach people how to graft an apple sapling; you make them think they know instead.
Writers used to understand this, realizing that their priority was the emotional understanding they instilled in readers, not the points they added to their IQ. Take Hemingway: he loved to have his heroes doing things—from lighting a camp fire to catching a marlin—but actual technical detail is thin on the ground. It’s a rhetorical trick exemplified by the famous opening of To Have and Have Not: “You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars?”
Even those who’ve never got closer to Cuba than a Cubano sandwich read this and think, of course I do. But today a writer would give us the number of sleeping bums, the names of the streets, and the cubic capacity of the ice wagons.
The trend is even worse in historical fiction. Granted, obvious errors of fact shatter the illusion of reality that historical novels depend upon; as the novelist Ian McEwan says, there’s always someone ready to point out that you’ve put the wrong beret on somebody’s head on the beaches of Dunkirk. But the critical difference is between wanting to get the historical details right, and having too many details, right or not. As the English spy writer Alan Judd remarks of Casino Royale, “Bond never simply lights a cigarette: he lights a Morland with the triple gold band.” The casual dropping of the brand name tells us something—both about Bond’s taste for the high life, and the author’s evocation of the period. But note that Fleming doesn’t tell us what brand anyone else is smoking.
The new fad for historical detail has become literature’s equivalent of the Method in acting. For books, however, this immersion rarely works because it gets in the way of what it’s trying to promote—a feeling of authenticity. The authenticity of a novel is inherently bogus—it’s not called fiction for nothing—and the successful novelist understands that, unless transformed, reality is paradoxically less than credible in fiction. When we read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall we don’t feel we’re in Tudor London because she’s put the right kind of buttons on a servant’s coat, but because we are so gripped by her story. The trend for what the critic James Wood has scathingly labeled “the properly stamped sociological receipt” of imparted information is a new one, and not to be commended. In fiction, less isn’t always more, but more is always too much.
Andrew Rosenheim’s latest novel, Fear Itself, was published by the Overlook Press in October.