The Continuing Debate on Fiction in the 21st Century, or, Honey, Take it From Me…

Thought-provoking article in Sunday’s London Times about the state of contemporary fiction. The assertion of the writer is contemporary fiction is turning to mush, largely due to the constraints of political correctness but also due to a general dumbing-down of most of the western world. Authors are so concerned with not offending anyone, he asserts, they’re turning out a new brand of milque-toast prose, rather than the groundbreaking fiction of decades past.

Are writers today too afraid to really say anything? Has fiction become formulaic and, dare I say, bland?

I’ve had many problems with contemporary fiction, but at the same time I’ve been very impressed with much of it. There’s David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, for instance, not to mention most of the Booker longlist books I read and enjoyed last fall. If it’s not harkening back too far, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was a stellar novel. France has also given us Amelie Nothomb, an extremely cerebral writer whose works I revelled in last year. There are too many others to name, frankly, and despite the fact I read constantly I find my brain usually balks when I ask it for a straight list, but you get the idea. There are an awful lot of really staggering books out there.

I don’t agree all of modern fiction is dumbed-down. Some of it is, absolutely, but if you look at every decade you’ll find something that’s drivel. The simple fact is the publishing industry isn’t out just to serve mainly the erudite elite crowd. If they aimed at that they’d all be living on the streets, dressed in rags. Publishing is a business, and its main purpose is to serve the mainstream, as that’s where the bulk of the money is. We can argue about how that strangles art, and I’m more than sympathetic to that, but it’s also necesssary to separate publishing as a business entity from publishing as a way to further the art of writing. Sometimes those things blissfully cross paths, and when it happens that a truly gifted writer is also a bestselling writer that’s wonderful, but generally that just isn’t the case. For better or worse, the general public tends to buy a lot of middle-to-lower brow writing. That’s the simple fact.

There’s a lot of garbage being published these days, I would agree with that. It’s irritating to me personally, especially when some of these books arrive on my doorstep for review. Sometimes I do go ahead and review them, struggling valiantly to get through them (often resorting to skimming large passages, while simultaneously holding my nose to prevent gagging) but other times I just give these horrible books away. It’s just not usually worth wasting my already tight reading time on something with absolutely no merit whatsoever. I have better things to read. But other times (thankfully or I wouldn’t still be doing this!) I’ll get something impressive from the publishers, something with true literary merit. Most recently that book is Jon Clinch’s Finn, and this book I expect to make a very well-deserved impact on contemporary fiction. It’s an original and imaginative take on a very slight but fascinating reference to Huckleberry Finn’s father in Mark Twain’s novel, and it’s also one of the best-written contemporary books I’ve had the pleasure of reading for review. There are other books like Finn out there, and when I stumble on them I couldn’t be happier with contemporary fiction.



The author of the Times article takes aim at a few writers who’ve produced much better writing in the past but who have, for either reasons of feeling constrained or due to a factor of age, slipped in quality. John Updike was starting-off point. He held up Updike’s recent novel Terrorist as a prime example. I read this particular book, and I agree it was pretty awful. I’d never read any Updike before and chose to start with his most recent book, mostly because it had just come into the library and I would be the first person to read it. Reading this particular book from Updike’s oeuvre turned out to be a mistake. If he didn’t have such a staggering reputation I’d cross him off my list after this effort, but he does have the reputation, so I won’t be doing that. Who am I not to forgive John Updike? Short answer: no one. I wouldn’t dream of it.

The question remains, was Terrorist a bad book because Updike’s lowering his standards to please a dumbed-down audience, or did he just miss a beat this time? Considering his stature, and everything else he’s doing and has done in the world of criticism, etc., I don’t tend to think he’s lowering himself. Rather, I think it’s the latter, that he’s a human being, and in this case he just didn’t rise to the task. I can’t see making a federal case of that.

Every author produces a book below his or her ability once in a while. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think a bad book by Updike is really reason enough to turn a finger on serious literature as a whole. It’s irritating when this happens. When you’re expecting better it’s disappointing to be let down. But let’s not say the entire publishing industry is bad because John Updike produced a lemon. That’s just not the case.

The good stuff is out there. You may have to hunt a little harder to fifinnnd it, but it is there to be found. And when you do find something that’s really good, like Jon Clinch’s Finn, it’s imperative to publicize it. Get it out there so mainstream readers will notice and maybe pick it up. If you waste all your time complaining about the bad books all that energy gets virtually wasted, as all you’ve done is give free publicity to the authors churning out the books no one should waste time reading. Instead of that, turn that force around for the good and champion those who are making the grade but who aren’t yet a household name. Seems to me doing that has the potential to turn the tide, and give momentum to writers whose works the public should be reading.

As my mother has always told me, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. We’d all do better to keep such simple truths in mind, in literature and in life.

Terrorist by John Updike


 Paperback: 320 pages

  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (May 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345493915
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345493910


“Charlie is asking him a question, “Would you fight them, then?”

Ahmad has missed what “them” refers to, but says “Yes” as if answering a roll call.

Charlie  appears to repeat himself, “Would you fight with your life?”

“How do you mean?”

Charlie is insistent; his brow bears down. “Would you give your life?”

The sun leans on Ahmad’s neck. “Of course,” he says, trying to lighten the exchange with a flicking gesture of his right hand. “If God wills it.”

– Terrorist

Ahmad comes from a broken home, the product of a marriage between an Egyptian man with commitment issues and an Irish-American mother who struggles to support them.  Despite his love for his mother, it’s his father who seems to hold the key to his identity. He turns to Islam as a way of reconnecting with his lost father and comes under the control of an extremist, who convinces him to join the jihad and fight the Americans with everything he has, including his own life.

Not a popular kid in school, Ahmad is pushed around a lot.   He’s bullied and taunted with the nickname “Arab,” which only fuels the fire. He decides all Americans are brutish infidels, convincing him terrorism is his one avenue of revenge.

Jack (Jacob) Levy is the high school guidance counselor with a generous heart and an unfulfilling home life.  He seeks comfort with Ahmad’s mother, a much younger woman, partly to escape the frustrating nature of his work, and partly because his own wife, Beth, has grown so fat they no longer have any intimacy between them.  Because he is around Ahmad’s home so often, Jack becomes suspicious something’s up. He has a feeling Ahmad’s headed down a path to destruction and he’s desperate to make sure that doesn’t happen.

It’s an interesting irony that Updike chose a Jewish character for this role, considering the enmity between the two cultures. Jack is a lapsed Jew, having lost his faith long ago.  How different he is from Ahmad, who is trying so desperately to hold onto his own faith, to follow the “Straight Path,” despite all the temptations of modern American life. Yet, Jack feels such a connection to the boy.  He can’t just sit back and watch him ruin his life; he knows what potential Ahmad has.

On the whole, Terrorist is a tepid book.  Updike’s intent was to get inside the head of a Muslim-American young man, to show the conflict between enjoying the freedom and comforts of American life while, at the same time, dealing with an impotent sense of rage at what’s happening to the Muslim people at the hands of the American military.  The problem is, it does so only halfheartedly, stopping short of pulling back the curtain to show what’s churning underneath. Terrorists and terrorism are anything but lukewarm, yet Terrorist lacks passion.

Perhaps that was Updike’s message, that many would-be terrorists are just kids, like Ahmad, who don’t feel burning hatred.  They fall under the spell of others who push them into giving their lives for a cause they don’t fully understand. They give lip service to the necessity of violence to advance their cause, but when it comes down to it they don’t fully understand any of it.  Spoon-fed ideas about duty, as well as hatred of all things Western, impressionable young people can be easily led.  While we get a sense of the feelings of guilt and conflict Ahmad goes through, somehow the book just misses emotionally connecting with the reader.

The book simply didn’t make the impact it could have, disappointingly. For such an iconic writer, it’s surprising Updike fell so short of the mark. Whatever the reason, Terrorist was far from the book it could have been.