Fiction was once interesting. Now only the once-marginal categories of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism dominate the fiction best-seller lists. So much reality delivered to the reading public has made readers too aware, too savvy, to savor much classic fiction. Fiction today is only relevant if it can deliver something very different from reality.
Resolved: Modernity has supplanted fiction. Fiction was once interesting. Reading it transported the reader to another place, time, or situation, and allowed the reader to understand and sympathize with the characters in the novel. Fiction educated the reader, and realism in fiction was a dominant element. Therefore, fiction also educated the reader on the breadth of reality in the reader’s community, country, or world. Now, reality still dominates, but reality in all its variety has become a commodity, conveyed through modern channels of communication in all its astonishing variety, drama, and succinctness. In a couple of web pages entirely new and interesting narratives are presented to readers from around the world, updated continuously. Want to know about generational conflicts in Morocco, or about the depth of Slavic feeling in Russia. Go on the Internet and read about the issues. Why slog through a novel? And what would it teach you?
In a not too distant past, reading a good work of fiction was both an escape and an education. Fiction was entertainment, but also broadening. The drama was compelling, and the character interactions were instructional. Entertainment was an essential element of a good novel, but one would also learn the reality of another place, group, or people. Classic works of fiction had an element of mystery — something not early revealed — that would be brought forth in a surprising or unexpected manner during the climax of the novel to bring the central conflicts to resolution. Modern and post-modern fiction were explorations, sometimes an exploration and experience for the author as well as the reader, but even modern and post-modern fiction had to have some entertainment value to the reading public. If it was not entertainment, then perhaps it was an important novel of ideas that “simply must” be read. Readership was attracted in part by offering the reader a piece of reality that the reader would not be familiar, a depth of understanding about that reality, and an entertaining presentation of the issues central to the characters that live in that reality. Today, however, the reading public experiences reality in all its variety on a regular basis and much more worldly wise. What can an author tell readers that they would not have seen on the Internet or been Twittered about that requires 200 or 300 pages to describe? Can an author really add anything of value to the narrative that will benefit the reader?
The great high concepts in fiction — theft, fraud, con games, family conflicts, murder — they happen every day and are now presented to the public on the Internet or via email, Twitter, or SMS, every minute of every day. Entertainment does not require opening a book, but rather turning on the computer and surfing the web for the latest news. Reality finds us; we don’t have to go look for it in a novel. Newness and novelty, the comedy and tragedy of real lives is delivered every day to a laptop or tablet screen near you so hunting down the novel to devote hours to is becoming a less frequent activity of the reading public.
But, reading is not losing all of its popularity notwithstanding modernity. More novels are read than ever before, not only in hard-copy “book” form, but also on Kindle’s and tablets and laptops, the same devices that are the mechanism supplanting modern fiction. However, the legions of modern fiction fans have increasingly turned to fantasy, science fiction, and magical realism when buying novels. Sustaining fiction sales today is non-reality: lives that are not part of normal reality. Thus, reality and modernity have supplanted fiction in its classic sense, and some categories of fiction that were once marginal have become mainstream, and have sustained the fiction industry in the face of the onslaught from modernity.