Is “Fiction Culturally Irrelevant?”/the Most Overrated Book of All-Time

Normal Mailer
Paging Mr. Mailer

The question about the relevance of fiction is posed by Lee Siegel in the New York Observer. And to be clear he is referring to the dearth, and subsequent irrelevance, of “literary fiction” of the kind William Faulkner, Norman Mailer and others used to write.

Here is his thesis statement (emphasis mine):

Fiction has become culturally irrelevant. A great novel, one that is for the ages, can still be written. Memorable stories, long and short, continue to be created. Without a doubt, the next male or female Hemingway, Faulkner or Fitzgerald is out there somewhere, hard at work. But with the exception of a few ambitious-and obsessively competitive-fiction writers and their agents and editors, no one goes to a current novel or story for the ineffable private and public clarity fiction once provided.”

As readers what do you think? I’m not sure I completely agree, but I have to admit that most newfangled fiction I’ve read over the past few years has seemed redundant and hollow, far from evoking the “ineffable private and public clarity” Mr. Siegel lays down as the standard for literary fiction.

Siegel does make a distinction between “literary” and “commercial” fiction which I believe he had to do to save his argument because no matter what your personal preferences or opinions are regarding Harry Potter, Oprah’s Book Club or Twilight you cannot legitimately argue that they are not culturally relevant. He does, however, think that even commercial fiction is in decline from a quality standpoint.

One pillar of his argument that I do agree with wholeheartedly is that presently there are many very interesting, vibrant, illuminating and provocative works of non-fiction being written at a prolific pace by a plethora of great writers on bewildering array of topics.

The entire piece is worth a read. Let me know your thoughts.

The second thing I’d like to share is a Wall Street Journal article written by Allen Barra called “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and What It Isn’t.” This is one of those glorious pieces that comes along and gives defiant and eloquent voice to an unpopular argument/viewpoint that you’ve long held yourself and reminds you convincingly that, although you may be in the minority, you are certainly not alone in your sentiments.

I’m not trying to be deliberately provocative because I want this blog to be an outlet for positivity, but I’ve always felt that To Kill a Mockingbird was boring and colossally overrated and the WSJ lays out a convincing defense of this assertion before bluntly stating:

“It’s time to stop pretending that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature.”

I concur.

So what say (or write) you on either of these topics JMRL readers.


(Image courtesy of the New York Times)


  1. I disagree. It describes a culture, a feeling of a small southern town that is still relevant. Many things have changed, thankfully for the better, but I still see some of the same characters in our small town.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts.
    One of my colleagues voiced a very similar opinion regarding the continued existence “of the same characters”, as you put it, amidst the progress we’ve undoubtedly made. I think it’s certainly a valid point.
    I can also understand your point about the book depicting a certain uniquely southern culture, but I stand with the author of the WSJ article’s view that the book lacks depth and, subsequently, a certain level of ambiguity that other “classic” works provide a reader, provoking further thought.

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