Is it fun to watch our finest writers being witty with one another, as it’s fun to watch Federer play Nadal? There are similarities. They rise to the occasion. Lauren Collins’s New Yorker Talk of the Town piece on dinner out with Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens is a reminder of this, these two being a bit the literary Federer and Nadal of our day. Who else plays these kinds of games (“the-ruining-everything-by-changing-one-letter game,” for example), and what are they worth to the rest of us aside from idle, cool distraction? They are worth this: they remind us that, despite the many naysayers—including this week’s Observer piece on Why Fiction No Longer Matter As Much—there are reasons we prize the literary tradition in our culture, and there is reason why we prize fiction in particular.
The games played for Collins by the aforementioned charming novelist and as-charming critic (one of whom had just interviewed the other for his new memoir, Hitch-22) expose just how much great works of literature are woven into the foundations of their thinking, and their world-view. As Federer warms up with forehands, they warm up with Shakespeare. As drinks move to coffee, they reference the following: Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet; Thomas Pynchon, Slaughterhouse 5; Braveheart (perhaps not literature, but “fiction,” anyway); Sir Vidia Naipaul; Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon; twentieth century/contemporary writers Ian McEwan, Kingsley Amis, Julian Barnes, Susan (Sontag?); and Winston Churchill, who certainly qualifies as a man of letters.
All this might be evidence that, whether all English majors still dream of writing the Great American Novel, and whether there are more Mailers among us now than before (by the way there was only one Mailer at that time, too), arguments for the relevance and production of fiction are strong. Electing to major in English may no longer be the most ambitious choice. But so many people who end up involved in the production of ideas began their education with a deep-steeping in fiction. Literary games are not only for Booker Prize winners; they are open to former lit majors everywhere. The thing is, if novelists are going the way of the transistor radio, we will still look back on this great generation of fiction production and see how relevant and brilliant it was.
And yet, a bet: novelists aren’t not going anywhere, it is simply that their native skills—creativity of form, extended metaphor, the complexity of character—have been increasingly co-opted by other mediums. Sigh: does it have to be Michael Ondaatje v. Michael Lewis? Can’t we have both, and recognize that to compare them is to compare a Federer to a Baryshnikov?