Thursday, July 18, 2013

S.Y. Agnon: Why Literary Fiction Matters

Nothing To Lose:
        Not Actually a Review of To This Day by S.Y. Agnon

In reading S.Y. Agnon’s short final novel To This Day I suddenly understood more clearly why it is that reading literary fiction is such an important complement (if not antidote) to the all but overwhelming glut of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and commercial non-fiction that defines the intellectual marketplace of American culture today. In the voice of his protagonist, a young Palestinian man (that is, a Galician Jew then living in Palestine) caught in Berlin on the eve of World War I, Agnon writes:

This was the job of the press: to distinguish the living from the dead by reporting on the dead to the living. If you were alive you read the newspapers, through which the lifeblood of the times circulated: birth and marriage notices, anniversaries and obituaries, commodities and stock prices, and the like. Moreover, reading a newspaper spared you the trouble of forming your own opinion… In no time you crisscrossed the world and the world was yours for the price of a newspaper.” 

While surely exaggerated, surely tongue-in-cheek, the passage helped to sharpen for me my long-held belief that literary fiction asks of a reader something radically different from the many other more popular forms of print, something essential, more lasting, unique. Unlike with so much non-fiction these days, a novel by Agnon, Bernhard, Klíma, Kafka, Sebald, Toer, Bellow, Valenzuela, Naipaul, El Saadawi, Kawabata, Castellanos, Dostoevsky, Rodoreta, Müller, Conrad, Mulisch, Emecheta, Bolaño or Mahfouz will not permit you to be passive,  to be persuaded, but will confront you with a character or characters, a problem (ethical, moral, intellectual, spiritual, existential), a world (perhaps familiar or strange), then force you to think about it, to examine the evidence before you, to draw your own conclusions. It will ask you—after what is often a mighty struggle—to form your own opinion

Again I turn to Kundera who, in speaking of the novel as form, writes: “Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop—that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws.” If you, the reader, choose to judge them you may, but “the novelist has nothing to do with it.”  That is the difference with literary fiction: the onus is on you, and you alone. You must decide, you must adjudicate or—if too moved, too shaken—you may recuse yourself instead, find a quiet place to think.

Part of what inspired this post, this tangent, was the realization that hardly a week seems to pass anymore when I don't have at least one intelligent adult tell me (usually as apology for not reading this blog) that he hasn’t the time for fiction anymore, that when he does find the time to read (in itself a mystery to me) it is almost always non-fiction: magazines, newspapers, blogs, and the latest from Gladwell, Friedman, Gilbert, Sedaris, and Larson. While I genuinely believe that all types of reading are good, and I mean all, I also believe that it is important to read widely, eccentrically, independently—independent, that is, of such cultural midwives and mediums as Oprah, Ellen, Slate, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.

Commercial non-fiction (even the more political/intellectual variety) is largely about trends (spotting them, mapping them, making readers feel a part of them—even creating them, when the conditions are right). As such it is not only (and for all its distinctive urgency) often highly ephemeral in nature (guaranteeing, as with the latest cut in clothes, that whatever it is or implies about the world it will soon be replaced) but is likely to be driven in its popularity less by some practical or aesthetic measure of “quality” or “value” than by corporate marketing and gain. My contention here is that the world needs more people who are less reliant on the marketplace and more reliant on themselves—on their own wisdom, intelligence, and humanity, readers who genuinely trust themselves to think.

Writers invested in complexity (as opposed to demagoguery and self-promotion) do justice to us all by refusing to package up the world and tie it neatly with a bow. It is why their work sells so poorly and is harder, often disturbing to read. While surely the best non-fiction is complex, forcing us to reckon hard with the matters at hand (and on our own brave and lonely terms), only literary fiction refuses to persuade. It—unlike every other form of prose—has nothing to gain, nothing to sell you, nothing to lose.

*lead photo is of Agnon’s study in his house in Talpiot neighborhood in
         Jerusalem, now a museum called Beit Agnon.

S.Y. Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes in Buczacz, Eastern Galicia (now Ukraine).  In 1908 he immigrated to Ottoman Palestine where he published his first story, “Agunot” under the pen name “Agnon”—a surname he adopted legally.  After an extended stay in Germany from 1913 to 1924, he returned to Jerusalem, where he remained until his death in 1970.  Winner of numerous Israeli prizes, including the Bialik Prize (1934), and the Israel Prize (1954, 1958), he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. To This Day is published by the fabulous Toby Press.  Be sure to check out their list:

 Peter Adam Nash 


  1. Thanks for your post! You virtually took the words out of my mouth. Today so much time is spent on all kinds of mindless nonsense, but there seldom seems to be a moment for good literary fiction in most people's lives. In my opinion it's a matter of choices or priorities. I'll always prefer a novel that makes me think and shows me a different point of view. It's my priority and I'll gladly miss some interesting non-fiction or posts on the internet in order to get absorbed in good literature.

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  3. Peter, thank you so much for this! I actually just turned to your blog for advice on what to read... I have the opposite problem to what you describe: even though I don't have a great deal of time to read, I am always looking for something that will make me think. I appreciate you and George both so much for this very worthwhile project!

    Marnie Bethel