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[Editor’s Desk]

A Novel Approach

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This issue marks the debut of two new Harper’s Magazine columnists: Hari Kunzru will now be alternating with Thomas Chatterton Williams in the Easy Chair, while Claire Messud takes over as our New Books critic. Both writers are accomplished essayists who may be best known for their fiction—between them they have published a dozen novels. And as it happens, our cover story is a long personal essay by another distinguished novelist, Ann Patchett. While the events recounted in her essay are all true, they are shaped at every turn by a novelistic sensibility—one that tends “to think of things in terms of story.” Add to these three an essay by Karl Ove Knausgaard in Readings; a review by Lauren Oyler, whose first novel will be published next month; and this column, and you’ll find the majority of these pages filled by novelists writing non-fiction. (This is of course in addition to fiction by Diane Williams, Dorthe Nors, and Elizabeth McCracken.)

Harper’s has long made a point of publishing factual writing by distinguished novelists. In the first century of its existence, the magazine featured travel writing by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, literary criticism by Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, reporting by John Dos Passos and Theodore Dreiser, memoir by Edith Wharton. More recently, some of our best-loved essays have been by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Marilynne Robinson. Like many Harper’s readers of my generation, I was first brought to the magazine by David Foster Wallace’s sui generis reporting from cruise ships and state fairs. But while we have given almost entire issues over to narrative journalism by Norman Mailer and William T. Vollmann, I don’t know that any other single issue in our history has featured quite so many novelists.

Given the timing of this development—in the blessed twilight of the Trump presidency—a reader might be tempted to see in it a conscious turning away from the horrors of the past four years toward somewhat lighter fare. In fact, there is a bit of editorial happenstance at work. Yet the magazine’s long-held affinity for fiction writers feels particularly appropriate in this moment, not because we are owed a little break from reality, but because there are moments when reality is best approached by way of the imagination.

“Dickens was more real than Stalin or Beria,” the great Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky once wrote about his youth in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. “More than anything else, novels would affect our modes of behavior and conversations.” Brodsky’s generation came of age after Khrushchev’s mild liberalization had been answered with reactionary retrenchment. The worst terrors of the Stalin years were mostly over, citizens of the USSR did not have to fear for their lives as their parents had, but they could no longer doubt that the world in which they were forced to live had been built on lies. They recognized the supposed reality all around them as poorly made fiction. And so “books became the first and only reality, whereas reality itself was regarded either as nonsense or a nuisance.” This was not a matter of escapism. Brodsky and his peers were looking for some standard by which to live their lives, and they found that standard in fiction: “In its ethics, this generation was among the most bookish in the history of Russia, and thank God for that.”

People like Brodsky and his cohort—intellectuals for whom “existence which ignores the standards professed in literature is inferior and unworthy of effort”—are rare in any time and place. They are perhaps especially rare now, when most fiction writers do not think of professing standards as part of their job. But even those who do not read literature can find themselves influenced by it, in much the way that Keynes’s “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” It is those moments when things seem most unsettled, when they make the least sense, that fiction writers—whose business is turning the chaos of everyday life into some coherent whole, finding a “form to accommodate the mess,” as Beckett put it—can most be of use. But they can also be of a particular kind of use. “In the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties,” Brodsky noted. Of course we would all like a little certainty in this strange moment, but a false certainty is worse than none at all. And while the widespread dismissal of expertise has been one of the more worrying elements of the age, it must also be said that the experts have not always served us well.

“The creative work of the mind is based upon a happy agreement between the rational and the irrational,” wrote another great Russian expatriate, Vladimir Nabokov. If we are going to get past the worst of the Trump era, we will certainly need a bit more rationality, but we might paradoxically need a bit more irrationality too. After all, a person guided purely by reason would have had trouble understanding the past four years. But no such person exists. We are all steered by a mixture of the rational and the irrational. It is one of the enduring challenges of life to put the two into some kind of agreement.


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January 2021