I sometimes fear that all of humankind may sooner or later come to my conclusion: that reading fiction is a waste of time.
But why should I be afraid? Just because I would personally be one of the victims?
No, it’s not just that. Even though we can now land on Mount Everest in a helicopter, it would be a pity if we no longer attempted climbing to the top. The value of literary fiction is not only its capacity to both entertain readers and teach them something, but also as a sport — an intellectual challenge. Even if we could invent a machine that would report to us precisely all of the experiences of a Raskolnikov, a Madame Bovary, or an Anna Karenina, it would still be interesting to know if this could be done with pen and paper.
This approach to literature is not yet completely relevant for the simple fact that no such machine yet exists. But a whole array of forces is gradually assembling this machine. Modern readers know more and more about psychology, and to them a writer’s explanations often seem unnecessary, false, or old-fashioned. They reads plenty, and no theme is shocking enough to surprise them. They get the facts from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, or movies. They’re connected to all the corners of the world — and nothing invented by the mind can compare with what takes place in reality. There’s still a chance that, in our day — or yours — humankind will reach the moon, or one of the planets. All the fantasies of so-called “science fiction” will pale in comparison with footage shot on the moon or on the other planets.
Put this way, literature would still seem to survive as an intellectual sport. But it would be a sport in which only people playing the sport, as well as a few amateurs, would be interested. A man who walked on foot to California might summon our admiration, but his walking would not be taken seriously as a medium of communication. For this reason, I fear the day when literary fiction becomes a sport. It often seems to me that we are already at this point. It has actually already happened with poetry, including in our own Yiddish language. The poetic word is now read almost exclusively by poets. In such a great and wealthy land as the United States, works of poetry are often published in 500 copies and a good part of these is distributed by authors among their friends. Drama has not yet reached the sad state of poetry, but it’s going in that the same direction.
As for literary prose, we often feel like it’s doing well. Books of prose are still bought in hundreds of thousands of copies. But when we look a little deeper into the matter, we see that what we nowadays call “literary fiction” is often far from literary fiction. Works are often sold under the label “novel” that are in fact three-fourths or a 100 percent journalism.
At no other time has the boundary between journalism and literature been so thin and so blurred as in ours. It often seems to me that modern critics suffer from amnesia. They’ve forgotten the elementary rules of the game called literature. It’s no feat to score grand victories in a chess game if, right from the start, one player gets more pieces than another, or if the rules of the game change with each round.
Each amnesia has its hidden purpose, and the literary amnesia of our time is not simply some kind of random illness. It has its tendencies, its goals. The big publishers, the large printing machines, the masses of readers who have arrived thanks to the liquidation of illiteracy — these can no longer be served by the small number of real talents born in a single generation. In addition, the real talents no longer have the power or the means to affect readers as they did a generation or two ago. Instead of admitting that there’s a crisis in literature and that journalism must step in on behalf of literature, literary critics, publishers, and often writers themselves have, consciously and more often unconsciously, changed the concept, they’ve ostensibly expanded it, but in reality simply confused and forgotten it. It’s as if people playing a sport had suddenly decided that a participant in a footrace can ride a bicycle. It’s a revolution that, instead of enriching the field, impoverishes and liquidates it.
Precisely in our time of great specialization — when each science is divided into various subfields for the simple reason that each one demands a scientist’s full attention — literature has experienced a merging of all its forces. There has arisen a mixture and mishmash of methods and media that has one value: deceit. We have not expanded the concept of artistic prose, only stretched and crippled it. A modern work of literary fiction often contains amateurish essays about psychology and psychoanalysis; a lot of journalistic information that we can easily find in newspapers, magazines, or encyclopedias; all kinds of pop and pseudo-scientific theories and facts; often even critical articles; jokes and wisecracks by literary satirists; political opinions and messages; facts from sexology; and so on and so forth. Neither writers nor critics ever have any idea of what literature is and what it is not; what has been created and what has been borrowed; when writers walk under their own power and when they foist themselves onto someone else’s wagon. What difference does it make whether a runner runs on foot or rides a bicycle? The only thing that’s important is reaching the end faster than the others. The modern critic has only one measure: the effect, the commotion that the literary work provokes in undiscerning readers, and the effect that this same work can have when it is adapted into a television show or movie.
Try to imagine a writer who takes the same theme as Flaubert, writing a sort of new Madame Bovary, but with World War II as the background. The novel, in addition to the story of a disloyal women, will give the story of Hitlerism, Stalin’s purges, the extermination of six million Jews, the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the abdication of King Edward for the sake of Mrs. Wallis Simpson, the revolution in China, and who knows what else. I don’t need to tell you that one could easily compose such a novel. A modern Madame Bovary doesn’t have to sit in some small town. She can fly in an airplane. She could even, in addition, be a Soviet spy, or a double or triple agent. An able writer can even compose all this in a way that makes sense — the facts would all be connected. It is unnecessary to say that such a work would likely excite readers much more than some story of a provincial wife betraying her husband. It’s true, World War II and all the other horrors and savageries have already been portrayed by others, and a writer can add nothing to this. But neither the reader nor the contemporary critic is interested in the rules of the game, in the definition of literary fiction. Reviewers often respond to these kinds of works with “I stayed up all night and couldn’t put the book down,” “Thrilling” “I’ll never forget it,” and so on and on. I am not exaggerating when I say that the number of these works does not cease to increase. Such works receive prizes. Such writers are designated literary geniuses.
For those genuinely interested in literature and its achievements, such works are a sign of a tragic downturn, a sickness that people try to cover up with bragging, false cures, harmful injections, and drugs. We have so expanded the definitions and so deformed the rules that everyone can play and everyone can win. Anyone who understands how rarely a true talent is born and how extremely difficult it is to be original — to discover something of one’s own in the art of writing — can clearly see that we are not dealing with progress but regress, a sort of literary anarchy that’s good only for the big publishers and their printing presses, for television and Hollywood.
As a rule, parasites grow and develop best in a body that’s sick. Instead of blaming the parasite, we should examine why the sick body has lost its defenses.
Why has poetry reached its current state? What’s the matter with drama? And how is it that literary prose has to go beyond its natural limits and become a mishmash of styles and facts in order to appeal to readers?
The reason is that the essence of literature — the portrayal of characters, the expression of individuals — has never had many enthusiasts. Even in the best of times, readers of literature looked for — and found — not the main thing, but those elements of secondary importance. People who visit a museum not to see paintings but because they feel they should, or because they want to meet someone there, are always in the majority. In days of old, when there were no major newspapers, no national magazines, when even history books were rare and badly written, readers of fiction found a lot more than what the writer had aimed for, drawing information about all kinds of fields from the literary work. War and Peace, for example, was for these kinds of readers a historical work about the Napoleonic Wars, a description of Russian soldiers and aristocrats, a travelogue. Very often readers learned etiquette from novels, how people love each other, how they spend their time, how they dress, and so on. Works of literary fiction were once the only means by which the readers might encounter psychology and, in many cases, psychoanalysis. Many readers simply used literary texts to learn syntax and grammar. And all this was even more the case with theatergoers.
The new era, in a sense, brought a radical change. Readers get endless information from the radio, from film, from the press, from television. They hear lectures on psychology and psychoanalysis. They watch travel shows, often enough travel themselves, and have knowledge of the world. If literary fiction and theater were to continue playing their old role, they would need an audience with a strong interest in human character and individuality, independent of all these other byproducts and external concerns. But the number of such connoisseurs is small. Real and pure connoisseurs of art are nearly as rare as real and pure artists.
Precisely because people today are surrounded by a sea of information related to all kinds of fields, genuine modern artists have to deliver more and more artistic purity, more substance, a greater focus on the portrayal of character and individuality. But for this one has to have exceptional gifts. It is, simply put, harder than ever to be original and creative in new ways.
Singer often feels like a familiar entity — yet he never ceases to surprise. As discussed in this companion essay, he is known as a storyteller and memoirist, but only cursorily as a literary critic. Yet he published tens, if not hundreds, of articles on art and literature, including reviews of books and plays, under several pseudonyms, and sometimes anonymously too. As anyone who has spent some time with Singer knows, there’s always something new to discover. In this spirit of discovery, LARB is publishing Singer’s essay, “Who Needs Literature?” on this day — in homage to what seems to be a mystery possibly solved: Singer’s date of birth.
The date of Singer’s birth has long been a point of contention among scholars, with most giving it as July 14, 1904, which was the day Singer celebrated in his lifetime, and others using the date more recently proposed by German scholar Stephen Tree, November 21, 1902. But historical research suggests the question is considerably more complicated. On his entry into the United States on May 1, 1935, his age was reported as 30; on his entry into the United States from Canada on June 2, 1937, he gave his age as 32; on the United States Census, taken on April 13, 1940, he gave his age at last birthday as 35. Singer himself, when he did record his date of birth, always noted 1904, but not always the same date. On his author’s questionnaire for Knopf, filled out in 1950, he gave his birthday as July 27, 1904. In the U.S. Public Records Index, 1950–1993, he appears with the most-known birthdate, July 14, 1904. None of this gives much clarity — though it accords with the most often-cited sources.
Other sources, though, complicate the picture. In Of a World that is No More (1946), a memoir written by his older brother Israel Joshua, Singer is referenced as already being in a cradle during the Jewish year of 5665, which corresponds to 1904–1905, and, more importantly, is also described as being an infant before Theodor Herzl’s death — which occurred on July 3, 1904. And Singer was himself aware of the contradiction, telling Paul Kresh he had two birthdays, one in July, which is the one he uses officially, and one in November, which he said corresponded to the Hebrew month of Heshvan. Devorah Telushkin also reports his birthday in November, and in The New York Times, he tells Rabbi William Berkowitz that his “real birthday is in Cheshvan, on a Wednesday during the third week” (“New York Day by Day,” September 3, 1984). Stephen Tree suggests he was born in 1902 because, in that year, the 21st of Heshvan falls on November 21 on the Gregorian calendar — but during that time Poland was part of the Russian Empire, which followed the Julian calendar, which would make the date November 8. Also, Tree’s proposed date falls on a Friday, a Sabbath eve, not a Wednesday, as Singer reports.
The only other option is the one not yet considered — 1903 — which corresponds to the Jewish year of 5664. The third Wednesday of Heshvan that year falls on November 11, which conforms with his brother’s portrayal of Singer as being an infant in July 1904 and in a cradle in the year 1904–’05. It is most plausible, then, that his birthdate is indeed November 11, 1903 – give or take about a week.
Isaac Bashevis Singer was a prominent figure in the Yiddish literary movement. He won two U.S. National Book Awards, one for his collection A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories and one for his memoir A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
Original Yiddish text, first published in Forverts on October 20, 1963, @ 2019 by the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust. Translation @ 2019 by David Stromberg. All rights reserved.