“If you write a novel alone you sit and you weave a little narrative,” Naipaul told editor Rachel Donadio in the New York Times Book Review. “And it’s okay, but it’s of no account. If you’re a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, etc, give a little narrative here and there. But again, it’s of no account.” Hereby we dispose of Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations and the majority of novels in the canon. What is of account, he claims, are non-fictional explorations of “the Islamic question”, the clash of belief and unbelief, of east and west. Readers of Naipaul’s last couple of novels – a fairly exclusive club, I should imagine – probably won’t be surprised to learn that he’s grown tired of the genre; even Tolstoy came to distrust fiction at the end, but personally I trust Tolstoy the novelist rather than Tolstoy the cranky, sclerotic polemicist. The only reason we listen to Naipaul is because he wrote A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River. If the novel doesn’t matter any more then his opinion wouldn’t seem to count for more than my doorman’s opinion.
In her essay, Donadio cites a recent American interview with McEwan in which he discusses the impact of September 11 as evidence of the waning influence of fiction. “‘For a while I did find it wearisome to confront invented characters,’ McEwan said. ‘I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.'” The phrase “for a while” seems crucial here.