"Sept. 11 has changed the cultural climate. People can't read fiction in the last few years. They're disillusioned. It's a death of the imagination, perhaps." So says Penguin Canada senior editor Barbara Berson, in a Globe & Mail article by Michael Posner called The Great Fiction Crash of 2005. So much for "Canadian understatement".
Looking over my list of books read in the last four years, I don't see any dramatic shift in reading preferences. I still choose fiction over non-fiction, and though my taste in both is registering some change, I'd be more inclined to attribute this shift to growing older than I would to terrorist attacks. Those hate-mongers are so keen to be the attributable source of our every woe, they'd take credit for the common cold if they could -- why give them credit for flagging fiction sales?
Here's my theory: we don't need any help being unhappy, and yet our fiction writers would beg to differ. And we let 'em. Say what you will about the shoddy prose of The DaVinci Code, at least it invests the world -- and Western history -- with some meaning. And perhaps The DaVinci Code is this generation's Pollyana, against which our fiction writers are levelling their own "terrible honesty" the way Dashiell Hammett (his dictum, by the way) and Dorothy Parker did in their day. But there's a terrible honesty, and then there's a terrible tedium. A writer of the grotesque, like Dickens, could deliver the former with flair and panache, while the latter seems to be the call of the day.
Myself, I'm happiest reading a book that gives me someone half-decent (but not too decent) to root for. Maybe I'm just weird that way.