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Trading Comments with T.J. Stiles


The conversation with T.J. Stiles about fiction, nonfiction, and literature in general has continued over the past two days in the form of comments posted on his blog. Here are some of the highlights:


In his first reaction to my original post, Stiles wrote:
I must say, though, that I was conscious of what makes a book "literature" when I was writing The First Tycoon. I aspired to excellence; I hoped to achieve some level of profundity. This meant not merely research, not merely asking deep historical questions, but doing my best to engage in fine writing, to explore the human condition, to illuminate the irreducible contradictions of personality, to engage the unanswerable question of the place and role of the individual in the great current of history. I tried to unearth a lost mentality—to show that what we take for granted in our view of reality is, in fact, the result of millions upon millions of people thinking and rethinking and reshaping their existence over the centuries.
I replied:
To my mind, neither fiction nor nonfiction has any greater claim to literary-ness than the other. I agree with your comment here that this is the subject of legitimate debate, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to argue against nonfiction.
But I don't wish to seem to be a champion of nonfiction OVER fiction. For example, I take issue with a provocative essay in the New York Observer that actually praises my work:

In it, Lee Siegel argues that fiction is no longer as relevant or potent as nonfiction. I disagree. Such works as Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin" or Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" are both stunningly beautiful pieces of writing and strike at the core of our experience in living in this world, right now.
Then me:
But literature is big enough for both fiction and nonfiction. I think we agree that fine writing is on display in both camps. 
I'd venture to guess further that we agree some works are more literary than others. It's a broader, but maybe a more worthy, question. What makes writing literature? You indicate that you've taken pains to make your writing literary. Where do you think the distinction lies?


I'd like to broaden the scope of (and the participants in) the conversation a bit. There may even be a chance to entice Mr. Stiles to engage in a more formal Q&A and/or guest post here.  I fear the blog is beginning to get bogged down in this exchange, but I also think it's an important question for readers--particularly those of us whose tastes in books are varied. Do you think it's worth trying to formalize and deepen the conversation?


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