Somehow the fact that a given story has already come and gone just takes a bit of the edge off for me. The fact is that I live in the world post-Vanderbilt: a better understanding of his influence on the world won't drastically impact how I live in it.Fiction, on the other hand, still has the ability to change my world. The slightest bump in the arc of a story, the most unexpected development in a character, can shift my entire worldview. The possibility gives me that little bit more urgency.
Just imagine how awkward my position is when I address such a comment! What this blogger is discussing, and very thoughtfully I might add, is a profound yet highly subjective engagement with writing. Simply put, there is no telling him he's wrong. He speaks of a very recognizable effect of literature upon the reader—yet not all literature speaks to all readers with the same impact.
Of course, the highly debatable aspect of this comment is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction in producing this effect. I cannot tell this reader that he must feel this profound result from reading my book, but I can argue that there is plenty of nonfiction that produces it in plenty of people. For this reason, the great writer Richard Rhodes argues that nonfiction deserves a title more dignified than the mere negation of fiction; it should be called verity, he argues. I wholeheartedly agree, but I'm too chicken to try to change the world on this point.
Even this blogger, in his follow-ups, concedes that there is nonfiction that has this effect on him. So his point actually ends up reduced to the mundane observation that not every book hits every reader the same way, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. (I never feel guilty about throwing down a book that doesn't enthrall me, even if it's highly praised or a classic. Since I will never have time to read all the books reckoned as great literature, I just move on to another.)
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 cannot tell anyone that he or she must be moved by my work. But I truly believe that we nonfiction writers can and do write works of literature, and that the world is a better place when we strive for the profound as well as the enlightening.