Best known for his many novels and short stories, of which a very large portion were translated into English, the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer also authored numerous essays on literary criticism and other topics under the pseudonym Yitskhok Varshavski. Among these was his 1963 article titled “Who Needs Literature?” in which he questions the purpose of fiction even while lamenting its decline. Singer begins the essay, recently translated into English by David Stromberg, by declaring that he has come to the conclusion “that reading fiction is a waste of time”—but then goes on to defend literature itself:
The value of literary fiction is not only its capacity both to entertain readers and to 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 [in Crime and Punishment], 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 read 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.
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.
Since these words were written, not only has a man landed on the moon, but overabundance of information has grown in ways Singer could never imagine.