Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Why read something made up . . . ?": On unknowableness in fiction


"Write about dogs!" (from Cartoon Bank)

I've been teaching long enough that, on the first day, at least, I'm not often caught up short by students' questions--they tend, after all, to be about housekeeping matters. But on Wednesday in my Intro. to Literature class, after we'd gone through the syllabus, made introductions, and I asked if they had any questions of me or of the class, an older student asked a question so basic, so fundamental to the nature of the class, that as I thought about how to respond I realized I'd never questioned it, either:

"Why read something made up when a true story can teach us the same thing?"

She didn't ask in a hostile way; this wasn't like asking, "Why do we have to do this?" Nor was this a question about theory or hermeneutics. She wanted to know, basically, why does fiction exist at all? What need does it serve? This was, in other words, a foray into metaphysics.

The answer I gave her in class was that, no matter how engrossing someone else's anecdote or someone else's biography is, when I hear/read them I'm always subconsciously aware that they are about, well, someone else, someone who exists or once existed in the world I now inhabit. Engrossing their stories may be, but I don't find myself entering imaginatively into the spaces of those narratives because I am already in them. Fiction, though, always has as its starting point, its spark, the world I inhabit (see the cartoon above), but it turns all that inside out: even realist fiction is "about" a space other than mine, because it is about the lives of people who have never existed; thus, as I read, I begin to identify with or become intrigued or repulsed by the inhabitants of that world.

So far, so good. But the next morning, while walking Scruffy, I realized that there's more to this than that--at least for me. And I'll just say that what follows doesn't pretend to be either profound or definitive. [UPDATE: But it does have a brief little something appended to it now that wasn't there this morning.]

This summer, after my baby-wrangling duties had ended for the evening, I read George Jones' autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All. Jones just may be THE greatest country singer who's ever lived . . . or is likely to live; but to describe his personal life as "messy" would be a considerable understatement. I knew the general outline of his alcoholism, his tempestuous marriage to Tammy Wynette, etc. Reading his autobiography, which concentrates on his personal life far more than on his career, more than filled in that outline for me, to the point that it was astounding to me that he was alive at all, much less was able to make music, most of it at least decent and some of it extraordinary, while all that was going on offstage, as it were. To put things in some perspective: recall the worst story of rock-n-roll chemical excess you know--Rick James, say, of whom Drew Carey said, "He died doing what he loved--drugs;" then, oh, double or triple that excess. You get George Jones.

And yet. Look at the title of his autobiography. The reader knows that, no matter how bad it gets before the end, there is an end in which Jones will emerge, more or less triumphant. Even without reaching the end, we already know it. The same is true, in a sense, of any biography. We may not know all the details, but we know the outline of the life . . . or else, most likely, we wouldn't have bothered to begin reading it in the first place. To borrow a phrase from Derrida, biography is always already "ended" for the reader, even before we've begun to read it. To put it more directly: biographies are rarely written about losers. In some sense, they've always achieved something, no matter how ignoble their beginnings or ends.

Fictive worlds are different, though: as I said above, their characters' worlds are not ours. Moreover, with fiction, especially contemporary fiction, we have no guarantees as to the winnerliness or loserliness of its characters. Even in the case of those novels we've read many, many times--in my case, Madame Bovary comes to mind--we read wanting to find out what happens to their characters: the choices they make and why they make them. Those novels, each time we read them, manage to recreate in the reader the sense that these stories are happening as we are reading them. Why else, after all, do we keep going back to those novels?

Thus, there's an alertness in us as we read fiction that, I'd argue, we don't have as we read biographies. In fiction, we don't know either the details of the story or its general outline. That attentiveness draws us in; we are more likely to wonder what we would do if we were in that particular circumstance. There doesn't exist the remove between us and that world. We cannot so easily distance ourselves emotionally from that world or, perhaps, even intellectually.

I don't know if this will satisfy my student, but this at least feels a bit more complete a response than the one I gave her, even if it turns out to be a contingent one. I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts on this, too.

UPDATE: As is usual with me, it's taken me almost 12 hours to realize that the short way of saying all this is: it's fiction's unknowability that causes it to be a whole lot like Life as we experience it.

16 comments:

R. Sherman said...

Your points about "getting into" a novel are spot on. When you mentioned Madame Bovary, I was reminded of a Woody Allen short story where the protagonist, bored with his life, buys a machine which transports him into any book he wants at any location in the story. He chooses Madame Bovary and becomes one of her lovers.

Alas, when he does this, he appears in copies of the work all over the world, causing literature students and professors everywhere to wonder, "What's this balding Jew named Goldberg doing in Chapter Six?"

That's why we read fiction.

Cheers.

Sheila said...

"A true story."

I'm kind of glad it's you teaching Intro to Literature and not me, John -- and I don't mean to be a smart-ass. (Not altogether, anyway.) It scares me more than a little (I'm not kidding) to think about responding to questions about Truth and Fiction posed by people who don;t think that they know everything already.

Amy said...

Because (good) fiction is art and most nonfiction is not. Fiction is made, for all the reasons one makes art; nonfiction is reporting/ teaching/ fact transmission for a variety of reasons.

I don't read just to be taught something. I read for the pleasure of language and ideas. The subject/character/plot are not as important as my aesthetic experience.

Why would I go to a museum to look at a still life arranged with the sort of things I might look at every day at home and I already know all about?

Why read a poem like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock when I could just read a textbook summary of human psychology, like, that there's this guy in late middle age and like many sensitive observant guys of that age with a lot of life experience he is bored, anxious, self-questioning and self-cancelling, etc.

If Eliot was simply writing an autobiography would he say, "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?/I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach./ I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me."

Neat article: The Shakespeared Brain

Philip Davis pleasures his brain with shifting Shakespearean syntax, measures the results on an electroencephalogram, and finds evidence that powerful writing can literally change the ways in which we think ...

Amy said...

More with the still life analogy.

The items, though real and existing at the time the painter painted them, were placed there and painted for a reason or reasons. For the ideas and feelings of the artist and what he wished to, or was compelled to, express.

We don't know why the things that happen to us in real life happen. Fate, God, chance? But we know why the table is arranged the way it is in the still life. The artist did it. When we make things, write fiction, create, we are like little Gods.

Now if I were a poet I could convey that idea more artfully. :)

Ariel said...

I guess my short answer would be that fiction (good fiction) makes life more beautiful--and at the very least, more bearable. Fiction can be reality-enhancing.

C.S. Lewis:

"The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by 'the veil of familiarity.'"

"[Story] stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach, and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted." - from On Stories

Good question.

Raminagrobis said...

Aristotle's answer to this question seems to me a pretty good one: in the Poetics he says that poetry is better than history because fictions express the universal, whereas factual accounts merely express the particular. Because it deals with what may happen, rather than what has happened, poetry is a more philosophical kind of writing, and has more to do with universal truths.

Thus far Aristotle.

Plus the form thing mentioned by amy above.

emawkc said...

Raminagrobis strikes at something my dad often points out about the relative definitions of Truth, Fact and Fiction. That Truth doesn't have to be Factual. And the Fiction, while often not Factual, might nevertheless express Truth.

In other words, sometimes Fiction can express Truth better than Fact can.

Bonnie said...

Fiction is about escaping into the world of possibilities, not about dealing with the realities of non-fiction.

Gwynne said...

You did a great job of addressing the question. Does she have any idea how much thought you gave to her answer? ;-)

Adding to what Amy said...fiction is to "true stories" as a painting (even a still life painting) is to photography. And just as photography can be done artfully, so can "true story" telling, but it lacks that certain "unknowability" that you mention. It is more constrained, more rooted in the realities of the material world, with less potential to expand the imagination into the metaphysical world...which is exactly what emawkc just said...fiction may do a better job of expressing Truth.

"When we make things, write fiction, create, we are like little Gods."

Indeed...this is when we are doing what God gave us, and only us, the ability to do.

PI said...

I find it absorbing when truth and fiction overlap as with Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway; whose lives were as dramatic and enthralling as their fiction.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

It's a great question and your's and all the commenters answers and interpretations are excellent and have given me much food for thought.

I can't add much beyond saying that I think fact merely tells but fiction shows. Fact announces but fiction impresses.

melponeme_k said...

I liked your answer.

Fiction represents possibility. It allows the reader and writer to explore issues that can be difficult to face in real life. There is also the chance for escapism in fiction.

The issue with non-fiction is that many of it's writers don't aim for a literary style. Which is why it has such utilitarian feel. I believe it can be much more. But it will never be like fiction.

Paul Decelles said...

She asked a great question. I wonder what your other students thought and your answer. Its a little bit like...why does mathematics work in terms of saying something about the real world.

John B. said...

What a rich set of responses. Thank you all.

I'll just say by way of a quick summarizing comment that when we met again the following Monday I used the example of the film 300 compared to the History Channel's episode on the actual battle of Thermopylae as a way of getting at the differences between fiction and non-fiction. In its adherence to the historical narrative, the film actually did a pretty good job, but it left out certain details (the presence of the Spartan navy, for example) and, crucially, provided something missing from Heroditus' account: a motive for the Spartans' staying there that final day to accept a certain death.

History doesn't provide those motives for actions that can't be determined empirically . . . enter fiction.

Fiction is plausible speculation, artfully done?

Anonymous said...

All of you are talking about nonfiction as if it doesn't contain, to some degree at least, a proportionate amount of fiction. Stories are not the events themselves; they're not even the "facts," and even facts must be perceived through the filter of the senses (or invented sensing equipment). The post that brings myth into the question is on point. Fiction predates nonfiction because for most of human existence, facts were in short supply. We still wanted to understand, so we made stuff up. We still do. The fiction/nonfiction separation is a recent distinction. Fiction depends on facts to be relevant. Nonfiction depends on imagination to exist at all.

John B. said...

Fiction depends on facts to be relevant. Nonfiction depends on imagination to exist at all.

Nicely said, Anon. I'd just fine-tune this a bit to say that fiction has to in some way correspond to facts (that is, our understanding or belief about how the world works) in order to be relevant; non-fiction, though, always gestures back to what historians call a "trace": an actual artifact, a document, something.

I don't think anyone here, though, would not admit that non-fiction involves, at the very least, a picking and choosing of how to tell "the" story and that that very act is an imaginative one: "the" story doesn't exist until someone tries to tell it.