Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Lesser Value of Fiction

Laura Miller recently wrote a piece in response to the author Phillip Roth stating that he has stopped reading fiction. Miller points out that other authors have said the same in previous years, among them William Gibson, Cormac McCarthy, and Will Self. She offers an interesting assessment of the motivations that might lay behind this, albeit an incomplete one. To my mind, the most significant observation was this comparison of nonfiction and fiction, and of how the reader interacts with them:

“As champions of nonfiction often point out, whatever the literary shortcomings of any given work of nonfiction, at the very least you come away from it having learned something about the world. Fiction, however, doesn't offer instruction or information; it offers an experience. And for that experience to occur, the reader has to deliver him- or herself up to the book.”

Not being a literary critic myself, I can’t write competently about what might be people’s general motivations for reading one thing as opposed to another, or about the observed merits of various genres and different types of authors. I can only speak to my personal assessment of the value of different kinds of writing, a perspective that comes less from my observations of what I read than from my observations of what I write.

As my financial situation has gotten increasingly dire, and my job prospects have proven themselves to be nil, my ambition to write has never waned very much. However, it swiftly became apparent to me that if I intended to make any money off of my passion, I would probably have to focus more on writing fiction than I had before. Indeed, it seemed to me that if I wanted to keep my passion alive at all, I’d need to focus on fiction, because a hopeless outlook on my own life sapped me of the motivation to do otherwise.

This reorganization of my priorities was a definite problem, though, because I began trying to write fiction knowing that my heart wasn’t in it. Although it’s more accurate to say that my heart’s not in the writing of realistic fiction. I do, however, have a special interest in speculative fiction, and I can write it with conviction and aplomb much the same way that I can write editorial content and, when I have the inspiration for it, creative non-fiction. But I have never really seen enough value in literary realism to pour my creativity into it. My feeling is that if I am going to write something that’s grounded in my imagination, it ought to be something that is beyond the limits of ordinary experience – something that allows people to understand their world and themselves by bringing their mundane understanding to bear on fantastic worlds and experiences unlike our own. And if I’m going to write something realistic, why not write something that is actually real?

When Miller writes that fiction offers an experience rather than information or instruction, she makes a meaningful point, but she implies that non-fiction, by contrast, doesn’t offer experience. And that is not strictly true. Creative nonfiction can very poignantly present both elements to the reader, providing clear, confirmable information, but putting it into the context of vividly described experiences that surround that base of knowledge. One of the most trite pieces of advice given to aspiring writers, often by people who do not write, is “write what you know.” Trite though it may be, that advice does strike me as sound and perhaps obvious. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, you’re just making things up and risking information. As an adolescent, my aspirations to become a better writer entailed not rigorously exercising my imagination, but increasing the range of things that I knew. In what might be an ironic testament to my lack of imagination, my life since then has been much more isolated and monotonous than I ever thought possible, and I am tragically unwilling to write about China or Iowa because I have never been to either, or about logging or yachting because I have neither done nor witnessed those things. It may be hideously limiting and self-defeating, but as far as I’m concerned, I have no business writing about things that I haven’t seen first-hand but theoretically could.

I make no judgments about what other people write, but my personal standards do extend into what I read and how I appreciate the things that I read. I have encountered some moving, powerful fictional stories, but I often come away from them with a certain conflicted feeling that I do not have when I read speculative fiction, creative nonfiction, or straightforward nonfiction. I read a splendidly written story in a recent New Yorker about a woman’s experience of becoming homeless. It was a good story, it spoke to me, and it seemed distinctly plausible. But that last point distracted me at some point as I was reading it. There is something about reading a story that seems real but isn’t that can be somewhat disturbing to me. Here I was vicariously experiencing somebody’s misfortune and misery, striving to empathize with it and learn from it, and it wasn’t real. Yet at the same time, thousands of real people were experiencing the same basic experiences, and the opportunity was there for the author to write about something real with the same vividness and narrative strength, through which to present even more meaningful themes – more meaningful because they would have been real.

I think the same impulse explains my tendency to remain disinterested in contemporary novels, always focusing instead on brushing up on the classics. Such books might be fabrications of perfectly ordinary events, but at least they describe a time and place that I cannot experience for myself. But when the stories come from my world, from early twenty-first century America, I am not much driven to read them. I would much rather go out into that world and bear witness to the true stories being crafted within it, with all their literary quality. And if I can ever get out of the circumstance of just barely eking out a living in Buffalo, NY, those are the stories that I, as a writer, want to tell.

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