06 April 2007

No Comfort Here

Chris Barzak has posted some interesting thoughts on writing and reading, and he ends with a meditation on "comfort fiction" or "consolatory art":
That’s another thing that’s been on my mind lately: consolatory art. What these days, in the speculative fiction field at least, is being called comfort fiction (at least sometimes, I think, by some people who see consolation and comfort as one and the same thing). I think the rise of the comfort fiction brigades has done some damage in its crusade to rid the world of fantasies that lie to us about the nature of living in various ways (and not good lies, not ones that are really truly helpful to us, so I sympathize with what they’re saying about those in that way). But I do think that to a certain extent there’s been a sort of confusion made at times of two different sorts of writing that are separate things altogether, for me at least. One of these I think of as wish fulfillment stories, which are the ones that lie about the nature of our lives perhaps. The other I think of as consolatory stories: stories that can console while still telling the truth. I think that’s possible. To tell the truth and still find consolation in something. Not comfort, but consolation, something to go on, to feed and keep the spirit while we’re here for a little longer. Not to insulate us from the horrors of living here, but to stoke our fires and keep us going on despite the wolves howling at the door.
After reading this, I tried to think about why I didn't want to accept the terminology Chris uses here, much as I like his attempt to expand beyond simplistic ideas of "we must write about the nastiest of the nastiness of the world so that our readers suffer no illusions, bwahahahahahahaaaaa!" For one thing, I think the comfort/discomfort dichotomy is a false one -- good writing is too complex to fit into any such simple category (similarly, "transgressive fiction") and good readers are too sophisticated to let texts do only one thing for them. Then I remembered something John Gardner wrote in On Becoming a Novelist about "the Pollyanna mask" (sunny hand-me-down language, "the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for") and then what he said about a paragaph from something by Harlan Ellison:
This is not the Pollyanna style favored by hack writers of the twenties and thirties but the hack-writer style that superseded it, disPollyanna. Sunny optimism, with its fondness for italics, gives way to an ill-founded cynicism, also supported by italics. ... Sentence fragments become common (a standard means of falsely heightening the emotion of what one says), and commas disappear ... in rhetorical imitation of William Faulkner, who was also on thin ice. (Dropping commas is all right except if one's purpose is to increase the rush of the sentence and thus suggest emotion not justified by what is being said.) ... Crude jokes and images, slang phrases borrowed from foreign languages, are all stock in disPollyanna fiction -- in an attempt to shock prudes. No one is shocked, of course, though a few may misread their annoyance as shock. One is annoyed because the whole thing is phony, an imitation of things too often imitated before. The problem with such writers, it ought to be mentioned, is not that they are worse people than those who wrote in Pollyanna. They are almost exactly the same people: idealists, people who simple-mindedly long for goodness, justice, and sanity; the difference is one of style. ...

Both Pollyanna and disPollyanna limit the writer in the same ways, leading him to miss and simplify experience, and cutting him off from all but fellow believers.
I much prefer Gardner's terminology to that of comfort vs. discomfort, because what it points out is simplistic thinking and failure of craft in particular ways. The people who condemn (or praise) "comfort fiction" are complaining not only of particular failures of craft, but also of what they see as failures of ideology and metaphysics. They imagine an audience and they expend much energy disdaining it, because to them these people (if they exist, which I'm not certain of) are sheep following a shepherd who drugs them with lies and illusions. "Read your silly Harry Potter," they say, "and wallow in your ignorance while I dig into the marrow of life with my chosen text of superior reality-smashing in-yer-face this-is-how-it-isness." (Yes, I find the sanctimoniousness of such a position far more repulsive than the uncritical acceptance of unexceptional writing.)

The problem for me is that most disPollyanna books just can't accomplish what they seem to desire. For a work of fiction to change your view of the world, it's got to be either less fiction than propaganda-cum-journalism (think The Jungle) or a work of subtlety and breadth that connects, in some personal way, to who you are at a particular time. The latter is likely to be a marvelous piece of art, but it's also unlikely to be anything that could be prescribed, because what is both necessary and uncontrollable is the relationship between the reader and the text, and readers use texts in immensely varied ways. Unless you're a masochist, you're unlikely to finish reading something you find annoying or disturbing, and so the effect of such fiction is merely to confirm a view of the world you already hold. You could call it comfortable anti-comfort.

It is because I work from the assumption that the greatest art is unpredictable in its effect that I am wary of using the terms "comfort" or "consolation" with regard to the best fiction. Not because there aren't books and stories and poems and plays that I find comforting or consoling, but because I don't think whatever comforting/consoling properties a text possesses are universal or even inherent in the text itself. It's unlikely that what works for me will also work for lots of other people, or that what works for me in particular circumstances will work in other circumstances. Thus, once a writer sets out to be comforting and consoling, they've already failed and will probably produce treacle. Similarly, when a writer sets out to be all clear-eyed about the hideous awfulness of the world and wake readers up to the drab wretchedness of their empty, wasteful lives, they're likely to produce something that is more rant than art, more self-satisfied than satisfying.

I think Gardner was smart to focus on language, because though great writing possesses something ineffable that can triumph over some failures of language (or else how would great books survive bad translations?), to start writing from a position that almost surely guarantees you will fill your pages with familiar, sentimental, overwrought phrases that represent the world through simplistic and received ideas ... well, to start writing from such a position seems self-defeating to me and a failure of ambition.

We live in a time when far more pages are written than any one person could read in ten lifetimes, and the only justification for adding to those pages that I can think of is to add something that strives for an honesty and clarity of language and structure, something that is neither comforting nor discomforting by design, but is, instead, a tool for thinking and feeling more powerfully about the fact that we are alive in a world more complex than any of our philosophies.

John Gardner makes a big claim for art that is neither Pollyanna nor disPollyanna, and though it courts its own sort of sanctimony, I think it is a claim worth considering:
A young writer firmly hooked on bad science fiction, or the worst of the hard-boiled detective school, or tell-it-like-it-is so-called serious fiction, fashionably interpreting all experience as crap, may get published, if he works hard, but the odds are that he'll never be an artist. That may not bother him much. Hack writers are sometimes quite successful, even admired. But so far as I can see, they are of slight value to humanity.