Bonnie Nadzam's recent essay at Literary Hub, "What Should Fiction Do?", is well worth reading, despite the title. (The only accurate answer to the question in the title [which may not be Nadzam's] is: "Lots of stuff, including what it hasn't done yet...") What resonates for me in the essay is Nadzam's attention to the ways reality effects intersect with questions of identity — indeed, with the ways that fictional texts produce ideas about identity and reality. I especially loved Nadzam's discussion of how she teaches writing with such ideas in mind.
Nadzam starts right off with a bang:
An artistic practice that perpetually reinforces my sense of self is not, in my mind, an artistic practice. I’m not talking about rejecting memoir or characters “based on me.” What I mean is I don’t have the stomach for art that purports to “hold up a mirror to nature,” or for what this implies, philosophically, about selfhood and the world in which we live.This is a statement that avant-gardes have been making since at least the beginning of the 20th century — it is the anti-mimetic school of art, a school at which I have long been a happy pupil. Ronald Sukenick, whose purposes are somewhat different to Nadzam's, wrote in Narralogues that "fiction is a matter of argument rather than of dramatic representation" and "it is the mutability of consciousness through time rather than representation that is the essential element of fiction." Sukenick proposes that all fiction, whether opaquely innovative or blockbuster entertainment, "raises issues, examines situations, meditates solutions, reflects on outcomes" and so is a sort of reasoning and reflection. "The question," he writes, "is only whether a story reflects thoughtfully, or robotically reflects the status quo with no illuminating angle of vision of its own."
|Magritte, "The Human Condition", 1933|
Sukenick, too, disparages the "mirror to reality" or "mirror to nature" idea: "Once the 'mirror of reality' argument for fiction crumbles, possibilities long submerged in our tradition open up, and in fact a new rationale for fiction becomes necessary."
Nadzam's essay provides some possibilities for remembering what has been submerged in the tradition of fiction and for creating new rationales for fiction's necessity:
I want fiction to bend, for its structure not to mirror the reality I think I see, but for its form and structure to help me peel back and question the way reality seems. The way I seem. I love working with the English language precisely because it fails. Even the most perfect word or phrase or narrative can at best shadow and haunt the phenomena of the world. Words and stories offer a way of experiencing being that is in their most perfect articulation a beat removed from direct experience. And so have I long mistrusted those works in which representation and words function without a hiccup, creating a story that is meant to be utterly believed.Again, not at all new, but necessary because these ideas so push against dominant assumptions about fiction (and reality) today.
An example of one strain of dominant assumptions: Some readers struggle to separate characters from writers. On Twitter recently, my friend Andrew Mitchell, a writer and editor, expressed frustration with this tendency, saying: "EVERYTHING a character says/does in a story reflects EXACTLY what the writer believes, right? Based on the comments I just read: YES!" As I said to Andrew in reply, this way of thinking results from certain popular types of literary analysis and pedagogy, ones that seek Message from art, ones that want literature to be a paragon of Self Expression, with the Self either a fragile, wounded bird or an allegorical representative of All Such Selfs. It's "write what you know" taken to its logical conclusion: write only what you know about what and who you are. (Good luck writing a story about a serial killer if you're not one.) Such assumptions are anti-imagination and, ultimately, anti-art.
These dominant assumptions aren't limited to classrooms and naive readers. Consider this, from Achy Obejas's foreword to The Art of Friction (ed. Charles Blackstone & Jill Talbot):
When my first book, We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, was released in 1994, my publishers were ecstatic at the starred review it received in Publishers Weekly.Imagination is incomprehensible and terrifying. In the classroom, I see this all the time when students read anything even slightly weird — at least one will insist the writer must have been on drugs. When a person reads a work of fiction and their first impulse is to either seek out the autobiographical elements or declare the writer to be a drug addict, then we know that that reader has no experience with or understanding of imagination. For such readers, based on a true story are the five most comforting words to read.
But though I appreciated the applause, I was a bit dismayed. The review referred to the seven pieces that comprise the book as “autobiographical essays.” I found this particularly alarming, since six of the seven stories were first-person narrations, mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican voices, while I am Cuban, and one was from the point of view of a white gay man named Tommy who is dying of AIDS.
I’d have thought that the reviewer might have noticed that nationality, race, and gender seemed to shift from story to story—and that is what they were, stories, not essays; fiction, not memoir—but perhaps that reviewer, like many others who followed, felt more comforted in believing that the stories were not products of the imagination but lived experiences.
I come back again and again to a brief passage from one of my favorites of Gayatri Spivak's books, Readings:
I am insisting that all teachers, including literary criticism teachers, are activists of the imagination. It is not a question of just producing correct descriptions, which should of course be produced, but which can always be disproved; otherwise nobody can write dissertations. There must be, at the same time, the sense of how to train the imagination, so that it can become something other than Narcissus waiting to see his own powerful image in the eyes of the other. (54)
There must be the sense of how to train the imagination so that it can become something other than Narcissus waiting to see his own powerful image in the eyes of the other.
To return to Bonnie Nadzam's essay: Another dominant force that keeps fiction from becoming too interesting, keeps readers from reading carefully, and prevents the education of literary imagination is mass media (which these days basically means visual/cinematic media). I love mass media and visual media for all sorts of reasons, but if we ignore pernicious effects then we can't adjust for them. Nadzam writes:
...I’ve noticed that with much contemporary fiction, when we read, we’re often not asked to imagine we’re reading a history, biography, diary or anything at all. Often the text doesn’t even ask the reader to be aware of the text as text. With much fiction, we seem to pretend we are watching a movie. And it is supposed to be a good thing if a novel is “cinematic.”Much fiction today, especially fiction that achieves any level of popularity, seems to me to draw not just structurally but emotionally from television. At its best, it's The Wire (perhaps the great melodrama of our era -- and I mean that as high praise); more commonly, it's a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. TV, like pop songs, knows the emotional moves it needs to pull off to make its audience feel what the audience desires to feel -- make your audience feel something they don't desire to feel, and most of them will turn on you with hate and scorn.
The giveaway, I think, is the narrowness of the prose aesthetic in all fiction that pulls its effects from common wells of emotion, because a complex, unfamiliar prose structure will get in the way of readers drinking up the emotions they desire. Such writing may not itself be inherently rich with emotion; all it needs to do is transmit signs that signal feelings already within the reader's repertoire. Keep the prose structure and style familiar, keep the emotions within the expected range, and the writer only needs to point toward those emotions for the reader to feel them. The reader becomes Pavlov's dog, salivating not over real food, but over the expectation of it. If an identity group exists, then that identity group can train its members toward particular structures of feeling. If the structures are even minimally in place, then members in good standing of an identity group will receive the emotional payoff they desire. Fiction then becomes a confirmation of identity and emotion, not a challenge to it.
(Tangentially: The radical potential of melodrama is to trick audiences into feeling emotions they would not otherwise feel and to complicate expected emotions. This was, for instance, the great achievement of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that is terribly written in all sorts of ways, but which mobilized -- even weaponized -- sentiment to an extraordinary degree. The same could be said for The Wire, though with significantly less social effect [Linda Williams has some thoughts on this, if I'm remembering her book correctly].)
Anyone who's taught creative writing will tell you that lots of students don't aspire to write for the sake of writing so much as they aspire to write movies on paper. Which is fine, in and of itself, but if students want to write movies, they should take screenwriting and film production courses. And if I want to watch a movie, I'll watch a movie, not read a book.
Movies, TV, and video games are the dominant narrative forms of our time, so it should be no surprise that fiction often resembles those dominant forms. Even the most blockbustery of bestselling novels can't compete for dominance (and almost every bestselling novel these days is a movie-in-a-book, anyway, so they're just contributing to the dominance). Look how excited people get when they find out their favorite book will be turned into a movie. It's like Pinocchio being turned into a real boy!
What gets lost is the literary. Not in some high-falutin' sense of the Great Books, but in the technical sense of what written texts can do that other media either can't or don't do as well. Conversely, other media have things they do that written texts don't do as well, or at all — this is what bugs me when people write about films as if they're novels, for instance, because it loses all sense of what is distinctly cinematic. But that's a topic for another time...
Nadzam discusses how she teaches fiction, and I hope at some point she writes a longer essay about this:
When I do “teach” creative writing, I point out that a work of formal realism (which I neither condemn nor condone) usually adheres to a particular formula: Exposition informs a person’s Psychology, from which arises their Character, out of which certain Motives emerge, based upon which the character takes Action, from which Plot results (EPiC MAP). And what formal realism achieved thereby was answering some of the metaphysical questions raised by Enlightenment thinkers about what the self, or character, might be—a person is a noun. A changing noun, perhaps, but a noun nonetheless—somehow separate from the flux of the world they inhabit. The students I’ve had who want to “be writers” hear about EPiC MAP and diligently set to work. The artists in the class, however—the kindred spirits with the mortal wound—they look at me skeptically. Something about that doesn’t feel right, they say. I don’t want to do it that way, they say. Can we break those rules? And each of their “stories” is a terrible, fascinating mess. Are the stories messes because these writers are breaking with habit, forcing readers to break with expectation, or is the EPiC MAP really an effective mirror? I grant that this is an impossible question to answer, but an essential question to raise. By my lights these students are trying, literally, to re-make the world.This reminded me of Mac Wellman's longstanding practice of encouraging his playwrighting students to write "bad" plays. The New York Times describes this amusingly:
He asks students to write bad plays, to write plays with their nondominant hands, to write a play that takes five hours to perform and covers a period of seven years. Ms. Satter recalled an exercise in which she had to write a play in a language she barely knew.Further, from a 1992 interview:
“I wrote mine in extremely limited Russian,” she wrote in an email. “Then we translated them back into English and read them aloud. The results were these oddly clarified, quiveringly bizarre mini-gems.”
Mr. Wellman explained: “I’m not trying to teach them how to write a play. I’m trying to teach them to think about what kind of play they want to write.”
Inevitably, if you start mismatching pronouns, getting your tenses wrong, writing sentences that are too long or too short, you will begin to say things that suggest a subversive political reality.One of the most effective exercises I do with students (of all levels) is to have them make a list of "writing rules" — the things they have been told or believe to be key to "good writing". I present this to them seriously. I want them to write down what they really believe, which is often what teachers past have taught them. Then, for the next assignment, I tell them to write something in which they break all those rules. Every single one. Some students are thrilled (breaking rules is fun!), some are terrified (we're not supposed to break rules!), but again and again it leads to some fascinating insights for them. It can be liberating, because they discover the freedom of choice in writing, and do things with words that they would never have given themselves permission to do on their own. It's also educative, because they discover that some of the rules, at least for some situations, make sense to them. Then, though, they don't apply those rules ignorantly and unreflectively: when they follow those rules in the future, they do so because the rules make sense to them.
(I make them read Gertrude Stein, too. I make them try to write like Gertrude Stein, especially at her most abstract. [Tender Buttons works well.] It's harder than it looks. They scoff at Stein at first, but once they try to imitate her, they struggle, usually, and discover how wedded their minds are to a particular way of writing and particular assumptions about sense and purpose.)
(I show them Carole Maso's book Break Every Rule. I tell them it's a good motto for a writer.)
To learn new ways to write, to educate our imaginations, we need not only to think about new possibilities but to look at old models, especially the strange and somewhat forgotten ones. Writers who only read what is near at hand are starving themselves, starving their imaginations.
Nadzam returns to 18th century writers, a trove of possibilities:
Fielding thought a crucial and often overlooked aspect of the theatrum mundi metaphor was the emphasis the metaphor puts on the role of the audience, and the audience’s tendency to hastily judge the character of his fellow men. We are not supposed to assume, Fielding’s narrator tells us in Tom Jones, that just because the brilliant 18th-century actor David Garrick plays the fool, Garrick himself is a fool. Nor should we assume that the fool we meet in life is actually—or always—a fool. How then is Fielding’s audience to determine the character of Fielding’s contemporary who plays the part of an actor playing the part of a ghost puppet who represents a real-life individual whose eccentric and condemnable behavior Fielding satirizes? For Fielding, there is no such thing as an un-interpreted experience; an instance of mimetic simulation cannot be considered “truth” (a clear image in a well-polished mirror) because truth itself is the very act of mimetic simulation.Seeking out writers from before fiction's conventions were conventional helps us see new possibilities. (This is one of the values of Steven Moore's two-volume "alternative history" of the novel, which upends so many received ideas about what novels are and aren't, and when they were what they are or aren't. Also Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel. Also so much else.)
Finally, one of the central concerns of Nadzam's essay is the way that assumptions about fiction reproduce and reify assumptions about identity:
...what is now generally accepted as “fiction” emerged out of an essentialism that is oddly consoling in its reduction of each individual to a particular set of characteristics, and the reality they inhabit a background distinct from this self. At worst, behind this form are assumptions about identity and reality that may prevent us from really knowing or loving ourselves or each other, and certainly shield us from mystery.So much fiction seems to see people as little more than roleplaying game character sheets written in stone. Great mysteries of motivation, great changes in conviction or belief, all these too often get relegated to the realms of the "unrealistic" — and yet the true realism is the one that knows our movement from one day to the next is mostly luck and magic.
Relevant here also is a marvelous essay by Stephen Burt for Los Angeles Review of Books, partly a review of poetry by Andrew Maxwell and Kay Ryan, partly a meditation on how lyric poetry works. More fiction writers ought to learn from poetry. (More fiction reviewers ought to learn from the specificity and attention to language and form in Burt's essay, and in many essays on poetry.) Consider:
A clever resistance to semantic function, an insistence that we just don’t know, that words can turn opaque, pops up every few lines and yet never takes over a reader’s experience: that’s what you get when you try to merge aphorism (general truth) and lyric (personal truth) and Maxwell’s particular line of the North American and European avant-garde (what is truth?). It haunts, it teases, it invites me to return. By the end of the first chapbook, “Quotation or Paternity,” Maxwell has asked whether lyric identification is also escapism: “Trying to identify, it means / Trying to be mistaken / About something else.” Poetic language is, perhaps, the record of a mistake: in somebody else’s terms, we misrecognize ourselves.And:
We can never be certain how much of our experience resembles other people’s, just as we can’t know if they see our “blue”.... Nor can we know how much of what we believe will fall apart on us next year. ... His poems understand how tough understanding yourself, or understanding anyone else, or predicting their behavior, or putting reflection into words can be, and then forgive us for doing it anyway...We need more fiction like Stephen Burt's description of Andrew Maxwell's poems: More fiction that understands how tough understanding yourself, or understanding anyone else, or predicting their behavior, or putting reflection into words can be, and then forgives us for doing it anyway.