Sunday, October 16, 2011

WHAT DOES FICTION DO? Or: Writing Stories With Both Hands

 President Truman, when asked one year what he wanted for Christmas, answered, “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, ‘On the one hand.’…On the other…”
This is a fairly famous quote, so you may have heard it before, but I first heard of it from Mary Wilbur, a skillful writer, a glorious gardener, and a delicious cook. That Mary is such an accomplished woman is all the more remarkable because she has done all this, and everything else she’s done, all her life (all 93 years of it, and counting )literally single-handedly. Mary Wilbur has only one hand, so she may be a fine writer, gardener, and cook, but she’ll never make it as an economist, even though she’s a graduate of the London School of Economics.
This introduction has very little to do with the essay I’m about to write. I just wanted to use the word “literally” correctly. Hint: never misuse that word, or your critics and detractors will be literally jumping for joy and rolling in the aisles.

Now then, what does fiction do?
Well, let’s begin with the basics. Fiction tells lies. That’s what the word means: the opposite of facts. Every fictional story is a pack of lies from the get-go. Oh yes, it may be based on things that really happened to the writer, and it may take place in a real city during a well researched period of history. It may be accurate in many ways, and it may be quite, quite believable.
But fiction is untrue. Fiction can’t help it. Fiction lies.
On the other hand…
Most fiction writers, and I’m willing to say any fiction writer worth reading, is doing his or her level best to tell the truth about something. Melville may have written the biggest, most outrageous whopper of a fish story about the one that got away, but Moby-Dick makes a sincere and honest statement about the nature of monomania in general, and in particular the absurd madness of man’s battle with a ruthless universe. Great fiction tells great truth, whether it be about war and peace, or about crime and punishment, or about love and death.
In fact, I argue that by lying, the fiction writer turns up the truth another notch. The truth is better shown when some of those devilish details are heightened, edited, rearranged, and underscored by a crafty spinner of yarn.
Now we face the question: “Why would a writer work so hard, even to the point of concocting lies, to tell the truth?” The answer is found in another thing that fiction does. Writers of fiction are born to teach. More than that (or as we say in charades, “sounds like…”), we write in order to preach. Somehow it seems all great fiction writers are on a quest to make this earth on which we live a better place for our fellow human beings and for our fellow species. We write to prove a point, in the wild and hopeless hope that our words will convince our readers to straighten up and fly right.
And sometimes it works. Sometimes fiction makes us progress. To take only a few examples of only one social disease that has needed, and still needs, fixing, consider and be grateful for the influence of these novels (and many others like them) that preached on the subject of racial inequality in American society: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Help. Of course the job isn’t over yet, and it will take a lot more than literature to defeat institutionalized bigotry. The thing about writers, though, is that they will never stop preaching, despite the odds.
On the other hand…
What reader’s going to sit still and get preached at for hours at a time? I scratch my head in disbelief when I read about Victorian men and women who supposedly read sermons for pleasure.
Speaking of sermons, aren’t we most likely to listen to preachers who crack jokes every now and then? They know, and good writers know, that the way to sell message is to disguise it as entertainment. Even Jesus knew that the way to sell his message was to make up stories, which he called parables. Aesop wrote fables. Steinbeck wrote epic novels for the same reason.
Would Steinbeck have won any sympathy for migrant laborers by making speeches or writing tracts? Would we still be reading Grapes of Wrath or In Dubious Battle today if he were just reporting working conditions of an era that ended seventy years ago?
So fiction preaches, but it preaches successfully only because it entertains.
What else?
Well, fiction explores the world. A good novel delivers to the reader great knowledge of places on all the continents and the seas between; of people of all ages and races and beliefs; of eras gone by and times yet to come. My living room is rich with knowledge because here I’ve learned about the Ojibwa from Louise Erdrich, the Neanderthal from John Darnton, the Middle West from Charles Baxter, New England from Alice Hoffman, and Oz from L. Frank Baum. Yes, and when we stretch the limits of fiction to include the planets and the stars and the even grander reach of the imagination, it’s fair to say that fiction explores the universe, as if with a telescope, and delivers it to the reader, page by fascinating page.
But on the other hand…
Fiction may use a telescope to look outward, but it also looks inward, as if with a microscope, to explore the human heart and mind. The best fiction—perhaps the best writing—is about the plight of the human soul. Oh stop trying to sound so fancy, you tell me, and you’re right. But didn’t Holden Caulfield give voice to my teenage complaints? Didn’t Jack Kerouac make me want to travel light? Didn’t I learn most of what I know about the twists and turns of our overworked brains by reading the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson, or Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov, William Golding, and Ken Kesey?
So, to summarize, Fiction tells lies, but it also tells the truth. It preaches while it entertains, and it explores the universe outside and probes the soul within.
But on the other hand…

By the way, don’t forget about the talented Mary Wilbur, whom I mentioned at the outset. Her memoir, Bits and Pieces of a Life, will be published by the end of this year and will be sold to benefit the Trinidad (California) Library Building Fund.

And now, a word from our sponsor. Here's a teaser from my new novel, BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR, which will be published next month. And at the end of the teaser, check out the cover design!

            Leon Epstein looked like Santa’s evil twin on a bad hair day. His head was bald on top, with a thicket of white that covered his ears and descended into massive curly white beard. The belly barely contained by his tie-dyed T-shirt was round and jiggly, but Leon did not support the myth that round people are jolly. He stared at the white screen and then looked up at me over his half-spectacles and told me my iMac had no business acting like a spoiled brat. “These are good little machines,” he said. “They’ve been out a year now, and this is the first one I’ve had in the shop.”
            “What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
            “Let’s have a look inside.” He tipped the machine onto its screen and then searched his cluttered workbench for the right screw driver. “Just so you know,” he said, “soon as I open this baby up, you already owe me fifty-five dollars.”
            “Don’t stop now.”
            When he had the back off the computer he said, “Hard drive. That’s your problem.”
            “Something’s wrong with my hard drive?”
            “Probably not,” he said. “But it’s not in your computer.”
            “Come to think of it, I thought it felt lighter than usual.”
            “I hope you backed this baby up,” Leon said. “Because if you don’t find your hard drive laying around somewheres, we’re talking square one.”
            “Everything’s on Zip disks,” I said. “I assure you my hard drive is not just lying around. I didn’t remove it.”
            “I know that,” Leon replied. “Whoever removed the hard drive knew exactly what he was doing. Knew computers. You obviously don’t know diddly.”


  1. Great post here. Our subjective experiences tell us whether what we read and write is indeed a truth or a web of lies. The same piece may show itself differently to individuals who process it- dependent on various levels of theoretical and spiritual fitness and ability to accept the author's point of view. Thank you for a mindful piece.

  2. John, I would love to meet you over a pint, and have a rousing discussion about this topic. Must admit I write to purely entertain,(actually - 'purely' is not a word usually associated with my stories!!)
    But I would delight in that juicy discussion over a pint of ale at your local or mine...

  3. John, keep on preachin and tellin lies...but be factual. Augie

  4. Wow! I've always considered myself to be an honest person and now I find out that I've been concocting lies all these years! :) Fortunately, it was to "turn up the truth another notch."
    John, a very interesting and informative post.

  5. That's a wonderful line - 'great fiction tells great truth.' Enjoyed your post, it got me thinking that maybe I'm not doing this just for the fun of it. Maybe we're collectively chipping away at old injustices!

    William Doonan

  6. Great entry! I read somewhere that Aristotle said the job of art is "to instruct and to entertain." I always thought that was a great lens through which to view fiction, so as long as we're playing by Aristotle's rules, telling a few lies for a greater truth is fair game!

  7. Terrific post. Most informative, and actually, entertaining, too. My grandmother only had one arm, having lost the other one in an industrial accident around 1915. When I think back, I don't recall her ever saying, "On the one hand..." That's the kind of thing she would have studiously avoided saying.

    Marja McGraw

  8. Thanks for the feedback, everybody. It's a pleasure to know my words and thoughts are being read.