The Public Humanist

Fiction and Misdirection

I’m a novelist. I want people to read fiction for the experience: for language, pleasure and love. I was shocked when I realized how many people I knew rarely read novels. For me, reading fiction is a nightly ritual, a regular transition from waking to sleep. I knew that people read for different reasons, that not everyone was as drawn as I was to the music of a sentence that rustles and turns like a leaf meeting another in wind. But, still, I was surprised to learn that some of my friends – people whose minds engaged fearlessly and rigorously with thorny, emotionally charged ideas and complicated social problems, folks who could articulate the most difficult concepts with revelatory ease – seemed a bit embarrassed by fiction. Sometimes this seemed to be about guilty pleasures, as when I came into a room I was sharing at conference and my colleague dropped the detective novel she was reading nonchalantly to the floor, possibly to keep it out of range for conversation. (Is it bad manners to bring that up now, more than a decade later?) I heard once, at WisCon, a feminist science fiction conference fiercely engaged with the literature of ideas, that literary fiction was a genre, just like romance, science fiction or suspense. That helped me see both the slipperiness and the utility of the idea of genre. I’m not intending to write now about only one kind of fiction.

Since 2010, from October to May, I’ve organized a monthly Local History/Local novelist series at Forbes Library, which is the public library in Northampton, Massachusetts. Academics, archivists, and other knowledgeable people speak about a figure, event or force in the rich local history of the region, and fiction writers (and the occasional poet or composer) read from their own work. Some evenings are nothing but fiction. I’ve been saying every month that the depth, complexity, courage and joy with which we engage with history is in large part, determined by the depth, complexity, courage and joy with which we engage with story. Fiction of all kinds sharpens those skills like few other things– I think of oral story-telling traditions -- can.

In his beautiful post for the Public Humanist, The Newfound Fact of Fiction, Brendan Tapley makes the case that we could be said to be living in “the era of the lie,” from faked memoirs and false internet personas to lies about “weapons of mass destruction. “ Pointing out the disclosure of dishonesty hasn’t hurt the sales of memoirs like A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea, Tapley goes on to observe the blockbuster success of what he calls “fabulist tales – rich with the tools of misdirection known as metaphor, allegory, and myth” such as the Harry Potter series, Twilight, Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games.

He writes:

All this begs the question: If we have begun to feel the truth most reliably and resonantly in the faked, might fiction be the new non-fiction? In the era of the life, are we more compelled by – and more trusting of—the imagined than the actual?

A paragraph later he adds:

And why not? The fact is that the “duplicities” of those working in the realm of the imagination are intended to illuminate, no obfuscate; to reveal, not to conceal; to apprehend the truth, without apology. Such an attempt these days is a welcome, and necessary, reprieve, and the market may be bearing that out.

To me, those are persuasive and hopeful words, but fiction doesn’t need to be “the new non-fiction” to compel trust. Fiction that is characterized as realistic or mimetic relies on tools of indirection like metaphor just as much as fabulist fiction does. It is those very tools, the things that make fiction itself and not something else, that create the freedom for writers to push for as much truth in stories as they are capable of in part because they reduce the risk of telling it to the writer as an individual, perhaps most of all the risk of harming others. The tools of fiction do much more than this, of course. They allow writers to make tremendous leaps of empathy into the minds and lives of others. They can slow time, speed it up, reverse it, or change it into something with a shape and a smell. They rely, often, on relationship and detail, the core truth of which can be translated from one place to another, between centuries, species and, it’s true, sometimes planets.

In The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon writes a novel in the voice of Christopher, an autistic boy trying to write a murder mystery about the killing of a dog. Christopher, as narrator/author, writes: “This is another reason I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.” He says the same thing about metaphors: lies, shaky and scared. The book is funny, insightful and effective because Christopher observes so many emotions in those around him, and evokes so many in readers, without having a conventional understanding of emotion, himself. Haddon has brought me into Christopher’s world in a compelling, convincing way.

Of course, the book might not work for someone else. Those leaps and translations often fail. That is one of the gifts of fiction. Fiction requires to make their own leaps of empathy. It’s hard for me to imagine an aspect of inner life more important to develop than the willingness to do that. It also calls for readers to evaluate the truth of a story by how it reads and feels. It is not true unless the reader experiences it that way. People who read fiction exercise their gut sense of whether a story holds together. This, too, is a skill that comes in handy in many situations in the larger world.

I don’t think anyone reads fiction for the sake of the skills it develops, though. We read fiction for the experience: the intimate, thrilling, fun, difficult, delicious engagement with words, image, character and story. Also, we read to expand the world as we perceive it, to be surprised.

One evening in the last Local History/Local Novelists series, gathered four fiction writers: Sabina Murray, John Crowley, Ellen Meeropol and Jedediah Berry. Each of them had written wonderful books. Murray read from Tales of the New World, with its utterly convincing leaps into the lives of explorers -- most also writers -- and others moving through worlds new to them as it circumnavigates the globe, like navigator William Dampier, more than thrice! Crowley read from Four Freedoms, about an airplane factory in WWII, stunning for its portraits of disabled people, women, and people of color coming into community as their work becomes sought after in wartime. Ellen Meeropol ‘s House Arrest explores complicated ethical dilemmas of morality versus law. Berry, though, didn’t read from his fabulist and fantastic Manual of Detection. Instead, he shuffled a set of cards with fragments of a story written on them, asked Crowley to cut the deck, then read to us from the story of a very strange family he had assembled through art and the luck of the draw. I gave myself over to his craft and tools of misdirection and risk. The story worked.

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