I’ve been thinking in terms of grand, declarative statements: Writing fiction is an act of love. Fiction depends upon empathy. Writing fiction is a moral act. Fiction is amoral. Fiction is true. Fiction depends on lies. Beauty is truth, and truth, beauty. Etc.
I’ve been thinking of short stories with clear, dramatized change: “Araby” by James Joyce; “How Far She Went” (Mary Hood); “Roman Fever” (Edith Wharton); “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner. I’ve been remembering, and re-reading, stories with unsympathetic main characters and /or situations of rape, drug abuse, murder: Denis Johnson’s “Work” and Grace Paley’s “The Little Girl”; Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.”
I’ve been doing all this because, in three days, I’m giving a talk as part of this summer’s Fiction Intensive at U.C. Berkeley Extension. A few weeks ago, as I agreed to give the Monday lecture, a small voice in the back of my head asked, “And when will you prepare?” Another said, “Go for it, you’ll figure out what to say later.”
So that’s what I’ve been (and still am) doing: figuring out what to say.
At a meeting with Liz McDonough, the director of the writing program at Extension, and Laurie Ann Doyle, my co-instructor for the week, I heard myself name the topic. What Is Fiction?
Gentle laughter ensued. What is fiction, indeed? Better minds than mine have written tomes on the topic. A quick Google search leads on to a scarily reductive definition on a website “by students for students,” in which fiction is defined as “that which is not true.”
More on that in a minute.
At first, I’d intended to address the issue of unlikeable characters. A writer friend of mine recently finished his novel. For a few months now, his agent has been sending the manuscript around. One editor, who gave much praise, declined, offering by way of explanation, “We just didn’t love Ed.” Ed is a key character in the book, one of three main characters. Yeah, he’s a bit of a jerk—self-absorbed, haughty, manipulative, flawed. Human, in other words. Who among us isn’t?
Can you imagine saying, by way of turning down Moby-Dick or Lolita or Portrait of a Lady, We just didn’t love Captain Ahab? Or Humbert Humbert? Or Madame Merle? Of course we don’t like them – because that’s really what the editor meant, I think. But love? That’s a different matter.
We love plenty of people who are unlikeable, who do awful things. Why should fiction be any different? Isn’t love the ability to see the whole person, to catch a glimmer of the longing and pain in even the most despicable behavior?
Fiction doesn’t depend upon bad guys turning good, on happy-ever-after endings. It does depend upon some satisfying change, or shift, or reversal—some way in which the conflict reveals and transforms character, and yes, truth.
A cynical book critic gets shot in the head and, in the infinitesimal flash of memory before he dies, revisits a moment of pure joy in language. A petty, resentful son wishes the worst on his mother and when it happens, realizes how much he needs her. A boy romanticizes a neighbor girl on whom he has a crush, goes to great effort to join her at a fair, and, confronted with her silly ways, sees his idealism as vanity.
These plots have in common the traditional demand of story: conflict, crisis, resolution. They rely on metanoia, a Greek word used by Aristotle to refer to the rhetoric device of character reversal and by writers of the Christian gospels to signal repentance.
As Roman Catholics, Tobias Wolff, Flannery O’Connor, and James Joyce—writers of the stories I’ve just summarized—have a worldview steeped in narrative and myth based on notions of sin and redemption, on revelation of the divine through human action, on salvation through grace.
Or, if you prefer less religiously fraught language: brokenness and healing; seeing what has been hidden; confronting ourselves and one another; just deserts. Not punishment as punishment alone, but as completion.
So perhaps the question isn’t What Is Fiction, but what is love?