And Speaking of Fiction
So over in the New Republic, of all places, Ian McEwan (“One of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945″) asks what happens when a novelist loses his faith in fiction. And I found myself nodding in agreement as I read along..
Novels? I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief. What imaginary Henry said or did to nonexistent Sue, and Henry’s lonely childhood, his war, his divorce, his ecstasy and struggle with the truth and how he’s a mirror to the age—I don’t believe a word: not the rusty device of pretending that the weather has something to do with Henry’s mood, not the rusty device of pretending . . .
I confess, I’ve been on those panels with fellow believers as we intone the liturgy, that humans are fabulators, that we “cannot live” without stories.You cannot live, priests always imply, without them. (Oh, yes we can.) My heart fails when I wander into the fiction section of a bookstore and see the topless towers on the recent-titles tables, the imploring taglines above the cover art (He loved her, but would she listen?), the dust-jacket plot summaries in their earnest present tense: Henry breaks free of his marriage and embarks on a series of wild …
Well, you get the idea.
Maybe I’ve just been feeling grumpy because my eyesight has been so demolished by surgery that I can barely read at all. Or maybe it has to do with a decision to concentrate on light reading. (Lord knows, in my current situation I’m in no shape to deal with Dostoevsky.)
But still. Honest to God. You should make at least a little effort to suspend my disbelief.
McEwan’s talking about what Norman Spinrad would call the “bourgeois mimetic novel,” in which the concerns of the educated middle classes are, basically, the concerns of the entire world. Whether Henry and Sue can find happiness in their marriage, whether Henry can learn to love his job, and mortgage, and his first intimations of mortality . . . that’s it, That’s all. The whole grand apparatus of fiction is reduced entirely to this.
Now I maintain that these subjects can be made interesting— if not to me, then surely to somebody— but it’s not helped when the author is, let’s face it, pig-ignorant of the world.
(And let us spare a few moments of deep sympathy for the authors of the modern academic novel. Here’s a bright young person who went to college, who got his MFA in creative writing, who then got a job teaching, whose entire adult life has been spent in the academy . . . and who of course turns out a novel about adultery in academe. Because adultery in a college setting is literally the most exciting thing that ever happened to him. In his whole life. Are we not feeling deep sadness and compassion at this realization? Good lord, if I hadn’t been kicked out of grad school, that could have been me.)
But anyway, even if you’re writing about adultery in academe, for God’s sake make me think you know something about it other than having read a bunch of other novels on a similar theme.
I’ve been reading some unchallenging novels lately, but even unchallenging novels can be authoritative. They can convince me that the author knows what she’s talking about, even if she’s not exactly challenging my preconceptions about the world, or about fiction. But lately I’ve just been stumbling across a bunch of them where it seems the author isn’t even trying.
I’ve read some detective novels written by people who clearly have no idea how to detect. I’ve read some political novels by people with only the most vague idea of how powerful people think and act. And I’ve read some science fiction where the science actually works but the characters don’t seem to fully inhabit their world somehow— they seemed to be characters dragged out of the author’s past (1985, say) and not fully-fledged inhabitants of the future that the author was describing. Even though the stories were written in the 21st Century, and set in the far future, the characters still seemed stuck in the era of Dutch Reagan.
Who the hell are these writers? Somebody thought their stuff was worth publishing. Somebody paid them. Presumably somebody reads them. Why?
One problem is that I, the reader, simply know too goddam much. I’ve been on the planet for over half a century, and I’ve had a half-century’s worth of experience, and I’ve been feeding my brain all that time, and by this time I know how some things work. And when a book violates my understanding, I lose all faith in it.
But mostly it’s the author’s goddam fault. The author hasn’t been keeping up with, I don’t know, anything that’s happened in the human universe since 1985. And the author hasn’t included the sort of detail that might convince me that the author knows his subject matter, or at least understands a half-convincing alternative universe in which this story takes place.
How revolutionary is it to simply say: if you don’t know something, look it up! Isn’t that what we teach our kids in school? When did writers forget that? When did editors?
(I don’t want to entirely exclude myself from this critique. When I started writing, I was myself pig-ignorant of the world, or at least certain important elements of the human condition. But, y’know, I did my research! And when the research failed, I did my best to fake it! And I employed the best models! I may have made mistakes, but I worked hard at understanding things, I didn’t just make this shit up!)
So anyway, by the end of his essay, McEwan has got over his snit, and he’s found hope here and there, and he’s working on a new piece.
As I would be, if I could get my eyes to work properly, or if I weren’t half in the bag along with a nice bottle of California red. (If a screaming fear of daylight isn’t enough of a justification for getting loaded, I don’t know what is.)
But anyway . . .
I’m not sure I have a conclusion for this— it’s just a wail about the human condition, after all— but y’know what? None of the authors I’ve been reading have attended Taos Toolbox, and they really oughta.
Cuz I would learn ‘em better. I really would.