Earlier in the month, Mark Athitakis speculated that fiction’s job is to be good fiction. He worried that the proposition is tautological, but it isn’t. If he had said that fiction’s job is simply to be fiction, he would have edged closer to tautology.
The insertion of the epithet gives the proposition its content. Athitakis is saying something that I too have said, again and again, although I broadened the category to haul in some examples of nonfiction too: “Literature is simply good writing—where ‘good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.”
The real question is what such a proposition denies and rejects. Daniel Green blasted it as “reductive” and “dismissive.” For Green, of course, fiction’s job is “to be taken as literature”—a proposition that really is tautological.
Hoping to expand his proposition, Athitakis quotes the novelist Walter Kirn. I can’t follow very much of what Kirn is saying, although his main point seems to be that the fiction writer’s “only job” is to express “our remarkable situation.” In short, the fiction writer must be socially relevant, somehow. His subject must be “in the world,” and his treatment of it must “speak of” the predicament in which men find themselves now.
Athitakis’s original proposition, flat and unadorned, was closer to the truth, and more interesting. The fiction writer has no other job than to write well. That, as I’ve yelled before, is his moral obligation.
Nabokov said something similar, writing that Sebastian Knight “wasn’t concerned with ordinary morals; what annoyed him invariably was the second rate, not the third or N-th rate, because here, at the readable stage, the shamming began, and this was, in an artistic sense, immoral.” The only thing that matters in fiction is whether the writer is seeking with all of the powers and resources at his disposal to write as well as he can—settling for no machine-made gods, appealing to no thematic fashions, buckling to no social demands.
But one thing more. In his book on Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton defines the “ethics of elfland,” the code that regulates fantastical other worlds where fairies glide and monsters prowl. Physical law and even moral law may not operate there, but such lands are not lawless. A different law is in force there; a higher law, even:
Fiction’s job is generally to be good fiction, but inter alia that entails keeping faith with the particular conditions of a particular fiction.