Monday, February 15, 2010

Fiction’s job

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:

[A]ccording to elfin ethics all virtue is in an “if.” The note of the fairy utterance always is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word ‘cow’ ”; or “You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show here an onion.” The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.Where Chesterton talks of fairy tales, though, I hear him talking of fiction. All fiction is conditional. If a man is transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect then consequences will follow by force of logic—but they will follow if and only if the writer cleaves to his first intent, his entire scheme of implications. The moment that a writer violates the conditions of his own fictional world, the world falls to ashes.

Fiction’s job is generally to be good fiction, but inter alia that entails keeping faith with the particular conditions of a particular fiction.


R/T said...

All right, I agree with you when you write, "The fiction writer has no other job than to write well." That may be all that needs to be said. However, I would be bold enough to add to the discussion, though, by referring you and others to several articles by one of my favorite writers, Flannery O'Connor: "The Fiction Writer and His Country" (1957); "The Church and the Fiction Writer" (1957); "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" (1960); "The Regional Writer" (1963); "Fiction is a Subject with a History--It Should be Taught That Way" (1963); and "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South" (1963). Taken together, these offerings by O'Connor--to my mind--serve as a brilliant, plain common sense "manifesto" about the roles of fiction and the fiction writer. So, rather than attempt any paraphrase of O'Connor's wisdom, I simply recommend O'Connor's words to anyone interested in the argument you have posited.

R/T said...

Your focus on Chesterton and the power of "if" reminds me of an experience that might actually be relevant to the discussion (even if seemingly irrelevant at first glance). Years ago, when I was an undergraduate drama major, I participated in a children's theater company (i.e., theater performances for children) in which four improvisational actors (myself included) would show up at elementary schools with a large foot-locker full of assorted props. The foot-locker was boldly marked as the "IF BOX." Prompted by whatever a child might find in the box, that child and others would invent "what if?" scenarios that would become the foundation for the actors' improvisational scenes. Well, what does all of this have to do with fiction and novels? It seems to me, following upon Chesterton's notion and building upon the "IF BOX" from my drama days, all proper fiction (as you have suggested in the Kafka example) is predicated on the simple proposition: what if? The writer's faith to the "what if?" proposition--like the actors' faithful attempt to honor the children's "what if?" prompting--becomes the foundation upon which "good fiction" must be built. After all, in many ways, all "good fiction" (i.e., good novels and good short stories) is rather like drama without actors and without performance (except within the theater of the readers' minds).

Daniel Green said...

Nowhere have I said "fiction’s job is to be taken as literature.”

D. G. Myers said...

No, literature’s job is to be taken as literature. Follow the link.

Novalis said...

Yes, but one could just as easily say (to pick a random example): "The home run hitter has no other job than to hit home runs."

I guess it is up to the philosophers--or rather to the rest of us--to determine what the point of home runs--or fiction--might be.

D. G. Myers said...

There is not really any such animal as a “home run hitter.” The job of a hitter is to get on base—the more bases the better. The job of a baseball player is to play the game of baseball as well as it can be played. Consider this, for example.

IF said...

Of course the most "socially relevant" book of all time was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriett Beecher Stowe.

In his literary criticism Poe complained again and again how the literary salons of the time decreed that all literature should be "uplifting." In the 1930s this meant writing which was in service of "the struggle."

The ideal then becomes writing which tells you what you already know. People are uncomfortable with art which has no "use." It should be uplifting, it should improve you, it should serve the struggle.

You don't even have to go to the trouble of reading it if possession of the book as sheer artifact renders its owner sufficiently virtuous. Whatever the merits of Toni Morrison's fiction, her books have as artifacts served this kind of end.

"Art for art's sake" is an aristocratic concept. Just so, art as pleasure appalls the ideologue and those for whom righteousness (self-righteousness) is the greatest good.