Tuesday, January 01, 2013

On the existence of fictional characters

The commonplace is spelled out by William H. Gass: “Great character is the most obvious single mark of great literature,” he says. He means great fiction, since not all literature, great or otherwise—lyric poetry, for example, or an essay—is the representation of human action. Still: “Great literature is great because its characters are great,” Gass says, summing up the general opinion, “and characters are great when they are memorable.”

The demand for memorable characters has caused all sorts of mischief. Readers shut the covers of a novel and find that an image of a character is stuck in their minds. They are left with the strong impression, which gradually settles into conviction, that the character has an independent existence. Like lovers in a medieval tapestry who shake their limbs and step out of the tapestry into unwoven actuality every night when mere mortals are asleep, great characters in fiction are not confined to the pages of their books. As Gass observes, the one thing all theories about them have in common is that “characters are clearly conceived as living outside language.”

But this is a delusion, a fallacy. No matter how much we enjoy imagining how things might turn out for our favorite characters—Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley, Huck’s adventures in the Indian Territory, Jim Dixon’s new job in London—we have no way of knowing. We are only amusing ourselves. Fictional characters are creatures of words; they are wholly determined by the language in which, like clothes in a washer, they are soaked. To pretend to know something about a character when the novel is silent about it is to reveal something about ourselves, not about the novel.

These reflections are provoked by some questions that Jessa Crispin asked in a recent post at Bookslut. “Where are all the fat characters in literature whose fatness is not the central issue of the novel?” she asked:

It’s like abortion in literature. Where are the abortions in literature that are not the central problem of the book? Can a character just have an abortion and not have it be like the worst thing that has ever happened?There are really two varieties of question here. The first is a historical question: why have novelists, so far in the history of the novel, included fat characters or abortions only when they are “central” to their novels? Have any novels already been written in which they are not central? (“I’m kind of blanking,” Crispin says.)

But there is also a theoretical question, which is the more interesting. If a character in a novel is not described as being fat, is he fat nevertheless? Could he possibly be fat if the novel never says so? Obesity is treated as extraordinary, a distinguishing characteristic, but what if it is not? What if it is as unexceptional, as unworthy of comment, as teeth and nails? Obesity is extraordinary only from a specific point of view, and where it is “central,” then, the novelist is testifying to his ideology.

Hence Crispin’s resort to abortion. Her own ideology is suggested by her complaint that abortion in fiction is invariably treated as if it were “the worst thing that has ever happened.” Why can’t an abortion be an unremarkable portion of a woman’s experience? And why can’t this unremarkable portion be assumed about female characters in fiction, especially now that abortion is the common experience of so many women? Every character in fiction has a childhood, whether or not it is described. If the same could be said of female characters—many of them had abortions that were peripheral to their experience, not significant enough to remark upon—the unspoken assumption would influence the way in which abortion is conceived in the culture.

But could such an assumption ever be warranted? In the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, twenty-two percent of all pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) end in abortion, and the odds of a woman’s undergoing an abortion increase as she ages: one in ten women by age 20, one in four by age 30, and three in ten by age 45. If you were to collect every female character 45 years and older from every American novel published since 1973, you might not be wrong to estimate that thirty percent of them underwent an abortion. But how would you be able to determine, unless their novels explicitly say so, which characters belong to the thirty percent?

Abortions are not the same as the other attributes and experiences that distinguish human beings. In every possible world in which human beings reside, they have teeth and nails and a childhood and are capable of speech and laughter—these are necessary attributes and experiences, belonging to human beings in every possible world, including the worlds of their novels.

The same cannot be said of abortion. It is not true that, in every possible world, thirty percent of women 45 or older have abortions. Since an abortion is voluntary (unlike teeth and childhood), there are possible worlds in which no woman undergoes one. And among these might be the world constructed by a novel. There is no logical means of ruling it out.

A female character in fiction has undergone an abortion if and only if the abortion is inscribed in the fiction. Perhaps the mere fact of reporting or describing an abortion makes it seem “central” to a critic for whom abortions should not be so; perhaps a prescriptive criticism will emerge that urges novelists to write about abortion (and also obesity, while they’re at it) more nonchalantly. They must write about it at all, though, to write about it with small concern; and the mere inclusion of it—the plain fact that the novelist decided to speak of it instead of remaining silent—will be significant. What is excluded from fiction signifies nothing, because it might as well not exist. Nothing outside the language of a novel is true about the men and women who are sentenced to live within it and nowhere else.


Anonymous said...

When a reader attributes more to a character than the author has rendered, it seems as though we have something like psychological projection at work. Critics are often especially guilty of this kind of subjective distortion and enlargement of characters, especially when critics make an effort to have the considered text fit their personal agenda.

Anonymous said...

When a reader attributes more to a character than the author has rendered, we have completely normal human cognitive activity at work. For that matter, we all do the same thing in 'real life' all the time; i.e., we always attribute more to other people than is supported by what we have actually observed about them.

Anonymous said...

Is Gass not using the classical definition of character as a living being (one who is imbued with the quality of consciousness) within a text?

My sense is that in Gass's writings often refers to the representation of agency (which can involve action) in a text.

My point is not to chastise you at all, but to say that you are probably more in agreement with Gass than your opening paragraph would indicate.

This was a great post to read in a sea of endless prattle on the web.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Exactly as you say near the end: the actions a fiction writer ascribes to a character are intentional. So if a character has an abortion or is fat or anything else whatsoever, it means something. If the fiction is any good it's not going to be carrying meaningless details. It's because of this that attempts to make fiction toe any political line tend to harm the ficition.