OR WHY WE NEED FICTION MORE THAN EVER
By Lana Bastasic
The heartbreakingly simple moment in Great Expectations when we get to meet Pip’s family as a set of tombstones is beautifully understated. The boy’s desperate craving for belonging is felt in the engraved inscriptions, a Braille sort of emotion. The family is distilled in the serifs, they exist only as inanimate letters. There is the father: “a square, stout, dark man,” the mother: “freckled and sickly,” and five little brothers “arranged in a neat row beside their grave.” As James Wood rightly noted in his painstakingly spot-on book of essays, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, Dickens would have easily come across a grave of no less than thirteen siblings in a cemetery in Cooling where he used to go for a stroll. It was a common sight in his day to witness such blunt horror. Yet literature makes do with five graves, not thirteen, to tell us something worth remembering. It is those three simple words “a neat row” that strike us as finite and unforgettable. There is no need for factual truth – “a neat row” of five little graves is more than enough to imprint in our consciousness both the harshness of 19-century England and the plainness in which it operated. “Sometimes the real itself,” says Wood, “is not always realistic, because it is incredible.” And, after all, isn’t that tricky truth itself, whatever its brittle nature, conveyed precisely in the death of a child, any child, and not in the factuality of any given number?
Yet it seems that in our own century global readership’s craving for the real story has made us mistake mere facts for truth. The latter is acceptable as such as long as we have the certainty that it relies on actual information. Knowing the exact number of those graves becomes more important than a dead child. The number is our new truth, it’s something we can visualize and digest.
This idea has been bothering me lately which I blame on the plethora of memoirs, creative non-fiction and the so-called auto-ficción being published and read nowadays. With all due respect to its authors, this is not a new genre – Walden, after all, was an example of this per excellence long before the ridiculously misleading name auto-ficción (I can’t help but think of a page writing itself, like one of those self-playing pianos where your fingers have to follow hectic little jumps of the pneumatic keys.) One can easily see Walden being published today, complete with a detached-bearded-author-doesn’t-care photo and an eco-friendly cottage somewhere in Virginia with the earthly smell of homegrown potatoes and the sound of Mumford and Sons clothing the prose. But the newness is irrelevant, being something we have always successfully faked — it is the realness that we fell for. Hard.
Now before you start accusing me of generalizing, and before I make my case for fiction, let me state that I’ve always enjoyed good non-fiction. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk was violently good. But the more I think about what I liked about that book, the more I realize I admire it for the same elements I seek in good fiction – choice, precision and wholeness. By choice I mean that good prose cannot make room for randomness. Just because you have interesting things to say about Lithuanian economy, doesn’t mean that your character should rant on about it for three pages. By precision, I mean that you have a story to tell and straying from your path will only cripple the strength of your argument. If you want to write an essay about being a recovering alcoholic, there’s no need for a chapter on your love for bonsai, unless there’s a connection between the two. And again – the fact that you really love bonsai is not a good enough reason to put it in your book. Realness does not redeem a lazy artist. Finally, wholeness is something you should experience as a reader when the book is finished: the author has accomplished a subtly calibrated whole throughout which the point of view, language, imagery and structure work in congruity with one goal in mind — to tell the story. I picture it as a Rubik cube of many different colors: the slightest movement affects the whole structure and can jeopardize the outcome. The little cubes must work together to complete the big one.
Fortunately for us, all three (choice, precision, wholeness) can be achieved in non-fiction. In her beautiful account of training a hawk while dealing with the loss of her father, Macdonald manages to keep away from all those bits and pieces of her life irrelevant to the story she has to tell. Be it real hawk or not, there is always a story to tell and it is the task of the writer to discover it. “The hawk had filled the house with wildness,” she writes early in the novel. Isn’t this precisely what bereavement feels like as it creeps into your home — as something unmistakably of this world, yet somehow outlandish and wrong? We need to tame our grief the way one would tame a hawk. There’s something inevitably primal in it, something that makes us want to abandon our humanness (jobs, acquaintances, tomorrows) and just be, the way an animal can. This is why H is for Hawk works — not because Helen Macdonald really lost her real father and really trained a real hawk. It is not the realness that makes her achievement grand, it is the story and her approach to it. Those who enjoy it for the sake of facts would be much better off flipping through a phonebook.
Therefore my intention here isn’t to reduce the argument to something more suited for Orwellian pigs: fiction good, non-fiction bad. It is the modern thirst for this elusive realness that bothers me. One thing is to enjoy auto-ficción as we would any well-written narrative, which I tried to explain above, another is to enjoy it because it’s auto-ficción, to claim that it is a new phenomenon come to Earth to end all fiction, as if the latter were an old OS. (You could almost picture Steve Jobs making a video about it.) We want the thirteen children graves because they really exist. The realness is more important than the story. Our innate voyeurism aside, it gives us that cozy grown-up feeling that we own the facts, and the relevant knowledge of the world. This is entirely compatible with the idea that truth is something measurable, documentable and easy to catalogue.However, when it comes to auto-ficción, I find that there’s a much more dangerous fetish surrounding it than the one of owning the facts. It is the idea that realness, or whatever we deem real, should be free from criticism. I’m referring to that contemporary amenity of but this really happened, therefore no one can judge me. The artistic expression, for this reason, becomes a thing of exact science — since we’re dealing with facts there’s not much room for questioning. If a rape victim, say, writes a memoir, who are we to judge her use of adjectives? If a cancer patient recounts her last days, who are we to cross out the clichés? Therefore, the argument this really happened delivers us from the need to form a critical opinion of the work itself — the claim on the inarguable truth automatically excludes any sort of artistic reckoning. What is more, even the slightest attempt at approaching such work as art turns us into some sort of ruthless aesthetes blind to human suffering. Where does that leave us? We are expected to accept non-fiction as an artistic form, yet denied the right to evaluate its artistic achievement. This is alarming. On the surface, it might seem that morality has won the battle and we have triumphed as a sympathetic species. We care more about true stories than ellipsis and metaphor. This is as fake as believing that buying a soy latte with a pink ribbon will cure cancer. (It only half-cures your consumer guilt.) In reality, what we’re doing here is reducing the space of debate and discussion. Furthermore, we’re impoverishing language and what it can do. We’re reinforcing the idea that there is some content outside of discourse, that this real content is untouchable and language is only there to convey it as it is . Language is thus enfeebled, turned into a mere tool that serves a higher purpose — the rigid truth.
And I’m not saying cancer patients shouldn’t write their memoirs. Far be it from me to tell people what to do with their time and keyboards. But the claim that fiction writing is obsolete and we should create from what is already there is not only mistaken, but also dangerous.
Let me explain the mistaken part:
Lately I’ve been hearing people say that non-fiction will triumph because writing from scratch is no longer enough to explain the world we live in. There’s plenty around us to work with, and so on. To be perfectly blunt, for someone to claim that writing fiction means to be writing from scratch is like saying that by assembling an Ikea shelf you’re inventing the birch tree. (Remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos quote: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”) There is no scratch when it comes to language because every single word you use has more historical, cultural and ideological baggage than a common sexist in your local chiringuito bar. If an author claims to have written a novel from scratch, he or she should start a religious cult and add supreme deity to their Wikipedia page.
Now let’s turn to the dangerous part:
Of course, the utilitarian would argue that reading is there to make us better people, to improve us in a way, give us one of those personality boosts which go hand in hand with the idea of gamifying your life. This approach to living has gained momentum lately and it, more or less, translates into turning your whole existence into a game where your every move is seen on the scale from nonproductive to highly productive. (You can read more about this phenomenon HERE). Crying, for example, is something you should never be doing since it isn’t productive. Reading a self help book would, by these standards, be a productive boost. Following this argument, non-fiction wins by a large margin. On the surface, it seems to be the right candidate for nurturing our sense of empathy. Furthermore, it gives us facts. Life, seen as a game, is too short to be spent on fairytales. Sounds great on paper, except there’s one little problem with this idea: it seems to have overlooked the fact that we’re human. So I would argue the exact opposite: auto-ficción tells a story of an individual, it is unmistakably focused on a single person’s point of view and therefore creates a crack, however unintentional, before the reader and the narrator. It belongs to the author because he/she is the narrator. Fiction, good fiction, is there to talk about the universal, a truth which is not temporal, but states something about us as human beings which surpasses the notion of time and authorship. And beyond that: it is not supposed to make us feel better, because it can, if done well, reveal things about our nature we would prefer to ignore. Take Chichikov, in Dead Souls, who arrives in a small town and starts purchasing souls – dead serfs who exist on paper only. Gogol is not trying to tell us a number of boring facts about Russia’s post 1812 social system. On the contrary, the question of property, the value of human life, the untranslatable notion of the Russian poshlost is brought to us, today, through a story. The names have little value, numbers even less. In fact, the whole novel seems to mock our will to own anything. Who can argue that there is no truth there or that Chichikov doesn’t exist? He, a fictional character, exists and will exist much more and much longer in every one of us than a real person telling their real story. Chichikov is us. We are just too cynical nowadays to admit it. Reading about him is not a positive boost, yet it can’t be more necessary. And this only goes to show that we need to invent stories to preserve the truths of our time. We know about the Victorian age not because we read the names and birthdays of those poor thirteen children in Cooling. As sympathetic and compassionate as we may be (which we’re really not, but never mind that) we know about that specific historical moment even today, centuries later, because Charles Dickens told us a story. We remember the story because of the way he chose to tell it. The truth, or at least a tiny sample of it that managed to survive until now, has been brought to us wrapped in his language and that of his characters. This is an accomplishment which today’s cynical advocates for non-fiction would call unreal, invented and from scratch.
So let there be non-fiction, let there be memoirs and diaries and love letters. I have a good share of those stacked on my own shelves. But let’s not shout epic fiction-killing slogans just yet — the truth is we need fiction more than ever. In a world where self-celebratory imagery has taken over every single means of communications, we need a bit of space outside ourselves. We need little Pip, imagined, unreal, imperfect, to tell us something about the world we live in. After all, as Cheever put it: “Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos… to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream.”