I shouldn’t be writing this. There are many reasons why I shouldn’t be writing this. But among them are the pressing matter of my assignment (due today) and my shockingly under-read brain.
But I can’t bear not to. Because the thing is, I think I’ve discovered that I can have my cake and eat it although sadly the cake will have to be literary rather than literal.
For a long time I’ve been wondering why so many writers these days do strange things like use their own names as the name of their protagonists (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated); or create protagonists with strikingly similar CVs to their own (Arturo Perez-Reverte’s the Queen of the South); or have generally unreliable narrators (PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster).
Why do writers constantly undermine the realism of their stories, I wondered? Having always enjoyed losing myself in fictional worlds, I rather resented being yanked out of my suspended disbelief.
I think I’ve worked it out. A bit.
I’ve been reading James Wood again (How Fiction Works). According to him, this is all to do with an argument about whether fiction can ever really represent the world as it is.
Some literary writers are unimpressed with conventional novels in the realist tradition. They say its a tired form with a reactionary bent. Most writers are bourgeios and the ‘reality’ they present is deeply and unacknowledgedly conservative. There are other debates within the argument, but these two ideas are the thrust of the critique as I understand it.
These critics insist that only unconventional, avowedly artificial writing has any political or philosophical credibility.
One of my tutors, a man of the theatre, goes so far as to say that theatre should not ever attempt naturalism. Theatre should always exploit the artificiality which is its essence. Let telly and cinema do the photographic stuff, he says.
There’s a huge difference between Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) and Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks). I haven’t read Birdsong (this is the under-read brain bit) because it has always seemed to me likely to be a bit gloomy. But I believe it is a realist work. Catch-22 is probably best characterised as absurdist.
Which is better? Heller arguably makes the artifice of fiction its essence and uses it as a central device in his work. The world, the world that produces wars, is a mad world, a world of people making up stuff (territory, borders, criteria for madness) and then fighting over it. Faulks has done a lifetime of research and renders World War One in its grim verity. Both tell the truth about war. Read the one you prefer.
Wood points out, with the aid of Brigid Lowe, an academic based at Cambridge University who specialises in Victorian writings, that fiction has never been about making photographs of life. Rather, he agrees with Lowe, fiction is about trying to make things live for the reader.
Fiction, Wood argues, doesn’t ask us to believe things, but to imagine them. As Lowe, quoted in Wood, says:
Imagining the heat of the sun on your back is about as different an activity as can be from believing that tomorrow it will be sunny. One experience is all but sensual, the other wholly abstract.
Wood likes Lowe’s term hypotyposis rather than realism. Okaaaaaay.
What this means for writers is we don’t need to worry about whether what we’re doing is either too realistic or not realistic enough, although we should understand our relationship to truthfulness.
What I take from all this is that fiction is an attempt to give readers’ imaginations a damn fine seeing to. A good novel should be like a fabulous mental massage, stimulating and relaxing at the same time.
It also means I can stop worrying about whether my fiction is, or is not, in the realist tradition and what that means either way. It means I am free to use, or abuse, the conventions of all and any styles, so long as there are coherent reasons behind each decision that I make and as long as its entertaining and fresh for readers.
All these different literary forms therefore become tools to aid writing, rather than sticks with which to beat it.