Fiction, autobiography, the shifting sands of literature

There’s a decent article in the New York Review of Books, written by Tim Parks. It’s called “Reality Fiction” and I think it’s absolutely right, except it’s also absolutely wrong. It’s also written by someone who’s on the literary side – and the literaries are always a bit conservative and it’s no surprise they lose their footing every now and then in the shifting sands.

Here’s one of the main points of the article:

Lodge has suggested that both as individuals and as a culture we can expect to grow out of fiction. It was a phase.

And it’s not just Lodge who suggests it. It’s more or less Tim Parks, wondering where literature is heading, now that agonizing over our personal issues no longer needs to be done in secretive ways, since society is more and more open and we all expose ourselves on the internet (within a culture that’s very accepting). But it seems harsh, doesn’t it? Let’s see where Parks started this article, which bemoans the situation of a big chunk of fiction:

It has long been a commonplace that fiction provides a way to break taboos and talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself. Put the other way round you could say that taboos and censorship encourage creativity, of a kind. But what happens if the main obstacles to free and direct expression fall away?

Apparently, one of the things that happens is that instead of reading convoluted novels about all sorts of issues (such as homosexuality or shameful mistresses), people revert to reading non-fiction about these subjects. Which makes sense. Think about it. It really does.

Here’s the reason why it does:

Who needs the novels, Dyer asks, if we can get a lively expression of Lawrence’s concerns and character in the letters? And why should I create unnecessary fictions if a changed world now allows me to express my own concerns without any reticence at all?

Tim Parks mentioned the autobiographical parts of Dickens’ life (such as having a mistress) as presented in novels such as Dickens’ Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. Surely, his life was important here, he was trying out things on paper that he couldn’t do in real life.

But writing fiction isn’t a single, clear-cut thing, is it? It depends on why you’re writing. I know people who write “for the message” – in fact, one of the things we were taught in school was that fiction was supposed to have a message, something to say, a meaning. It was supposed to make you ask yourself questions and, in a sense, it was meant to educate.

But this means that you take essays and try to make them into art. Which, in my opinion, is a bad idea. Art has a way of being greater than any one idea or message – the more you try to make it about something, the lesser it becomes. If your sole concern is one issue, viewed from a single point of view, you will not have a story. You’ll have an essay which happens to have characters and a plot. At least, this is how I see it.

Not all of us write essays. Listen to this question again – I’ll stress its key parts: “And why should I create unnecessary fictions if a changed world now allows me to express my own concerns without any reticence at all?”

My answer is: You shouldn’t create unnecessary fictions. If the fictions are unnecessary to you, then you must not create them. There is no point to them. If your point is expressing your concerns, then there’s no reason to go through the artifice of writing a story. Write an essay, an article, an autobiography.

But there are some of us for whom the fiction is the important part and the personal concerns are the way we perceive and write that fiction. The bits of real life that end up in fiction and distorted and adapted for the sake of the story – not the other way around.

[the writer] finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical.

I feel that last statement. The assumption of autobiography is one of the most frustrating things in writing, believe you me. Dickens and his mistress and his chimney sweeps and other such lovely examples of the direct influence of real life over fiction in our literary history mislead people into thinking that they can tell what the glitter of truth among the lies is.

In my experience, people can’t tell which part is autobiographical and which part is purely made up. If they eventually hit on something, they think they’re doing great with their guessing game, but the truth is they might as well have asked at random about random parts of the book. Anyway, I also believe that figuring out which part of the story is autobiographical is a useless endeavor from the point of view of the story as such. When somebody writes for the sake of the story, they aren’t sending you secret messages you must decode. The idea is to read the text, not to treat it like a puzzle in desperate need of solving. (I will try to abstain from making further comments about how regretful it is that many people do treat texts like puzzles)

But I like the article in general. Restricted to this domain of books written because essays were impossible, it has some good points. Things are changing. Some of the reasons to write fiction are fading away (for the better, I believe). The rules of writing are changing, but they’ve never been fixed. Things are different, but they’ve always been different in some way or another. And I feel no worries about the demise of fiction in general. From where I’m standing, fiction seems to be pretty safe. But the literary bunch is, as usual, worried about hanging on to the past.

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