This week’s title feels like a quotation whose source I cannot recall; I found no such string of words put together like this through Google. But it isn’t an original notion, although perhaps the phrase in parentheses is a new spin on it. I don’t think that it’s terribly profound, but I think it needs to be recalled and considered frequently, especially as we are increasingly inundated with stories in this Radiant Age of ebooks and instant communication and self-publishing and gate-storming and digital opportunism. In fact, we seem to often talk more about the form of books, less about the artistry or the qualities of the fiction, and commerce threatens, as it has many times before, to overwhelm the stories themselves, which may be part of the point of such framings. One of the things we lose in such a discussion is a focus not just on the quality of stories, but their effects.
I’ve been reading Eric Basso’s Decompositions: Essays on Art and LIterature at bedtime. I encourage this as a way to experience Basso’s criticism because what you read seeps into your dreams. This is a collection of pieces that describe and decompose a range of artists and their works, and what Basso turns over as he digs in, what teeming strangeness he reveals, burrows back into the reader’s mind and mulches the imagination. What Basso discovers in each of these artists, from Kafka to Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (and also some visual artists), is that contained within their work is a need to not just represent or structure or comment on the world, but to find a new way to make sense of it. I think this is something that every piece of fiction, from the crassest pulp to the most impenetrable literary tangle, does in some measure; it may be subdued, or hard to discern, or it may scream in your face, but fiction writing is powered by a need of both the writer’s and the reader’s to articulate, interpret, and figure out a bit of life.
I think this is more obvious in realistic fiction, where the attempt to replicate some genuine sense of actuality is most blatantly practiced . Realism’s history is a rather truncated one, however, and is greatly overshadowed by the long lineages of fictions not based in realism: the fantastic, the weird, the mythic, the romantic, etc. Realistic fiction is a newcomer to the world of stories, arising most explicitly in the early 19th-century but rooted in the rise of the novel; preceding it, running parallel to it, and sometimes overcoming it in the realms of “higher” literature are the narratives and tropes of the unreal, although the implied ascension is heavily qualified and bracketed to accentuate their folksy and simplistic qualities. What does emerge out of this newer method of storytelling is the insight that fiction is, among other things, a discourse that tries to comprehend the workings of the world and the mind, that not only aestheticizes, symbolizes, or reflects upon reality, but that shows us that the impulse to write and read fiction is an attempt to discern how we enact and perform and reproduce reality.
Doing this by attempting to directly reproduce it fictively can be fruitful, but limited. especially when you consider how we each have our own perspectives on reality and how laden they are with our imperfect interpretations. Realism can give us a view of someone’s thoughts on actuality that allow us to compare our own to them, to in some way see a piece of the world through another’s eyes and inculcate empathy. But we quickly bump up against two limitations: the drawing of symbols and ideas from a small ideational pool of “what is real,” and our own imagination, which often starts to make new connections, launches critiques, and even wanders off to other thoughts. These are the moments when realism begins to falter, where reason and phantasy begin to blur, where the limits of rational explanation become clearer and options are demanded.
The subjects of Basso’s literary critiques demonstrate a few of the many ways that writers can use the fantastic and the surreal to create different ways to examine the world. Basso writes a fusion of character sketch and literary exegesis, weaving conceptions of the life experiences of his subject into a discussion of each one’s writing. The life of the artist has a connection to each work, but not just as a link of biography or echo of persona. Even the most visceral, personal, and honest piece of fiction is sundered from its creator at the moment a reader’s eyes engage it, but we can gain some insight into the work by understanding their world. This seems even more revelatory with dealing with fiction that eschews or plays with notions of the real. What Basso demonstrates in these essays is that works such as Villiers’ Cruel Tales are not simply products “of their time” or a singular vision, but texts that are immediately shaped by readers, from those who knew the authors personally to the contemporary observer.
Every work of fiction is thus an instance of anthropology, of putting into symbols some gleanings from the world around the writer that are put forth for others to comprehend. Whether the author is a complete mystery or a dear friend, who they are exists solely in our heads as we read, and our reading recreates them, even if only in dim fragments. This conception can be shifted dramatically, and be differently illuminated in turn, by the text’s parameters, by how closely or distantly it hews to shared notions of the real and/or agreed upon literary conventions. There are two types of verisimilitude in a work of fiction: assertions of reality and adherence to recognizable protocols of description, style, and explanation that have broad semantic consensus (or at least a sense of consensus) behind them. These elements provide an ethnographic reading of the world as the writer sees it that the reader checks against their own.
Reading is a comparative task, of the written world to the world we conjure in our imagination. When we read something weird, romantic, or otherwise unrealistic, our bearings are dislocated. Sometimes you can reorient quickly, especially when genre conventions are obvious or a plot is precisely constructed, but like the verisimilitude of realism these don’t provide a great challenge and the understanding we discover is one we have encountered before. I found this to be the case when I read China Miéville’s Embassytown, which has a great weird texture in its description of the aliens and their world but that falls back on tried-and-true SFnal tropes to frame the human world and the main conflict of the novel. There is a tension in the presentation of a number of highly recognizable ideas against aliens that resist description, at least physically. That tension is uneven because the weirdness is more of an aesthetic pleasure that mildly enchants the narrative but does not significantly influence the understanding of the world that the novel presents. The novel strives to create a truly alien presence, but in resolving the main conflict the narrative relies on an understanding of the world that is severed from the weirdness. Thus, some of the power of the author’s fascinating take on language and difference is diluted because there is a retreat to an unreflective idea of human nature and meaning and a resolution that robs the aliens of some of their agency. That dynamic works against the cultivation of strangeness that suffuses the most interesting parts of the novel, and the pleasure of that cannot overcome the combination of banal pragmatism and a wild card antagonist that ends the main action of the novel.
Many of us read for pleasure, but there is almost always more to the text than that. Saying that we read for pleasure or distraction only scratches the surface of what reading does for us. Reading is not an easy thing to do, and it requires concentration, time, and some patience given its level of uncertainty in giving the reader what they desire (which may be why some readers focus on texts that will reproduce more of what they already want). Reading for pleasure is not like eating ice cream or making out or playing a game; the stimulation you gain is both unique and internally generated, sensuously limited but imaginatively indefinite. Without the text establishing or promulgating a least some vestige of a worldview the reader is left adrift with nothing to push against except a conglomeration of symbols lacking context. Pleasure demands a framework for the story to unfold within as much as enlightenment does. The contours and content of that understanding can be prosaic or extraordinary, but without its foundation few stories are effective.
Fantastic literature provides theoretically endless opportunities for understanding the world in visionary, lunatic, or miraculous ways. That it does so less frequently than it might is a testament to the fact that much of it builds on those twinned verisimilitudes mentioned earlier and does not go far enough in exceeding convention and boundaries. But when a work does embrace that potential, we can discover something untoward or unrevealed in the way we see the world, and those moments make the best use of fictionality. Realism arose as a counter to the fanciful and the folkloric, but its understanding of the world often falls short because reality itself has changed in the last century. I think this is why John Clute calling fantastika “the necessary form of planetary fiction since 1750” makes a lot of sense, because of this potential to not explain reality, but to provide us with ways to question our apprehension of it as its conditions mutate. So, while every work of fiction is an attempt to understand the world, the ones that enact that capacity through the unreal and the weird, even if they don’t succeed, have the potential to decipher our assumptions and show us that reality is often itself a product of imagination, a story about apprehending the world that could use some strangeness to open it up.