Between Darkness and Light There Is All Manner Of Shading: Thinking About the Purpose of Fiction (Especially the Fantastic)
“Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.” – David Foster Wallace
“I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.” – David Foster Wallace
This week I am going to rove far afield from the meadows and wastelands of fantastika, just for a little while. I am going to conduct a border raid into the realm of Literature which, of course, fantastika is allied to but often kept separate from by boundary disputes and ideological conflicts.
Last week Salon’s Laura Miller wrote about “the purpose of reading stories” in a piece that connected Puritanism, the Protestant Work Ethic, and the perceived need for there to be “instructional or inspirational messages” in fiction. Miller’s point seemed to be that we, as children and adults, have gotten away from reading as something entertaining, an enjoyable pursuit without moral or inspirational baggage. “[A]ll of these attitudes — and the standardized tests that Stone and Nichols complain about — boil down to the belief that reading can only be the means to an end, whether that end is moral betterment or worldly success.” When I first read it over the weekend, I thought that she had a point, although I disagreed with a lot of her reasoning.
Then I came across a quotation that is getting some renewed attention, a mission statement for fiction from David Foster Wallace. Richard Kadrey posted it on his Tumblr, and it has been reposted and disseminated from there. In it, Wallace makes an assertion that fiction should, essentially, do some of the things that Miller complains about. It ends in this version by stating that…
“In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
But this quotation, as compelling as it is, doesn’t really exemplify the most important aspect of Wallace’s point. It’s too cut-and-dried, almost too forgiving. It is part of a more critical, and sometimes contradictory, discussion by Wallace about not just the nature of fiction, but its function and dynamic within the (primarily American) literary imagination. The quotation is taken from a longer interview he gave several years before his death; you can see snippets of the interview here. There is a transcript of the interview at the Dalkey Press Archive, and when this quotation is situated within that longer interview, it gives us more insight into the power and ambivalence of the reading and writing process.
Wallace is not just saying that there is bad fiction and good fiction, but that there are particular cultural and discursive trends that effect not just the production and reception of literature but that dilute fiction’s potential to connect us and give pleasure, which in his formulation is both respite from and secondary experience of suffering and loneliness. On the surface this seems like the sort of either/or construction that Laura Miller proposes in her discussion about the purpose of fiction, but a comparison shows important differences. Miller’s embedded conceit is incorrect; every story does have a moral or message, even if that moral is “I don’t believe in morals” or that message is “Have stupid fun.” To say that reading is “an end in itself” is to say “I read because I like deciphering symbols.” To say that “[l]ike any art, it can teach or motivate, but it doesn’t have to, and it’s often better when it doesn’t” is to assume that there is art bereft of message or cultural influence. All fictions project a message and speculate on the nature of life and the world; it does not boil down to one or the other.
I highlight this because I found the contrast between her formulation and Wallace’s to be enlightening. Fiction is often discussed in such dualities: real or fantastic, serious or light, mainstream or fringe, pure or interstitial. But these are very often false dichotomies, perhaps useful to begin making distinctions and establishing terms for discussion, but a poor foundation for a strong argument. The initial quotation from Wallace seems to rest on a similar dichotomy: there is dark/bad fiction and enlightening/good fiction, and we need to inject more light into the darkness. But that is only one component of his point; his argument is that fiction is a very human thing to create and experience, and that how fictions are made and interpreted are conditioned by the world of voices and influences around us, filtered through the inescapable fact that we are “marooned” in our own skulls. Human beings shape the world through fiction, both in the writing and reading of it; we try to access what others see, think, feel, and suffer through fiction, because sometimes that is the only way to create connections of understanding between us.
We often talk about fiction in terms that simplify it We reify base distinctions that become the foundation for literary discussions, particularly on the internet (and often on convention panels too, with their constraints of time), where the goal of discourse is usually to make one obvious point. What Wallace intended to show is precisely not that. He is arguing that we frequently ignore the complex conditions that influence the production and reception of literature. What often makes fiction compelling are its paradoxes and ambiguities, not mechanical precision or archetypes. “Bad fiction” is not just dark or overtly mimetic; it erases complications and flattens experience. Tension and shading are what make fiction resonate, and what constitutes those qualities changes over time. Tricks of narrative that may have seemed avant-garde decades ago are now rote, so writers must experiment and readers must be adventurous.
Certainly Wallace’s ideas are lofty, and difficult to achieve. Wallace himself points out that there are contradictions in his ideas that his own fiction often does not bridge. But that again returns to his central contention: that fiction is not just a textual delivery system for either edification or pleasure but a tangle of meanings that the writer and reader struggle to understand. When those tangles are smoothed out, we may find some pleasure in the resulting story, but we are also missing a lot of other potential rewards. The question of what “pleasure” is in this context and what it does for us is one that Wallace tries to address in his interview. If we read to escape, what are we fleeing from? If we read for some sense of personal satisfaction, what are trying to satisfy in fiction that we do not get elsewhere in our lives?
Fiction that not only challenges but dismantles convention has the potential to answer those questions. As Robert Lipsky noted in his book on Wallace: “‘experimental and avant-garde stuff can capture and talk about the way the world feels on our nerve endings,’ Wallace said, ‘ in a way that conventional realistic stuff can’t.’” Conventions in general, while useful as starting points, do not produce fiction that gets to our loneliness and gives us the chance to, perhaps in an illusory fashion, see through another’s eyes and feel with their skin. And isn’t this the purpose of reading, to experience something else?
This is as true for fantastic fiction as for any other genre or category of literature. Fantasika can be as anaesthetizing as any of the more mainstream fiction that Wallace discusses. The question is: do we read to be distracted, assuaged, lulled? Do we read for a quick, visceral thrill or terrifying shock? Do we read to experience a feeling again or to recapture something we feel we lack? Sure, these are all part of reading, but when this is all that reading is about, we are selling fiction, and ourselves, short. By the same token, reading just for some sense of abstract edification can leave us feeling detached. “Good fiction,” regardless of genre, is a mutual effort on the part of the writer and the reader to bridge the gaps between each other. When both take that opportunity, that chance, the gifts that reading can give us begin to emerge.
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