We all know what fiction is. What it’s for.
Fiction is a story with an arc. We start here and bad shit happens and we end up there. Either the hero triumphs and it’s a comedy or a drama, or the hero fails and its either comedy or tragedy.
We want a novel to draw us into a compulsion to rush towards the final page. The more compulsion we feel, the greater the urgency generated, the more we forget where we actually are, the more successful the novel.
We know what a failed novel is. It doesn’t point us sharply in a single direction and then rush us along to a conclusion.
OK, I’m obviously not in agreement with these sentiments! My sarcasm is showing through….
But there’s a frustration I have with these expectations.
What if we are writing about embodiment? What if the point is to focus in on what it’s like to experience a time and a place?
In life as experienced there is no direct and coherent plot. The benefits don’t come from rushing to get to the end, to any end.
“Ah!, but that’s why we turn to fiction!” I hear you say.
Maybe. And as far as it goes, yes. But is that as far as it goes?
Why do we seek escape? Why should our forms perpetuate a lie even as we turn to them to illuminate truths?
Paradox is a sign of the internal inconsistencies within any system. They are insoluble from within the system itself and can only be resolved by expanding our perspective. We need to see how an inconsistency is an inherent feature and not an accidental opposition. Unintended consequences are of this order too. In a wider context they are the visibly inevitable results of actions and not perturbations of what was originally intended.
Let’s focus these insights onto fiction.
Fiction, the novel, as we currently know them, loom large as the only way to tell a story. Our attitudes towards stories are part of our general conditioning that is overwhelmingly the result of the history of our society. Within this conditioning, the fact that we are dealing with a narrow and arbitrary set of perspectives riddled with incoherence, is hidden from us. And we tend to like it that way. We ascribe a universality to our particular prejudices – another term for conditioning that looses the latter’s apparent neutrality.
The paradox here, one of many, is that we look to fiction to take us away from our own circumstances, but not too far!
Too far, not in distance, but in attitude. We happily go to a “galaxy far-away.” OK, there’s that sarcasm again!
Stories matter! How we tell stories, and what we expect from them, does too.
One thing that happens when a new way of telling stories begins to emerge is that at first it is easily misconstrued as a failed story simply because of the way it confounds expectations. The next step is a re-configuration of the framing around a story, around how we see all stories that accommodates the shift.
This isn’t an assembly-line process of novelty induced obsolescence. The new framework can actually enrich how we look at earlier stories by helping us to get “outside” the systems in which they were made.
The challenge, as I see it, is to find ways to tell stories that help us find other satisfactions beyond escape. Stories that broaden our perspectives and give us the paradoxical experiences of vicariously experiencing embodiment. The power of imagination, and fiction as its child, is in the way we can broaden our experience vicariously in this way.
We tend today to see “virtual” as a “good,” and “vicarious” as something suspect. I’m afraid that has it upside down. Virtual realities are merely convincing lies. They are stitched together simulations, that is shallow, empty, non-realities. Vicarious imagined places, people, stories, are not limited. They suggest, rhyme with, and imply connections with our world, our selves, and each other in ways that are endlessly open to interpretation while at the same time having a groundedness in kernels of truth.
Vicarity in stories is therefore a powerful effect. Yet one that is hampered by the dishonesty of our rush for endings and for exhilarating escapes.
So, what I’ve been reaching for and slowly finding ways to be more explicit about has been a way to tell stories that do confound our common expectations, but that – if given a chance – bring us other rewards. Not, the “good medicine” we tend to seek by reading “literature,” a holdover from the way it has been so often introduced to us in school, but because it engages and delights by taking us somewhere and introducing us to characters and ways of life that stick with us as our own memories after we’ve been there and met them.
This isn’t so revolutionary after all! We’ve often looked for and found these satisfactions before. But in the space between the inertial momentum of present-day escapism, and a need to widen the scope of who and what we consider to be “like us,” it is important to be direct and explicit in delineating a change.
This is why I write the way I do. This is the conversation I write to become part of.
This is the conversation I’d like to invite you to join with me.