What Should Fiction Do?
Bonnie Nazdam on the Limits of Cinematic Storytelling
An artistic practice that perpetually reinforces my sense of self is not, in my mind, an artistic practice. I’m not talking about rejecting memoir or characters “based on me.” What I mean is I don’t have the stomach for art that purports to “hold up a mirror to nature,” or for what this implies, philosophically, about selfhood and the world in which we live.
Says philosopher Bruce Wilshire: “The crucial ambiguity in the metaphor of holding the mirror up to nature is that it suggests that the use of a mirror may be necessary for nature to see itself… but that it may not be necessary for some observer of nature—however transcendental or ideal—to use, to see it.” It seems to me not only that there is no transcendental or ideal observer, but that even if there were, it certainly would not be me, nor any of the other writers I know (sorry, other writers I know), however keen we may occasionally find our powers of observation. Since I am only human, truth is not what is reflected in the mirror, but is in the act of holding up the mirror to see what is reflected in the mirror.
Whenever you see a story within a story, or a play within a play, or a painting within a novel, I propose that what you’re seeing is a mirror held up to a mirror, a twist and perversion of the old metaphor, and it’s in service of so much more than something like “plot.” It disorients a reader in her place in relation to the work of art. And I just love that.
When fictions are embedded in fictions, when we see a character influenced by a work of art to behave in a certain way, the notion of “self” or “character” is presented to us as enactment. Personhood is not a noun, but a verb. It is a function that is both fluid and continually formed and re-formed in response to bearing witness to the world and, especially, to art.
Consider a theater-goer who has a troubled relationship with her peers, or with her would-be lover, her mother, or with her father, and who is vexed by any degree of existential or ontological malaise. (In other words, consider anyone.) She goes to see Hamlet, in which she witnesses a young man who himself is a theater-goer and, in going to a play, discovers some truth therein and subsequently he is compelled to take some action in his life. Is our original theater-goer not also watching a play with some hope—conscious or unconscious—of it bearing some relevance to her own life and difficulties? Hamlet is just one example of a work of art embedded with a work of art—specifically characters observing fictional characters—that shows us explicitly and deliberately what, in Wilshire’s words, is “already going on undeliberately in the development of the self… the incorporation mimetically into a conscious body of others’ ways of being and of others’ views of itself.” My maternal grandmother put this simply: “Don’t watch soap operas, or you’ll think that’s how you’re supposed to be—and then you’ll start acting like that.”
Our human lives, it seems to me, are fundamentally quixotic. Give me parables nested in paradoxes—not in a heady metafictional way, but like the very riddle of existence, in a way that stuns and disables the intellect. I want fiction to bend, for its structure not to mirror the reality I think I see, but for its form and structure to help me peel back and question the way reality seems. The way I seem. I love working with the English language precisely because it fails. Even the most perfect word or phrase or narrative can at best shadow and haunt the phenomena of the world. Words and stories offer a way of experiencing being that is in their most perfect articulation a beat removed from direct experience. And so have I long mistrusted those works in which representation and words function without a hiccup, creating a story that is meant to be utterly believed. Elena Ferrante. Louis L’Amour. But perhaps first and foremost, some of the most beloved works of Jane Austen. As Nabokov once pointed out, in a work of fiction the clash is not between the characters, but between the author and the world. I love Louis L’Amour—I still read his books like a starved kid. And I read all four of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in four days. But my clash with the world, for the time being, anyway, is different.
I have had teachers of writing who have said: Stop worrying about all of this. Don’t think! And I get what that is supposed to mean—that writing from the head is different from writing from the heart, or gut. But old, long-entrenched habits of perception—so personally and culturally pervasive that we fail to notice them—can make it hard to distinguish what is the heart from what is mere custom, impulse, and/or cultural baggage. This seems insidious to me—not because we might be creating “bad” art, but because in mistaking something profound in the relationship between being and art, we might waste our lives. If in order to write well I must write from the heart, but something tells me some shadowy culture baggage in the form of convention is shaping that heart, then there is as much personal work as there is artistic work to be done. Why shouldn’t the process of attempting to make art change me, fundamentally? And over and over again? Don’t “I” arise continually alongside everything else?
Not insignificantly, I go to art to learn more about being human and living life. I had to go back to the 18th century to find the prototypical Western novels that “gave rise” to identity as realism in mainstream fiction: not as a verb or a function, but as a highly individualized noun to which we affix predictable, more or less stable adjectives. Back then, Enlightenment thinkers of the then-undistinguishable fields of natural science, politics, spirituality and what we now anachronistically call “fiction” were together investigating the same questions: What is the world as it is versus the world as it seems? Is the sensible world and its phenomena independent of the human mind? What is a person? How is one person not another person? How do I know what I know? Is a person in the mind or in the body? In the memory? Where does a person go when asleep, or drunk, or drugged, or dead? Unsurprisingly, the poetic and prose forms with which 18th-century writers chose to represent the world were bound up with an author’s postulations about identity, narration, and mimesis. From the satires of Pope and Swift through the fictional experiments of Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding, and Austen, the page quickly and indisputably became a place where authors and readers alike might postulate resolutions to some of these fundamental questions.
Consider character or identity as presented in Samuel Richardson’s beautiful, timeless Clarissa (make no mistake, it’s a novel I love, and that I wept over, head in my hands, from the folding metal lawn chair in north Wyoming, where I read it). Here is a young woman so devout, so independent and untarnished by her company or the fact of her rape and death, Richardson would have us assume that it is only in a soul, not in the body, or in memory, or in consciousness where the true self permanently abides (for “Clarissa” remained intact and unchangeable even when she was unconscious and raped).
How different from Henry Fielding’s characters who are so confused about character and identity that they mistake fictional characters for real people, and for whom the world itself is a series of theaters within theaters, where “truth” is hidden behind one, then another, and still another stage curtain. We come to know an essential Clarissa, but are confounded when we read Fielding’s play The Author’s Farce, in which actors are playing actors who are representing puppets, which are actually ghost puppets, the ghosts (but not necessarily the puppets) representing real-life politicians of the day, all gathered together in hell. Contemporary fiction on a scale like this would probably rightly be criticized for being overly intellectual, for (oddly) being post-modern, or meta-fictional. But then Fielding takes a metaphysical leap. Why ghost puppets? Why—beyond the joke that gathers all of these doomed artists together in hell—should these characters be so utterly insubstantial?
Fielding thought a crucial and often overlooked aspect of the theatrum mundi metaphor was the emphasis the metaphor puts on the role of the audience, and the audience’s tendency to hastily judge the character of his fellow men. We are not supposed to assume, Fielding’s narrator tells us in Tom Jones, that just because the brilliant 18th-century actor David Garrick plays the fool, Garrick himself is a fool. Nor should we assume that the fool we meet in life is actually—or always—a fool. How then is Fielding’s audience to determine the character of Fielding’s contemporary who plays the part of an actor playing the part of a ghost puppet who represents a real-life individual whose eccentric and condemnable behavior Fielding satirizes? For Fielding, there is no such thing as an un-interpreted experience; an instance of mimetic simulation cannot be considered “truth” (a clear image in a well-polished mirror) because truth itself is the very act of mimetic simulation.
The philosopher Kendall Walton offers a satisfying and compelling theory about mimesis and representational works of art in Mimesis as Make-Believe. Walton proposes that a work of representational art is a “prop” in a game of make-believe. In very brief summary, when we read an epistolary novel, we “pretend” we’re reading a collection of letters; when we read something like Robinson Crusoe, we pretend we’re reading a diary. Each text is plausible and credible, but neither is making truth claims, and we all know this, though this wasn’t always the case. Daniel Defoe initially claimed that Robinson Crusoe was an actual contemporary man who lived on an island any Englishman could find on an actual map. Compare this with A History of Tom Jones. A careful read reveals that the author is formally differentiated from the narrator, who is in turn differentiated from the historian presumably writing the “history.” We are therefore not pretending to read a history, but are pretending that a narrator is describing a historian writing a history. We are witnessing the witnessing of a creation of art. (Even when reading most fairytales and fables, we are supposed to pretend the tale is true as we read—they are presented as reliable stories.) But for Fielding, who as the historian George A. Drake points out once implied the cliffs of Dover were a creation of the poets who see them, all understanding is creative.
On the other end of the spectrum, far from acknowledging each life as a creative act, and each experience as an interpreted one, I’ve noticed that with much contemporary fiction, when we read, we’re often not asked to imagine we’re reading a history, biography, diary or anything at all. Often the text doesn’t even ask the reader to be aware of the text as text. With much fiction, we seem to pretend we are watching a movie. And it is supposed to be a good thing if a novel is “cinematic.” It is almost always the case that we are to understand there is something separate from the artist to which she might hold up a mirror.
When I do “teach” creative writing, I point out that a work of formal realism (which I neither condemn nor condone) usually adheres to a particular formula: Exposition informs a person’s Psychology, from which arises their Character, out of which certain Motives emerge, based upon which the character takes Action, from which Plot results (EPiC MAP). And what formal realism achieved thereby was answering some of the metaphysical questions raised by Enlightenment thinkers about what the self, or character, might be—a person is a noun. A changing noun, perhaps, but a noun nonetheless—somehow separate from the flux of the world they inhabit. The students I’ve had who want to “be writers” hear about EPiC MAP and diligently set to work. The artists in the class, however—the kindred spirits with the mortal wound—they look at me skeptically. Something about that doesn’t feel right, they say. I don’t want to do it that way, they say. Can we break those rules? And each of their “stories” is a terrible, fascinating mess. Are the stories messes because these writers are breaking with habit, forcing readers to break with expectation, or is the EPiC MAP really an effective mirror? I grant that this is an impossible question to answer, but an essential question to raise. By my lights these students are trying, literally, to re-make the world.
So rather than hold up a mirror to nature—or viewing the world as a stage from some seat, somehow (how?) situated off of the world-stage itself—my imagination has been captured by experimenting with holding up mirrors to holding up mirrors. When writers such as Fielding did the same, it was not merely a narrative hiccup, or a bump in the road to creating the type of fiction that is now more mainstream. It was and is fundamentally, metaphysically at odds with more familiar fiction that aims to be represent reality. This is not an argument that all fiction should be metafictional or absurdist or heady. But it does seem to me that what is now generally accepted as “fiction” emerged out of an essentialism that is oddly consoling in its reduction of each individual to a particular set of characteristics, and the reality they inhabit a background distinct from this self. At worst, behind this form are assumptions about identity and reality that may prevent us from really knowing or loving ourselves or each other, and certainly shield us from mystery.
The clash each such author has with the world is obviously different from my own clash with the world. But I do wish there were fewer engines behind those schools of thought purporting to have answers about craft, as if the question of how and why to tell a story (if and when we should do so) ought to model what came out of a primarily white, male, English-speaking publishing world some 300 years ago—especially if, as I’ve postulated, the form has been preferred in part for its ability to console. As if we’ve all decided and agreed upon the model we want to perpetuate not only in our own work, but also in the interiority of our hearts and minds.