Some Thoughts on Truth in Fiction
There’s a story called ‘Saint Sebastian Mounts the Cross’ in Parables, Fables, Nightmares that includes two quotations from two collections by the creative-writing guru John Gardner. I am a card-carrying, sleeping-inside-a-tent-outside-the-venue Gardnerite, having come to his books The Art of Fiction, On Moral Fiction, and On Becoming a Novelist multiple times, often in crisis, over the course of my writing life. The quotes refer to his theory that many if not most writers work from a ‘wound’—in our near or far past there’s something that happened that turned us to writing, that made all the hours spent alone conjuring worlds seem like a sensible thing to do. In Gardner’s case it was an almost unimaginable tragedy, for some writers it’s the shock of a loss, a move, or a sudden change in circumstance with effects that lingered on for decades, for others it’s an ongoing suffering that’s even greater. For the collective it’s the catalyst, the spur, the thing that, at root, all our work thinks through.
As a part of the finalisation process for Parables, I had to look up and find the page numbers for the Gardner quotations (write them down at the time I wrote my story— ha!) and tripped across something of his I’d read and internalised but had completely forgotten: his thoughts on truth and fiction.
I read a lot. I teach and research for my day-job and that requires a relatively unceasing absorption of literature—both new and old; both successes and, for the purposes of completion—to understand a movement or an age, for instance—significant failures. Across genres and time periods it’s clear that, in addition to writing through their own ‘wounds’, most writers are trying to capture the ‘truth’, as they see it, of their time. Some do so explicitly, using their poetry, fiction and plays to declaim and rage against; some do so softly, capturing the moments or intellectual currents unique to their time. In much of the recent fiction I’ve read, novels specifically, I get a sense of a trend to fold inward in the search of today’s truths. To turn away from free-flowing invention to semi-autobiographical works that suggest, and I doubt intentionally, that all we can know and assert with confidence about the world is how we feel ourselves. In many contemporary novels all characters beyond the ‘I’ narrators are opaque, seen as if through fogged-up glass, and/or motivated by pure self-interest, and/or just, generally, less than our heroes—less fleshed, less full. I’ve written in the same mode myself, there’s at least one story in Parables that, I think self-consciously at least, mines my own life for its content and features a character that struggles to see through his circumstance and turn the cacophony of the world around him into something he can understand. So yeah. I do this too.
A writer friend and I were emailing about a week ago and both blamed the internet for the phenomenon above, for the way it encourages solipsism, for the way the snippets of the insides of others we see on it renders other people opaque, strange—their opinions both forceful and underinformed, their lifestyles weird iterations of each other, even their appearances flat, polished to pure surface. But re-reading Gardner I tripped across a way to thicken that take.
In On Moral Fiction, possibly his least-read work on writing and currently out of print, Gardner argues for a traditional sense of art as at its best when it’s moral, when it ‘seeks to improve life, not debase it’. In his eyes, the ‘art that tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy’. Spoiler alert: I think this too. More relevant here, though, and now, is his belief that the culture of his time, the book was published in 1978, was more committed to ‘sincerity rather than honesty (the one based on the moment’s emotion, the other based on careful thought)’. It feels like our time has the same preference, reflected in our online communication but not solely contained in it—the tweet (or whatever it is now), the status update, the text—often sincere, rarely honest; but our politics are similar, our work relationships are similar, our journalism, our fiction, our dates ….
What I think we see in many contemporary novels is a commitment to sincerity, to ‘this is how I felt when I felt it’ that often fails to pierce the surface of things. What might it be like to write honestly rather than simply sincerely? When we really care about someone, I think we tend to approach the truth from angles that are oblique; rather than saying ‘Hey I think you’re being ridiculous!!’ we say, ‘I think it’s a little bit like…’ or ‘Do you remember that time we …’ or ‘I saw a movie once where …’, or at least sometimes we do. And I wonder if, in fiction, a similar tactic might work, a turn back to analogy and invention and dwelling with ideas, a commitment to thinking beyond the self in this moment in order to better communicate the truth.
Parables, Fables, Nightmares, as a whole, is an essay, in the word’s more traditional sense of ‘an attempt’. It’s a go at playing with various modes of storytelling, of feeling out fictional forms, and, through that, it reflects on storytelling itself. All of the pieces in the collection are focused on how we construct, wrestle with, and seek out the truth; all are expressions of my internalisation of Gardner and my desire, a real longing, to write about now in ways that offer comment beyond just sincerity. Whether I managed to do that successfully or not, whether even declaring that’s what I’m trying to do is wise or not, whether that longing will ever be satisfied or not, I don’t know. Can’t say.