Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fiction Gives Us Everything

An intriguing passage from novelist Keith Ridgway that affirms something I believe about why what I do (teach kids to read literature) is useful: because it's practice for living:

[E]verything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones—they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor—please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.

So I love hearing from people who have no time for fiction. Who read only biographies and popular science. I love hearing about the death of the novel. I love getting lectures about the triviality of fiction, the triviality of making things up. As if that wasn’t what all of us do, all day long, all life long. Fiction gives us everything. It gives us our memories, our understanding, our insight, our lives. We use it to invent ourselves and others. We use it to feel change and sadness and hope and love and to tell each other about ourselves. And we all, it turns out, know how to do it.


Arthur Lieber said...

Thanks, Frank. Never quite thought of it that way.

Rich said...

I think I disagree with Ridgway. If everything is fiction, there is no non-fiction and there's no call to distinguish between the two. But I think a writer ought to know whether or not she is making a claim that these events happened as she describes them. I agree that this claim is not (1) a claim to higher value or (2) a demonstration of the truthfulness of the narrative. But I think the implied contract between reader includes a clause about whether these events occurred or whether they offer an imaginative hypothesis about how the world is. That hypothesis might represent a more rich and probing version about how the world works--more rich and more probing, perhaps, than that these events happened on this or that day. The fiction writer is entitled not to get distracted by the historical record. Both these two projects are worth having and worth distinguishing as separate enterprises.

Jim said...

The idea that we are creating something when we tell a story about something that really happened, something we really experienced, was disorienting and frightening when I first confronted it . So was the underlying truth Ridgway captures when he says that "what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos." But I agree with Rich and I think the distinction Ridgway misses is the importance intention, one of the central tenets of western "faith." What we claim to be doing is crucial. And when we claim to be trying to tell the truth, and at the same can admit that we are creating something out of the chaos of experience, we are not creating fiction, but a testimony to truth which, though larger than ourselves, can only be articulated in all of the specificity of context with which it presented itself, by each of us one at a time.

framiko said...

I came at this passage from a different angle. What I thought of was what we do when we read and interpret fiction: we assemble the details and connect the dots in a way that provides coherence and meaning and satisfaction. Not all interpretations are equal. Some are better than others because they pay more attention to the details and incorporate more of them. But all interpretations are derivative and partial; none can subsume the totality of the original work. Yet that's not an indictment of interpretation. We MUST interpret; we can't HELP but interpret. That's what human beings do; that what human beings are: meaning-making creatures.

The world around us, the events of our lives, offer a bewildering array of details, more than an individual mind could ever pull together. Yet in order to live, we must try to make sense of our lives and the lives of those around us. So we have to pick out dots and try to connect them in a way that is satisfying, beautiful, meaningful. Some people do a better job of this than others, because they're more aware, more open, more insightful (and, perhaps, more skillful at meaning-making because they've practiced with fiction). But even those people's interpretations do not approach anything like a total understanding of the world or even their own lives.

I think Ridgway is being intentionally provocative by calling these unavoidably partial interpretations "fiction." Certainly it would be monstrous if we went around consciously telling ourselves lies about our lives and letting ourselves off the hook for doing so by saying that absolute truth is unknowable anyway. I don't think that's what Ridgway means. Instead, he's reminding us of fiction's magic: A great story or novel or poem—in its irreducible complexity and endless openness—is a tiny version of the mystery in which we live and the mystery that we are.

Jim said...

Beautifully captured, Frank.