A Theory of Fiction

(1)

I’m sitting on the subway. I’m looking at my reflection in the window. It’s hazy and dirty and scarred by graffiti, but the window still presents a likeness–my image, sitting on the subway.

I see myself sitting there with others. A woman wears leopard-patterned leggings. A child plays a video game. A teenager reads a magazine. An old man reads a newspaper in a language I don’t recognize. I’m wearing whatever it is I’m wearing. I stare at all of us in the window to see us all there, together.

The train stops. A beautiful woman boards wearing a beret and a dark peacoat. She listens to headphones. Her skin is freckled and her hair curly. Her eyes are green. She grabs a metal pole and looks around the car, situating herself. She sees me seeing her. I look away. I find her reflection in the window.

Just as the doors close a man enters. He’s tall, wearing black pants and a black winter coat. He wears a knit cap. His eyes are low. He exhales heavily, looking around at us. He sees me seeing him. I look away. I find his reflection in the window.

The train screams through its tunnels beneath the city. I continue surveying the world in the mirror: the child looks up from his video game to kiss his mother, the old man falls asleep, the beautiful woman closes her eyes and nods her to the beat of a song playing on her headphones. The man-in-black’s coat is open. His eyes saccade back and forth. He’s readying himself for something. He keeps his hand in the breast pocket of his coat. Removing his hand for a fraction of a second, I see a gun’s black and silver handle.

The man in black reaches for the gun, stepping toward the child, the old man, and the beautiful woman. His hand goes towards the gun. But before he can grasp it, before anyone knows what’s about to happen, I stick my foot out and trip him. He falls, yelling. Everyone looks up. The gun slides out and arrives at the old man, who puts down his newspaper and takes the gun and points it at the man in black. “Don’t move,” he says. We call the police. The woman in leopard-print pants holds the man down. The police come and take the man in black away.

(2)

Fiction makes worlds in windows, reflections of events. Some writers write to gaze in wonder at themselves in the world. Some writers write to gaze in wonder at the world itself. Some writers write to gaze in wonder at what needs changing, either in themselves or in the world or both. The first is a narcissist. The second is a thalist. The third is a pragmatist.

The gods made Narcissus the most beautiful creature. Few resisted his looks. So when he saw himself in the reflection of a small pond’s surface he fell in love with himself. He couldn’t look away. He changed into a flower, the kind that grows at the edges of small reflective pools. Flowers are pretty, perennial, and have a valuable place in their ecologies. They die and grow again, serving their various purposes. Writers that gaze at themselves in their writing are similar, except they choose their fate. They have the option to look away but, for whatever reason, continue looking at themselves. The narcissist gazes in wonder at himself in the subway’s window, outlining his own face and outfit, thinking about his relation to the subway, to the others sitting around him, telling himself his own story. He’s so occupied with himself that doesn’t see the gun in the man-in-black’s jacket. He’s in danger, like the rest of the subway riders, except that he has the opportunity to manage that danger–to see the gun. Overwhelmed by his own beauty, the narcissist chooses not to put himself in the position to see the gun, or anything other than himself. He therefore cannot help himself or his fellow riders, though danger is imminent.

Thales was the first Greek philosopher. He was able to predict crop growths and solar eclipses; was an advisor to governments; was known widely for his intelligence. Plato tells the following story about him:

…one night Thales was gazing at the sky as he walked and fell into a ditch. A pretty servant girl lifted him out and said to him “How do you expect to understand what is going on up in the sky if you do not even see what is at your feet?”

The thalist writer gazes in wonder and falls into a ditch. She’s not lost in the beauty of her own image, but rather the beauty of the world around her. She’s so concerned with its truth, its extent, that she makes herself vulnerable to concrete disaster.  She produces great truths, but focuses on their form to such a degree that she loses the immediacy of its content. Having fallen in her ditch she is slow to react. On the subway she’s busy sketching the child’s form, his face buried in the screen of his video game; the leopard-pattern of the woman’s pants, its oranges and whites and browns and yellows; the wrinkles of the old man’s face, the sound his newspaper makes when it rustles; the beautiful woman’s green eyes, her peacoat, the rhythm of her music in sync with the tracks of the train. The thalist might not even see the man-in-black’s gun–she’s not looking for it. At some point she might get around to sketching his facial features and clothing and then see the gun’s handle, but time is a relevant factor. There’s a likelihood that she’ll see the gun, but given her attention to detail the chances aren’t high. Most likely, the thalist is too late. She fails to help herself and her fellow riders not because she wasn’t looking, but she wasn’t looking for a gun.

Pragmatism is an American philosophy. It assigns values to texts based on their “usefulness.” Peirce used usefulness to assign truth-values to scientific theories, claiming that theories are true if they’re useful to the scientific community; that is, if they “successfully lead” to other scientific ideas.  James used usefulness to assign truth-values to religious belief, claiming that beliefs are true if they’re useful to the believer; that is, if they “work” to help the believer live peacefully and with certainty in the world. Both these uses of usefulness de-emphasize an objective reality that exists “out there” and focus rather on what is here and now, the experiences of individuals and the concrete results of text in the world. The pragmatist writer isn’t self-obsessed, nor is she obsessed with the truth of the world in which she finds herself. She is concerned with what will be useful to her readers, what will “work” for them, what will “successfully lead” them to more meaningful and flourishing lives.  She is didactic in that she has ideas about what counts as a more flourishing life and is interested in telling others about these ideas. This may seem like hubris. However, her craft is modest: she presents an image, a story, ultimately an object of interpretation, a world-reflection within which readers are free to find their own meanings–not necessarily hers. But her goal is to help, and so her world is crafted with a vision of betterness, with the hope that the world can be a safer place for the humans living within it. She’s in a position to see the man-in-black’s gun and stick her foot out to trip him.

Each of these writers has virtues and vices. What looks like a gun might be an iPod, and the pragmatist may find herself tripping innocents. The narcissist may in fact be a superior beauty, whose looks deserve analysis. The thalist produces valuable truths, never committed to a moral side, and is safe from the volatile, even vain, question of what is right and wrong. Each of them are committed to reflection rather than blind following. They each choose to look into the window, think about what they see, and represent it to others. They aren’t committed to taking advantage of others for financial or emotional reasons. They aren’t tyrants. They should be praised for this.

Despite these common virtues, I value the pragmatist best among the writers. She is the modest artist looking for men-in-black, the guns in their jackets, and knows that tripping them up is the right thing to do.  We all want the best for the world in some way–if we didn’t it would be difficult to brush our teeth in good faith–and the pragmatist writer is most authentically committed to this desire.

This is my nascent opinion. I haven’t found perfect exemplars of each of these kinds of fiction. I’m open to suggestions. Though I do know that John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down and Dave Eggers’s What is the What qualify as pragmatist fiction. The former is the one I think of first: It’s the story of a nameless town in northern Europe that successfully resists a foreign army’s attempt to occupy it. The book was written on commission from the CIA during World War II, translated into several European languages, and distributed covertly in small towns occupied by Nazi forces. The idea was this: if citizens read a story where people like them overcome occupiers, then they themselves would have greater confidence to do so.  This, to me, is the best kind of fiction.

4 responses to “A Theory of Fiction

  1. Why do these three writers have to be three writers? That is to say, the Venn diagram has significant overlap. Though maybe saying so indicates that I would likely fall into the first category (narcissists), it seems to me that a valid reason (maybe even a likely reason [maybe even a fundamental reason]) to trip the gunmen is so that the beautiful lady will find the protagonist heroic and then become enamored with him. As Lermontov said, “Ego is the lever by which Atlas moves the world.”

    I would also say that literature that takes instruction of morals as its primary goal risks sacrificing beauty and wonder, though obviously this is not inherently true. Conversely, writings that express sentiments that we abhor can also be profoundly moving, so maybe its sort of along the lines of “poetic truth is not the same as political truth” which may have been said by Allen Ginsberg.

    • Good point. These “writers” don’t have to be different people. I’m thinking of them as streams that may or may not be present in a writer’s consciousness. I think they’re all there in every writer, sure, but I think they get different emphases from consciousness to consciousness. You might have a narcissist stream take precedence over the thalist and pragmatist, or some other ordering. (This is Platonic in ways I don’t want it to be, but whatever.) They might also be nested within one another such that the pragmatist needs elements of the narcissist and the thalist to do her work, or the thalist needs the pragmatist, etc. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, but I think they’re distinct streams that find favor or privilege in consciousness (whatever that is).

  2. Agreed that this is a great essay. But I take issue with a few things.

    First, I think you limit too narrowly the range of possibilities for a pragmatist-fictional text. I like your vision of the pragmatist writer as you define her at first, concerned with the “concrete results of texts in the world,” modestly trying to give readers something that “works,” to lead them to more meaningful and flourishing lives. This seems like a good rubric for valuating a writer or a story, intuitively in line with our (Piercian?) claims that this or that fiction has “truth” in it: does he/she/it offer me anything useful? Does he/she/it contribute any meaning to my life, help me flourish in some way?

    But I don´t think promulgating a fixed vision of the “better” is the best approach to achieving these aims; and I don´t think “telling others about these ideas” of the flourishing life is the best way to make lives flourish. Your initial vision of the pragmatist writer allows a wealth of literature into its ambit which I think you would agree was fiction of the highest order and importance; it´s only when the final criterion is added, the necessity of the betterment program, of unambiguous didacticism, that so much is excluded. Can you not imagine a fiction that was useful, worked, effected positive change in a reader, opened up new possibilities of meaning-making and understanding – but which didn´t meet your final criterion? Would such a work be inferior? Why?

    Second, I don´t think your essay goes far enough in exploring the pragmatist writer´s methods and conerns. If she´s truly intent on giving readers something that works and effects social change, then she will seek additional and alternative means of achieving it; and undoubtedly that will present us with a kind of fiction, or a kind of process of making and consuming fiction, of which we haven´t yet conceived. It will explode our notions, not of what ficiton can be “in itself,” but of where it can be found, how it can be consumed, etc. – and it will integrate these aspects into what we think fiction essentially is. I´m fascinated, for instance, by the story of The Moon is Down – not the story it tells, but the story of how and why it was created and how it was distributed and consumed. It´s due to the manner of commission, production, distribution, and consumption of the book that it is now, to your mind, a prime exemplar of pragmatist ficiton. But doesn´t that mean that the methods, contexts, timing, etc., of creation, production, distribution, and consumption are essential aspects of pragmatist fiction? And if so, shouldn´t the truly contemporary, visionary pragmatist writer be concerned with these aspects of her work, experimenting with them as much as with “form” and “content”?

    That´s really my main issue with the essay: that it isn´t visionary and far-reaching enough. Given the pragmatist writer´s basic formula – to create, or somehow effect the creation of, literary texts that are of positive use to their readers in living a flourish life – the essay stops far short of exploring all the possibilities at her disposal. Especially given new technologies of creation and distribution, and new trends in thinking about artistic creation and consumption, the visionary pragmatist writer could effect change in radically new ways that still fall within the amorphous ambit of fiction.

    The question remains, though: Why fiction? The pragmatist writer of fiction wants to effect social change, but why does she choose to do it through fiction? What does fiction allow her and her reader that nothing else allows? It seems to me that these are questions that any true “theory of fiction” should address.

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