Archive for November, 2010

The Importance of Story, Part II: Fiction’s Place in Reality

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

All of these thoughts about story stem from a previous entry concerning the search for meaning in literature (and consequently, our lives). The reason people read fiction at all is because the meaning of those fictitious events and the purpose of the fictitious people who experience them is a mirror of the readers’ own lives. We find meaning in our own existences by comparing them wih the well-crafted and deliberately presented meanings in fiction. And so the writer, in effect, creates not only the story he writes about, but also contributes to the “stories” of those who read him.

This is how literature influences social norms. During times of war, writers tend to write of war as a noble, if unhappy, undertaking, while the attitude of peacetime novelists toward war is quite different. Yet both of these points  of view manage to find “meaning” — by which I refer to the intellectual justification for whatever course of action is portrayed in the novel — and those “meanings” differ with respect to the social conventions prevalent at the time when the story is written.

Thus a story about ancient Rome would necessarily be tempered by our 21st century views about things like slavery, war, law, and the place of women. We do not understand stories from the 18th century in which heroic white men hunt and kill Native Americans as if they were wild beasts. Indeed, we do not understand stories in which wild beasts, let alone men, are regarded in this manner. And because the social conventions of our age are so different from the age in which those stories were witten, their meaning to us is lost. This is in itself proof that literature, like all forms of art, is not really eternal, as we may have hoped, but subject to the Zeitgeist of the age in which we live.

The secret to writing “enduring” fiction, then (if anything created by human beings can be called enduring), is to look beyond popular conventions to true emotional discovery. But more about emotional truth later. For now, just be aware that what is hip is not always what is true, and what is popular, while virtually essential to having your popular fiction published,  is not always what is meaningful. Sad but true.

The Importance of Story, Part 1

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

I’ve just read LIFE OF PI and wondered why this book became the critics’ darling. Although it’s touted as an example of Magical Realism, I couldn’t see anything magical about it. Okay, the premise — teenager escapes sinking ship on lifeboat containing uncaged zoo animals — is weird, but not what I’d call magical. And the reviews I read universally lauded its spirituality, its connection to religion. Again, I’m scratching my literary head. Spirituality? Why, because the teenager in question can’t decide between three religions and so practices them all? Please.

Anyway, I’m not writing a critique of LIFE OF PI. But I have to mention it beause the book brings up an interesting notion: that story is the backbone of reality, and not the other way round. In other words, reality, as we perceive it and relate it to others, has within it a certain amount of built-in fiction.

I should note that Yan Martel, the author of LIFE OF PI, does not put forth this argument. Instead, he offers, in the final chapters of the book, an alternative to the story he has been telling throughout the length of this novel. It is an alternative that is more believable than the original narrative, but less satisfying, less identifiable to the reader. One could almost dare to wish to hope that one might experience firsthand a little of Story #1, the original, novel-length story. No one, not ever, would trade places for a nanosecond with the narrator of Story #2 (the more believable version). Even the fictional character to whom the narrator relates both stories eventually choses Story #1. Why? Because it is more palatable, more identifiable, more entertaining, more hopeful.

Thus do we craft our stories, both on paper and in our lives: We seek to establish meaning and purpose to seemingly random events, and so subtly change this fact, that reaction, this sequence, that time frame. We become — that is to say, we, as writers, must become — like those Pollyannas everyone knows who say that “Everything happens for a reason”.

The truth is, things only happen for a reason if you — the writer, the narrator, the relator of the story — create that reason and then insert the events that prove it.

This is what separates fiction from reality: Fictional events are crafted with an eventual purpose for those events in mind. The volcano erupts because it will teach someone (the protagonist) a lesson, or bring two characters together in a love bond, or provide an obstacle for a character to overcome. Fictional events never occur in a vacuum, for the sole reason that such randomness would be useless in the context of a story. In a novel, everything that happens has meaning. We can do this with our lives, too, as did Victor Frankl (see previous blog), or not. But there is no such choice with a novel.

Is this, then, the artist’s search for meaning, or mere artifice? Either way, it is essential to creating a believable and compelling novel.

More about the role of Story later.