Why the World Needs More Lies
This is a cross-post of a piece published on the blog ‘Alephantine’ by Alex Landragin.
The ABC Radio National’s ‘Book Show’ yesterday broadcast a panel discussion called ‘The fact versus fiction debate’, on the merits of reading fiction and non-fiction. The panel included Dr Anthony Macris, an academic, novelist and memoirist; Meanjin editor Sally Heath, and consultant Jason Clarke. The discussion, chaired by Peter Mares, hinged around a recent interview with Philip Roth that quoted him as saying he doesn’t read fiction anymore.
The panel may as well have been called, Why read fiction? Because, in a sign of how much things have changed since fiction’s heyday in the 19th century, no-one is ever going to ask the question from the other side - why read non-fiction? It’s a given that we should read non-fiction. There is so much good truth out there - why would we want to give up any of our precious truth-reading time on reading somebody’s lies? Somebody’s second-rate lies, what’s more, because after all according to the conventional wisdom the truth is stranger than fiction. And why shouldn’t we throw poetry into the debate too? Because there was a time, in the history of our culture (and to this day in some others), when poetry was the most highly regarded of the literary forms.
Art forms have life cycles. They exist in relation to other art forms and technologies. The birth of the modern novel is often considered to have been the publication of ‘Don Quixote’ in 1605 and 1615 - about the same time as Shakespeare was turning his tricks further north. The novel, and Shakespearean drama, where quintessentially modern in that they focussed on the subject. Cervantes' novel took an old, ossified form - the chivalric romance - and turned it into a timeless comedy of the essentially deluded nature of human experience, and the duality between fantasy and reality. The words ‘quixotic’ and ‘Shakespearean’ have become adjectives, as have ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘Proustian’, because these writers and their works were able to describe what it is like to be alive in a way that many of us find useful - more than useful, indispensable. I am quixotic; my family Christmas was Shakespearean; my job is Kafkaesque; my lunch is Proustian - all of these words tell us something no other word can tell us.
Fiction’s apogee was the 19th century. This was when the novel came into its own in a quite new way: as vicarious experience. The 19th century was when the European bourgeoisie asserted its moral supremacy, or at least its aspiration to moral supremacy, and in so doing asserted its right - and its intention - to colonise the entire world (chicken, meet egg). It was the century European culture developed its forensic obsession with otherness - within and without itself. But fiction had the edge on non-fiction: an imagination could travel further, more quickly and safely, than any individual could in the real world.
Two things changed in the 20th century: the written word was superseded by the image, and mass travel and mass media became more efficient means by which we could feed our thirst for knowledge. The response was modernism: non-fiction forms might be able to describe the objective world, but the novel - and poetry, music and the filmic and visual arts - would remain the favoured forms of the subjective world. In the course of that century, the arts relinquished to varying degrees their claims on reality, focussing almost exclusively on subjectivity - nowhere more so than in the novel. In modernist novels, subjectivity was endlessly dissected so that it seemed at times to be the catch-all form for playing out the latest psychological, philosophical and/or political theories. By the century’s seventh decade, the obsession with subjectivity seemed completely exhausted, while the torrent of information becoming available to us in the realm of non-fiction was becoming a flood. We were finally at the point where we could legitimately ask the question we are still asking, why continue to read fiction? Still, great novels continued to be written and published, and it began to be apparent to many readers that part of the greatness of a novel was the very way in which it addressed this question.
I’ll admit there have been times in my life when I would have found it difficult to answer that question at all. And there are times even now when I wish more novels would try to answer it. Because that’s where the novel is at now: every novel must address the question, why continue to read fiction? In the case of too many novels, their answer is either escapism or ornamentation. Neither, I think, is satisfactory for very long. Then there are those novels that answer the question by reverting to seriousness, or to cliches of what ‘serious’ art ought to be. They can be spotted a mile off and must be avoided at all costs because they’ve contributed more than any other kind of novel to the form’s so-called demise. But every now and then I read a novel that answers the question with another question: what does it mean to be alive? And it asks this question in two ways: what does it mean to be alive right now? And also, what does it mean to be alive, ever?
And that is precisely why we should read fiction: only fiction can find the forms to be able to answer those questions, and really only a tiny sliver of fiction, the best of fiction, probably (as Nabokov reckoned) only a handful of writers every generation, can do that. Poetry’s scope is too intimate and fragmentary, and too constrained by its continuing unease with meaning. Only the invented story can continue to roam far and wide, unconstrained by budget and form, creating collages of competing structures and images and ideas and characters that together simulate the chaos, the fun, the exhilaration, the wonder, the horror and the heartbreak of what it is to be alive - right now, and forever.
Alex Landragin is the Wheeler Centre’s online content manager.