Thursday, April 28, 2011

Truth Versus Verisimilitude, Part Three

So I have been building my way towards a sort of polemic about what's truth and what is a lie, in regard to escapist fiction versus interpretive fiction. And today I find myself backing off from the claims I was going to make because I think I have managed to reframe the question for myself.

Originally, I had this strong idea (or strong flash of what might be an idea) that most genre fiction (and art created primarily for entertainment) operates by telling lies to the audience: lies about the audience itself, lies about the world in which we live, lies about how the audience's value system is reflected in the greater world, etc. I was going to counter that with the claim that literary fiction (what I would really prefer to call "interpretive fiction") recognizes and acts upon an obligation to approach life with a no-holds-barred attitude of discussing what people and life are really like, with the "truth" being almost always revealed to be at odds with the audience's preconcieved ideas of reality.

That was where I was going. Genre fiction, I would have said, creates verisimilitude by aping the common-but-untrue beliefs about life and the world, seeming to be "telling the truth." Literary fiction seems often less verisimilar precisely because it exposes actual states of being that most people don't recognize as being true.

My big gun, of course, was going to be pointing out that the transformative journey of the hero (the trope upon which almost all adventure tales are built) is a Big Damned Lie and that we all know it's a Big Damned Lie. That would've been fun to write about, but really, what would've been the point? Merely to establish myself as a big fucking blowhard? We already know that about me.

I said yesterday that I don't enjoy much escapist fiction (or television or films). To me, most of the time this stuff feels empty and most of it's the same thing over and over with different hats. But I also admitted that sometimes, rarely and when the mood is upon me, I'll watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Escape From New York" or even "Jaws" (which is nothing but the Campbellian Hero's Journey and is--I will admit--my all-time favorite movie and if you ask Mighty Reader she'll tell you that I can pretty much act out the whole thing, word-for-word). So I don't want to be a Big Damned Hypocrite, either.

There is something in these escapist fictions that people are drawn to. I still say that what draws people in is a lie, a shiny and false image of who we are as people and an idea of how life can be. "The outsider with unrecognized traits that will eventually be discovered and proved to be valuable to the general society" is one of the Big Damned Lies that propels a huge amount of YA fiction. The idea that everyone has a unique contribution to make is another Big Damned Lie. And so on.

At root, I think, these are the same optimistic claims made by the world religions. Not what we are, but what we could be. A nobility to strive for, maybe. Perhaps that's all a good thing then, and who am I to say that it's not. Genre fiction says "humanity is a good thing" and literary fiction says "maybe humanity isn't a good thing." Sometimes that's the dichotomy, anyway. Not always. Some literary fiction upholds the idea that man is a noble creature. Shakespeare, I think, recognized that people are capable of horrific acts and the lowliest of motivations, but at the same time I think he believed Hamlet's words when he said:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable; in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the
world, the paragon of animals!

Who am I to argue with Mr Shakespeare? Anyway, one way of looking at fiction is through this either/or lens of mine, where the tropes of genre fiction and of myth and world religion are true or they are not. I'm more willing to side with Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus right now, with their claims that existence is utterly without meaning and that human activity is pointless and that life is brutal and difficult and leads nowhere. Sounds very cheerless, doesn't it? Maybe it's better to pretend that life's not that bleak. But of course at the end of Camus' The Stranger, he claims that once you stop looking for the false "More To Life Than This," life becomes a lot easier and more sane.

So really I have nothing to say on this subject, because it seems to all come down to moralizing even when you simply want to write about what you see as truth. In a recent interview, Harold Bloom says that there is no objective truth regarding art, only subjectivity of different depths. One hopes to have a lot of depth behind one's subjective claims. I worry that I have far less depth than hubris, so I end this little triptych without saying what I was originally going to say but hoping that, you know, someone can tell me something that I haven't thought of about all this.


  1. Captain, you're gonna need a bigger blog.

  2. The next line is, of course, "Gotta get to work," spoken by Quint.

  3. Truth is in the eye of the beholder, whatever you need it to be, however you need to ascertain it.

    Unfortunately (or perhaps not), few absolute truths seem to exist... and those are argued over just as vehemently.

    And I'm with Camus... maybe not so much the brutal part, but the pointless bits... Life's short, do what you can to enjoy it, whether that be surfing the boob-tube for another 'mindless' show or head-shop hopping to understand those poetry readings from the other night... I'll be on the basketball court.

  4. The problem is that I don't know if I believe "Truth is in the eye of the beholder." I may be too much of a Platonist for that. I may be too much of an empiricist for that. I may have too big an ego for that.

    Some folks look but don't want to see and I might doubt their statements about truth. It's very tricky. I also don't believe that there is just a single way to experience the world, but because I live entirely inside my own life I am forced to privilege my own experience because that's all I really can know. Though fiction is one way to sort of experience living inside someone else's life. Did I mention that it's tricky?

  5. 'some' is fairly generous of you, methinks. Know I often find myself preferring the veil that shadows deeper truths these days b/c I tend to find it more debilitating and depressing (wrt humanity) than empowering. As you intimated, though, that's the beauty of story. For me, it gives me a chance to explore truths outside my purview.

  6. I totally agree about how really seeing no longer is empowering, but lately my project is more about humility and acceptance. But also certitude, which is damned hard to come by. I'm also having a hard time letting go of indignation. Sometimes I think indignation is an energy for positive change and sometimes I think it's just a way to throw a tantrum when the world isn't what I want it to be.

  7. There is something in these escapist fictions that people are drawn to. I still say that what draws people in is a lie, a shiny and false image of who we are as people and an idea of how life can be.

    Yes, however, for those of they who have never found love, or those of they searching for love, is escapism so bad?

    Is it not worth the lie that love can sweep you away to other places, other lives you would never know? Is it not worth the 4 hours (or 4 days) you spend reading, to be totally captivated by the IDEA of love? Of love so true you would fight dragons, demons, or your bitchy sister-in-law to claim?

    I just finished reading The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve (in 4 hours - the story captivated) and she is a literary writer. In this tome she writes about love, good, bad, and definitely ugly. No it wasn't schlocky and 'genre-esque' it was deep (so fucking deep) and compelling, and all about love and what it does and can do to the human spirit.

    So, no, Mr. Bailey, I do not think you can categorize certain ideas into genre or literary.

    Camus claims that once you stop looking for the false "More To Life Than This," life becomes a lot easier and more sane.

    If you stop looking for love, does life become easier, more sane, or does it weigh you down with unexpressable sorrow that you've given up one of God's greatest gifts? If you stop writing about love, what will you have to express then? What is left? If you lose the passion to write, to write about something you LOVE, then what becomes of the man behind the pen?

    Harold Bloom says that there is no objective truth regarding art, only subjectivity of different depths.

    Love is love, whether in genre or literary fiction. The finding, wanting, needing, yearning, catching, fulfilling, can move someone to tears and leave the reader with a lump in their throat and a longing to find THAT in their lives.

    THAT is what I want to find in a book, whether in genre or literary writing. THAT is what I want to convey to my readers when they pick up one of my books. I want them to know that LOVE is possible, not only in the written word, but in real life too.

    Even Buffy found love, Mr. Bailey.

  8. Ah yes, truth--that slippery bugger. I was just discussing Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried--that's a great novel/autobiography for truth.

    I think Shakespeare was right--man has potential, but rarely lives up to it.

  9. Anne, you say that "love is love." I don't make the mistake of believing that "love" has a universal meaning. The "love" in a lot of SF and adventure stories I read as a kid is nothing like the "love" you find in, say, Chekhov's stories.

    Love itself is not a truth. A book with love as its subject matter is not automatically going to treat love in a way that you might like. Or that I might like. There are true things to say about love and there are lies told about love. The lies told about love are just as useless as the lies told about anything else. Possibly they are more harmful than most other lies. But "love" is a subject matter, not a statement. Not all discussions of "love" in fiction are created equal.

    I'm also just going to say that I think you're conflating "romance" with "love."

    (I don't look to Joss Whedon for relationship advice, either. Yeesh. That guy could use some counseling.)

    Stephanie, I think man often stumbles over his humanity and then forgets he was ever moving toward divinity.

  10. I think your original insight had something to it.


    I write genre, mostly (except for one secret literary project I've not yet been able to pull off), and I'm keenly aware of the lies that must built into each type. For instance, my fantasy series is inspired by a true event in my life. The real story: In high school, I made the cheer leading squad, but shortly afterward, found out I had scoliosis and had to wear a backbrace whenever I was not performing. The teacher in charge of the squad completely changed her attitude toward me after she found out, and I was marginalized on the team, being only allowed to help the other girls dress but not to perform.

    In my story I disguise this, oh so cleverly, by having a character who wants to dance, but the other people think there's something wrong with her and marginalize her.

    The disguise, the metaphor, is not the part I consider the lie.

    The lie is the wish-fulfillment part of the story, where (of course) my heroine eventually discovers that she has powers far beyond what other can imagine, and in fact is the only one who can save the world. That's the lie, the part I only *wished* had happened, that I would have actually turned out to be the best cheerleader on the team, and won American Idol or something.

    But... even THAT lie conceals a certain truth. At the time I was excluded from cheerleading, it felt like the end of my world, it was painful and humiliating, and I felt like I was and always would be an outcaste and a loser. And it turns out that, well, no. Life goes on, and it turns out that being the best cheerleader is not necessary to be a successful, happy person.

    Now, one might say, why not just write the cheerleader story? And my only answer to that it is that I find it to be a really boring story without cannibals and faeries. Those are the shells and feathers I like to dress my truth in. Or maybe it's worse than that. Maybe I don't even want to think about certain painful things, unless I steal their sting with the balm of metaphor and wish-fulfillment.

    I haven't decided if that is an indication of cowardice, or perhaps (my favored theory) gross brain disfunction.

  11. Can I just ramble? Today while I was brushing my teeth, I was thinking about the story I am currently writing and the concept of "depth", which is somehow related to "truth" in my mind, although indirectly. In my story, I've been trying to write towards some goal of being deep and revealing a new truth, but I find that concept escaping me. My story is not getting there. But rather than be frustrated, I started to think about all of the other books I've read and loved that didn't necessarily uncover a new depth or truth, but instead managed to make me re-experience a depth and truth I already knew about and disengaged from. So I started thinking of my story as more of an emotional reminder of truths people already know instead of a new truth.

    Regarding love, I just wanted to say that as someone who is not religious and as someone who often accepts the idea that love is nothing but a biochemical reaction (although not understood) I still find value in it. If there is no point to life, for me, the fact that so many people grasp for love and that so many people find the mutual bonding for love is that much more magical.

    Lastly, this post and the comments really make me want to write.

  12. I think that trying to find a "new" truth is doomed, except maybe if you genetically engineer a new human first. But I think that your idea of writing something that re-engages you with a truth makes sense. There are ideas we prefer not to think about, or know perfectly well, yet ignore, and we use art to make that truth *feel* new and relevant again, even though it is something quite ancient.

  13. Tara, your comment gets at on part, at least, of the whole issue (which is maybe turning out to be much broader than I originally thought): the feathers and shells of the story. We write stories. We write fiction. A story is in itself artifice, a lie. A made-up thing. Which I accept and I sort of take off the table in this discussion.

    Certainly story telling is a lot of manipulation of the hearer/reader of the story. We control what they know and why they know it when they do and, pretty much, we control the meaning of what we tell them. Such power we have.

    About eight years ago I came up with a definition of what I thought a story was, and part of that definition is that a story "must say something true." To bring in Domey's comment, that "truth" need not be something new that I've discovered about humanity or whatever; it can simply be something that I have seen of life that I believe. Some awareness of how I'm not deluding myself about the real world, I guess might be closer.

    That of course is problematic, because each of us has a unique view of what life is and each of our viewpoints is colored by received ideas of reality and morality and so there's no way for all of us to agree about what's true. A lot of people believe wholeheartedly in the inevitible triumph of good over evil. I don't, and I feel sorry for the people who do because I think they're in for some big-ass disappointments in life.

    So I think it comes down to a fight between perceptions of reality, and we all seek out stories that we think reinforce our perceptions. I have a fairly unromantic existentialist outlook that's still in some ways fed by the dark superstitions of childhood religion. So I am most attuned to stories that reflect that particular sort of worldview. Sam Beckett, Flannery O'Connor, Albert Camus et alia. People who don't share my worldview will look at those writers and think "wow, this stuff sucks and I have no idea what they're droning on about but it's not fun."

    A lot of people believe (or want to believe) in the idea of marginalized teens who trimph over adversity. Go Harry Potter and stuff. I look at that and, while I can momentarily enjoy some of it, I know it's not truth and for me it is, in the end, empty and unfulfilling. A steady diet of it would drive me insane with boredom and anger that nobody was saying anything of any real import about life. I think a lot of stuff like that actually avoids talking about life except in certain acceptable and cliched ways (you can have your protagonist have a "dark side" if his "redeeming qualities" outweigh them and he's actively trying to overcome his "darkness" or whatever).

    On the other hand, people look at the stuff I read and say--quite truthfully--that it's just a lot of repetition of the idea that life is really hard and unfulfilling for most people. I of course think that life is really hard and unfulfilling for most people, and I think that means we as a species have an obligation to actively try to ameliorate the pain of daily life and to just be nicer to each other and stop being so fucking selfish. I have a suspicion that the Hero's Transformative Journey feeds selfishness and isolation and is, in fact, antisocial, anti-human and anti-life. It is part of the culture of "I" and I am am trying to write fiction for the culture of "you" and "us" and that's a big difference.

    I seem to be rambling at very great length.

    I'll close by saying that I doubt romantic love, and posit that real love (which is difficult and has dirty fingernails and requires work and selflessness) is far more meaningful and is also, in the end, a fair bit of beautiful magic treasure that should be cherished like nothing else.

  14. Also, yeah, I'd have just written the cheerleader story. The main point of my book "Killing Hamlet" is that the narrator Horatio is surrounded by all these brilliant or powerful men, and he knows just how excrutiatingly average he is and that is something he can never really overcome. He wants to be a scientist but he can't be because there are intellectual hurdles he can't leap over and that is just the way it is. He gets to play at being a scientist, but he knows that he's not going to actually contribute anything to the future. The best he can do is write a sort of layman's book about the brilliant scientists around him, he can be an observer but no more. His only triumph, if he has one at all, is accepting his mediocrity. A lot of people will not find this an attractive narrative or a happy commentary on life.

  15. On second thought, I wouldn't have written the cheerleader story; I'd have written the fantasy but left out the wish fulfillment part. I might have used Le Guin's original "Earthsea" trilogy as my model, where Ged grows up to be a wizard, but it's ever so very sad and the cost keeps mounting over time and there is no final triumph. It's Sisyphean and brilliant, that set of stories.

  16. The point I keep failing to make is this: that escapist fiction doesn't speak to me because it doesn't share my worldview, but that is not a failure of escapist fiction. It serves its purpose for a huge number of readers who don't share my worldview. People like stories that illustrate what they think the world is. Most people don't appreciate being nudged out of that frame of reference. Even those of us who read literary fiction are blinkered by our opinions about how life works. So in the end I know nothing about truth.

  17. Scott, it seems to me you're assuming that escapist fiction only appeals to people who don't share a "life lacks inherent meaning" worldview -- in other words, it appeals only to people who believe the lies it offers (instead of recognizing them as lies). But there seems nothing incongruous to me about having the kind of worldview you describe and enjoying indulging in a temporary "escape" from those truths in escapist fiction. Call it a willing suspension of disbelief. Sure, such things may not be your cup of tea. They may not be enjoyable for anyone who wants or needs their literature to enlighten as it entertains. But I think it bears mentioning that it's not necessary to believe the lies to enjoy them. As you say, all stories are artifice. I see it as more a matter of the degree of artifice.

  18. Jabez, I'm trying not to make that assumption. I'm trying to talk about the fiction itself, not the readers. I wrote in yesterday's post that I watch escapist movies or TV shows at times, so I'm aware of the occasional appeal of genre fiction. But I tend to view it all as more or less interchangeable stuff. The masterplots are almost always identical, the characters fill predetermined roles, etc. It doesn't take long for me to tire of the tropes and my brain soon rebels and demands something closer to my idea of truth. Not necessarily empirical reality, but human truth. So I can say that I like the Harry Potter movies but I am aware of--and sometimes dismayed by--how little they give in the way of humanity. I could go a step further and say that it would not be all bad to demand adventure fiction that doesn't trade in wish fulfillment, melodrama and heroics. But that would only serve my needs as a reader; it would not serve the needs of the majority of readers. I admit that I don't understand that, but I do see how it is.

  19. Part of it is definitely about world view. I, for instance, find Camus to be extraordinarily self-absorbed. I honestly don't think The Stranger says anything more profound than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

    But I'm also coming at it from a different philosophical stance. The Existentialist and the Buddhist can both say the same thing, "Life is meaningless, random and full of suffering," but the Existentialist response is "hell is other people" while the Buddhist response is "samsara is nirvana."

  20. There's also an age thing. One reason the wish-fulfillment, save-the-world scenario is so popular is that it embodies the way we feel, or feel more often, as teens. (Not just teens can enjoy it.) The save-the-world scenario is a coming-of-age story; romance is the falling-in-love part of love. Those are all adolescent stories, even if adults enjoy them as well.

    But middle-age stories tend to be not about world-saving but about realizing one's limitations; not about falling in love but about either falling out of love or the day-to-day comprises of folk who have been together a long time; not about being great but about coming to terms with being ordinary.

  21. We'll have to agree to disagree on Camus versus Rowling. It was only Sartre who said "hell is other people." Let's let him explain that comment for those coming in late:

    …“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because…when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. … But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.

    All beside the point, I know. And there are lots of other existentialist responses. See Kierkegaard, for example. So I agree, worldview really is important. And I think that's also reflected in (or a reflection of) age, as you point out. I wonder about middle-aged folks writing adolescent stories. I couldn't do that because I don't believe in the outcomes you find in adolescent stories. But at the same time, people deserve their entertainments.

    This whole conversation could make it difficult for me to ever write another word of fiction. Truth is somehow an important idea to me, but I think we're all in Plato's caves with crappy flashlights and no idea what a cave even is.

  22. I prefer Satre to Camus. I don't know what I hold against Camus; probably it's simple prejudice, or the result of trying to read the original in French, with all the frustration that aroused, and I should let it go. But I still prefer most Buddhist writings to most existentialists. Hell is other people; heaven is other people. Poisoned relationships distort us, but compassionate relationships heal us. It's saying the same thing, just glass half-full. There are no such thing as happy endings in real life only because there are no endings. Things just go on.

    If thinking about writing makes it difficult to write, then maybe it is better to stop thinking about writing, and think about the things that need to be written about. Or, to put it another way, there is no Truth in the abstract that we can write about, only honesty in the particulars.

  23. I'm not at all an expert on Camus, but some of the themes of The Plague seem downright humanist to me.

  24. Anon: Yeah, that's the thing about existentialism. People think it's very bleak, but it really calls for more sympathetic treatment of others and removes any sort of artificial moral high ground claimed by other philosophies (especially those based on received wisdom).