Every time my dad and I attempt to talk, in our feebly literary ways, about literature, we reach a standoff. My dad says, “I don’t like fiction,” at which point I start reminding him of the fiction I know he has loved—Alistair MacLeod’s Island, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Hemingway's stories.
“But that’s not fiction,” he says. My dad is a carpenter and farmer who lives on the land where he was born.
“Yes, it is fiction!” I say, exacerbated by this old run-around. “All of those ‘I’s’ in Island are not actually Alistair MacLeod! How many different mothers do you think he had?”
“But I still don’t consider it fiction,” he says, stubbornly. “Because he’s capturing a real time and place.”
Okay. Now we have reached a platform of rational discussion. For we agree, deeply, on this matter. We both like literature, “fiction” or “non,” that captures what we consider to be a “real” time and place. Is this a failure of imagination on our part? Or because we feel discomfort in realms outside of the “real?” We are both earth signs. Both inextricably attached to the ground where we were born and raised (which happens to be the same, knobby, rock-laden ground). We both tend towards the pragmatic side of things. So are we suppressing the capacity of fiction, to create worlds unknown and unreal, and limiting the craft the service of documentary-like exactitude?
If there is one thing my thirties has taught me, it is to cherish who you are. And with that comes cherishing your particular tastes and preferences. Later in the conversation my dad asks me what the latest trends in literature are, and I confess I have no idea. That even though my husband and I receive The New Yorker each week I don’t always read the stories.
“Why not?” he asks. “I would think that as a fiction writer…”
I try to explain my aversion to the over-consumption of literature. Something happened to me in graduate school that was related to reading too much. It had to do with reading as a consumer rather than as a lover. I want to be swept away by the books I read, rather than marking them off some grand checklist, as some birders travel to the Galapagos and Sanibel merely in order to check a few birds off their list. I also have a sudden aversion to filling the crevices of my brain with the mediocre. By this, I mean my take on mediocre. Which, admittedly, I find many of the stories in The New Yorker to be. Astoundingly crafted? Yes. Each sentence a gem? Undoubtedly so. But is it a story or situation that moves me deeply, within which I feel the reverberations of necessity? Often, no.
Necessity. I am a broken record in my correspondences with friends regarding this word and literature. It’s something I feel I can sniff out almost immediately in a piece, often in the first paragraph. Did the author need to write this story? Or were he/she just toying around? Another way to put it might be: was it divinely inspired, or come from the narrow caverns of a very clever and adept mind? I want the wind of inspiration and the dark ravines of necessity rifting through what I read, and if I don’t find them there, well, then, I guess I’d rather be out taking a walk than reading a book. A lot to ask? Yes. Hard to achieve? Near impossible. But I’d rather read a few astoundingly beautiful books in my life than a million okay ones. I want literature to rest in the highest branches of that nearly unachievable ideal, rather than in the pedestrian realm of the achievable everyday.
And what does this—necessity, or divine inspiration—have to do with the rendering of a “real time and place?” They almost sound like polar opposites: holy imagination versus pedantic realism. Call me crazy, but almost all of the most stunning works of fiction that I’ve read, the ones that do feel most necessary, happen to be linked with a very real time and place. I can’t help but think, always, of that abandoned villa in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I think of the smoke-filled houses and the gray oceans of Alistair MacLeod’s Island. I think of the snow-dusted fields of Anna Karennina. I think of the rooms and rivers and boats of French colonial Vietnam in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. I think of Flannery O’Connor’s dust and peacock filled farmyards. I think of Robert Olmstead’s renderings of rural Vermont and New Hampshire in River Dogs. These books contain mythic beauty, the kind that transcends the clutter of the everyday, the kind that changes the way I see the world around me and the way I face the trials I encounter. They change the very light outside my door. They change the way I walk, and the way I see. They turn the “real” into something that, rather than wanting to escape, I want to pay deep attention to. They make me see and cherish the moment and the things very present outside my door. They make me feel deeply and almost breathtakingly alive. And they do so by lovingly rendering the artifacts of the very real.
Time and place. I don’t conceive of humans without them. I can’t see or recognize a life without the context of them. Am I nearly alone in this? Maybe. Am I owning it with pride? Yes. Don’t just give me a snapshot of landscape in order to tell me where my character lives. Show me how a life entwines with a place over time. Show me the smallness of my human trials in the context of something larger and more lasting, be it history or land. Show me how we can and might and do weave our lives together with the light and the trees and streets and the highways of our particular places in order to find more meaning, more depth, more universality, more contentment, more stillness, more beauty. Show me how one lives a good life. Show me how to see. Show me how to step out of the narrow confines of myself through noticing, or touching, or digging my hands into, or smelling the world around me. Show me how we are shaped by history (wars, natural disasters, tragedies) and how we are shaped by land (streets, horizons, climates). Show me how to love in the face of loss. Show me how to grow old through time. Show me what the horizon can teach me. Show me how time changes everything, and nothing, too.
Because books are our teachers. They can entertain, yes. But mostly they are our teachers. And I want the arrow of that lesson aimed at true. Which is, admittedly, not really fiction. It is truth. Expressed through story, containing the body of real time and place, in order that we may transcend the limited boundaries of our interior minds.
And so my dad and I agree, entirely, after all. Our squabbles are mere linguistics. I will keep writing what I call fiction. And he will keep telling me he doesn’t like fiction. And I will keep aspiring to write something, for both his sake and mine, expanded by time and place, that we both deem true.