Friday, December 16, 2011

Deem True

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.


  1. It would seem that your dad and my husband share a few things in common. This is all so well said, Robin, that next time he and I are bantering over fiction vs. non, I think I'm just going to open up this post and say: "Read!"

    Love this line: "They turn the “real” into something that, rather than wanting to escape, I want to pay deep attention to."

  2. Thanks for reading (this tome), Emily! And I think it's probably extraordinarily good for us fiction writers to have such people behind us, keeping us true to something or other (or at least encouraging us to justify our lies). Let me know what that hubby of yours says!

  3. Relating to it all: yes.
    And relating to necessity or divine inspiration: yes.
    Do you know this word: frondescence? "The process or period of putting forth leaves, as a tree, plant, or the like."

  4. This is all so well said. I think some of the same things about poetry, by the way, that it is in my nature simply to get to the bone of things (not always the accuracy, say, of details, but to the essentials). A lot of my own life gets in, but in ways very few people recognize. Having fidelity to all of that is important. So it's Flannery O'Connor's voice we respond to, even if it's in the throat of the misfit: those articulations get a grip & don't let go. So, sometimes after a particularly tired & tedious conversation, I find myself saying, "he would'a been ok if you could just shoot him every day..." Almost horrified that I just wrote that, but that voice is so right & even appealing to me. You'll know what I mean.

    On another note entirely, coming to names (previous post) of the ones who are about to enter our lives. Yes, that's how it happened our case. I spoke to Sarah Jewell for a long time before I met her-- she was already who she was & I wanted to get a jump on what our relationship was going to be. Her name just came to us, as things always do when we let them.

  5. Hey Robbs- thanks for putting our conversations in better perspective, they almost make sense now! I heard someone yesterday quoting Pauline Kael (sp?) who said to a young playwright, (paraphrasing here): "your characters are too small, you need to make your characters smarter than you are...." Especially in fiction! ..... your Pops

  6. I love all of this and I'm turning some things over in my head. I'm thinking about your point about "necessary". To each their own, for sure, but I'm curious, do you not enjoy watching, in some cases, a writer toy around a little? I'm totally with you on feeling weary when I read good - even great! - but exquisitely crafted, technically sound pieces that lack transcendence. But I'm wondering if, when searching for only the most epic reading experiences - which I totally find myself doing these days - you ever worry about overlooking small, beautiful moments of toying around? This is something I've been thinking a lot about these days, because though I've been almost perversely drawn to enormous novels since leaving VCFA, I've also been thinking about vital it is for me to see small moments - pieces that are more experiment than calling card, necessary as part of a progression, if not on their own - and not just let myself be swept away by the grand and breathtaking. Would be curious for the wise sentiments of you, Robin - or any of your equally wise commenters!

    PS - It tickles me to think that your dad and i were listening to the same podcast on christmas eve. I noted that same line from Pauline Kael, repeated by David Edelstein on Fresh Air . . .

  7. Caitlin! Thanks so much for this food for thought...and I hear you. The story I just got accepted included some "toying around" on my part--stretching the boundaries of reality more than I have before--and apparently it worked. I also go through phases when I feel burdened by the weightiness of much of the fiction I'm reading, espacially short stories, and crave levity. (Because levity and necessity don't have to be opposites, though it's easier to make them so.) Have you read "Nocturne" by Karen Munro, at Hunger Mountain? It's my favorite story of the year, rich with surreal playfulness. Or Laurie Moore's "Birds of America?" Both of those have been an inspiration to me of late--a challenge to make my work serious yet singed with light, too. Thanks so much for bringing your wise thoughts to this conversation!

  8. OK I'll eat a bit of crow here, I am reading Dickens' Tale of Two Cities and the prose is simply outrageous- BUT- in my head I am calling it non-fiction partially out of spite and partially because he is capturing beautifully what it must have felt like to be alive at a certain "time and place'. But some of his sentences are simply too good to pass up....

  9. Pops--call it what you want/ each their own terminology!