25 April 2007

at the very least...

Lance poses the question What should fiction (or writing) do?

“Should” is one of those words that makes me nervous. Nevertheless, although I’d be loath to offer up a list of shoulds and should-nots to be observed by all writers, I’ve discovered, thinking about this, that I can come up with at least one should with considerable confidence.

Fiction should transport the reader to a place s/he has never been, however powerfully the work might resonate with the reader’s own experience and understanding. This is the minimum of what everyone demands of the visual, aural, and performing arts, and fiction should be no exception.

The fiction I love best induces a textured state of mind that I carry around inside me for as long as I’m reading it, that I regret losing when that state of mind fades a few days after I’ve finished it, but that I can recover whenever I begin reading the work again. This is above all an effect of language, and one that seems utterly magical when I think about it. How does it happen? I suppose it involves a certain sort of textual synergy in which many elements come together with such power and coherence that one is transported into an altered state, and because one is transported, one feels the reality of the book’s imaginary. By this I don’t mean simply that the characters seem “real” or the details of the setting plausible. I mean the imaginative logic underlying the work’s voice and style and, perhaps more intangibly, its choice of detail, syntactical preferences, rhythm of the sentences, and formal structure, all of which combine perfectly to create feelings and perceptions and sensations and thoughts that constitute a place we would never have been able to visit on our own.

Here’s Wallace Stevens:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

Most writing, of course, doesn’t create a textured state of mind that infuses one’s whole reality for days at a time and leaves behind it a trace memory of such rapture that one never forgets. But any fiction worth reading should at the very least take us to a space that is outside of the one already in our heads (though it may be a familiar space we’ve visited often before, cozy and comfortable for some or boring and stifling for others, but always small and limited). Even the most mediocre fiction must be able to do that for at least some of its readers (though it’s obviously not going to succeed in transporting those who find such familiar high-volume tourist spots tedious and ugly).