In Praise of (Good) Fiction

I’ve been thinking. (Dangerous.) I’ve been thinking about fiction because I’ve been trying to read a little more of it lately and soon I plan to be writing quite a bit of it. And in doing so, it’s become apparent to me that I have strong opinions about what is and what isn’t really good story-telling–perhaps to an extent that catches people around me off-guard. Sometimes, in the midst of conversation, I back myself into a corner and find myself having to explain why it is that I have just announced my disdain for much of the fiction of Wendell Berry or Marilynne Robinson, but that I do love The Mennyms and Decline and Fall and Invisible Man and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and True Grit.

There are very few things that will make me drop all pretense of being an agreeable person and begin saying foolhardy things than just getting me started on literature, most particularly getting me started on whether a story is a good one. Though the particulars of things are my bread and butter and I fully believe that only through particulars are we able to touch upon the universal, etc., etc., it might do me good to take a bit of a step back and look at the whole forest of the fiction that I love and try to understand its commonalities. What makes stories commonly good?

 

Well, I know that every really transcendent piece of fiction I’ve ever read is somehow completely unselfconscious. It is open to being read, but it does not need a reader. One gets the sense at times with a particularly strong story that even the action of the writer was incidental to its existence. It is an organic thing with beating heart and restless limbs which has always been existing at its own frenetic pace in its own universe and history with its own people and noise. 

Because of this, really good fiction is focused on its own story-ness and does not secretly wish it were a sermon or a poem. It knows that we do not live our lives in the form of philosophical treatises or expositional texts, but that life, in its rawest most incomprehensible form, is story, with beginning, middle, rising actions, characters, complications, and denouements, most of which are not recognizable when we are in their midst. Life does not pander to us and offer us reassuring explanations for its eccentricities, so good fiction reflects this in the way it drags us full steam ahead into the bright and blinding wilderness of its characters and happenings. Flannery O’Connor said that good fiction writers get dusty while doing their work. Well, I think the rest of us also get dusty while reading it.

We know we have loved a book and, perhaps more to the point, been loved by it, when we walk away from the last page changed, feeling as if our organs have been rearranged, as we’ve fallen in love, moved away from home and back again, jumped off a cliff only to be caught by the wind. But though we just spent all those hours with words, and they are the tools which have communicated the torture and salvation to us, they will somehow not suffice to explain the wonder of what we’ve experienced. Perhaps such a wonder is not possible to explain at all.

In reading, we have been allowed a glimpse at something–a world, a people, a home, a pain–which may be even real-er than we are. And this is a great mystery to me: the best stories I have read feel like secrets. I know that Jane Eyre is a classic and has been read and loved and dissected and devoured and regurgitated by millions. I’ve had my share of conversations about it and even used it as a discussion example when I taught history to teenagers, and yet I am sure no one has entered it like I have, loved it like I have. The ageless, hungry little reader inside me will never actually believe that it is not her own private treasure in the same way that she will never quite believe that Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye is not her personal friend. It is that unaccountably real to me. So not only is good fiction’s realness to us inexplicable (after all, we know that it’s fiction), but its real-ness and frequent intimate proximity to our own hearts and deepest concerns make the best fiction literally inexplicable. Our favorite stories are beyond explanation: they heroically resist it, even (Lord preserve us) in high school English classes.

Good fiction matters because when we read it and then set the book down at the end and attempt to walk away from it, we find that we cannot. The story will follow. We have walked into another world and lived there, and now we stumble back into our world to live here, with the extra appendage we have gained dragging along behind us, making us weightier, older, more.

 

So those are my justifications for my occasional outbursts about story, for the moments when I say indefensible things like, “I just don’t think that’s the way to write fiction.” I am so aware of fiction’s wondrous and frightening power to change everything about us. Some books seem to change the density of our bones and course of the blood in our veins. But ultimately, I can’t tell you or myself or anyone what makes good fiction what it is. It’s ineffable. Good fiction, like beauty, is its own answer. 

Soon (now this makes me shiver a bit to write) I will be writing fiction for my final project, hopefully good fiction, but for now I’m writing this. And I have not been happy with the last few entries I’ve written here, which has gotten under my skin. What I’ve had to say has been fine, but I know I have not hung back long enough before publishing to play with the words, to take joy. It is all kinds of writing that we need to get dusty. And even as I write these short blog entries, I must be willing not only to stop and play in the dust, but to simply wait in it, in the grubby, glinting caves of my own little life, in deflated vowels and unwieldy consonants. I must wait unselfconsciously, with no particular agenda in mind but the offering of praise.

Last Wednesday after dinner we went for a walk across a field in ankle-deep snow under a multichrome sky. I toyed with the idea of writing to tell you about it, but, like I said, beauty is its own reward. Not all poems have to be written if they have been lived.

A Very Small Story (with a Moral)

This morning I came into my classroom, made tea, and sat down with a senior to help her with her thesis topic. The chairs were up on tables for the floor to be cleaned the night before, so we just took two down, because that was all we needed.

Part-way through our meeting, a sophomore boy who’s in the elective that meets first hour in my room came in to leave his things there. I said hello, and went back to my conversation. Five or ten minutes later, when the senior girl left, armed (I hope) with revision ideas, I looked up and saw that all the chairs were down. “Did you do that?” I asked him. He shrugged and said yes. I thanked him and he disappeared back out into the hall.

Not only do they clean the floors on Monday, but on Tuesday night as well. Usually I try to remember to ask the kids in my last hour to put them up, but they were very invested in the review game we were playing today, so I let class run right up to the bell, and by the time I remembered about the chairs, the room had cleared out. I began to put them up alone, one by one, silently berating myself for not asking for help when I had it available to me.

Then I looked up to see that two of my juniors were still left packing their things, and two more who I didn’t even have today had wandered in for unknown reasons. Without my requesting help, or the kids even asking if I needed it, they all began to put chairs on tables, juggling their book-bags and binders. The job was done in ten seconds, and by the time I thanked them, they were all already out my door again. They didn’t acknowledge their own kindness.

This is a very small thing, smaller than small, but I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since. I was even distracted from grading freshman papers tonight because I was remembering.

I think there are two reasons that it had such weight for me. First, I am tired, and I have had a hard week or two. Kindness means most when you need it most.

But more than that, help was offered to me so freely, without expectation of anything in return, not even gratitude or recognition. I love my students, and they are often sweet and pleasant, but this reflexive willingness to immediately and unassumingly fill whatever inauspicious need is placed in front of them–this is rare, both among teenagers and among people in general. To see such a virtue active and growing in them moves me more than they can know. When my students are able to step out into the world as that kind of salt and light, they’ll certainly have far surpassed everything I have to teach them, regardless of what they know about comma placement or the cotton gin.

God is good.