No More Dirty Laundry: In Defense of Fiction
Preeta Samarasan on why fiction matters in more ways than one
A couple of years ago, I attended a writersâ€™ conference at which a famous author made a disparaging remark about â€œall these memoirs by 22-year-olds.â€ A horrified silence followed his comment, and later, during the question-and-answer session, an indignant 22-year-old woman stood up to announce that she was working on a memoir: was he trying to tell her not to write it?
â€œYes,â€ said the famous author. â€œItâ€™s possible that you are a very unusual 22-year-old who has led a very unusual life, but since that is statistically unlikely in this setting, I think itâ€™s safe for me to say that you should not write that memoir.â€
Iâ€™ll come clean: I fully agree with that famous author. When I taught creative writing for one semester at an American university, I did all I could to steer my students â€” most of them 18- or 19-year-olds â€” away from writing about themselves. Iâ€™m willing to concede that there may be exceptions to this rule: that if you are 22 years old but have lived through war or genocide or some truly unusual personal tragedy, you might have something interesting to say about your own life.
But too many memoirs and confessional essays masquerading as short fiction are about ordinary lives from which the writer is unable, or unwilling, to gain the healthy distance that breeds valuable insight. These are stories that, to quote a witty friend of mine, â€œall unfold in dorm rooms and kitchens,â€ and their writers would do well to take the advice of Peter Carey and other successful authors and write, for a change, about what they donâ€™t know. Yet one canâ€™t only blame young writers for turning increasingly away from fiction: the reading public these days is hungry for â€œtrue stories,â€ and the publishing industry, like any industry, wants to satisfy its consumers. Nonfiction sells, young writers are told repeatedly â€” Can you link this novel to your own life somehow? Readers will love it! These are the terrible words we stubborn writers of fiction have heard too many times from our friends, our parents, our students, our hairdressers: â€œI could really relate to that book/short story/film – just knowing it was a true story, you know?â€
No, I donâ€™t know, actually. I donâ€™t want to know. The movement away from fiction distresses me, and not just because I write fiction, but because it marks the decline of a tradition whose value has rarely been questioned for millennia. Human beings are unique among all creatures in their ability to invent narratives. Why did we evolve to be able to do this? What use is it to be able to convey information that is, strictly speaking, untrue? The answer lies in what writers and readers have always known: that fiction contains greater truths than fact. Since the beginning of recorded history we have made sense of our world with myths and legends and fables, because weâ€™ve understood â€” without having to say it in so many words â€” that fact and truth are two different animals, and that freedom from the constraints of the former pushes us towards the latter, forces us to greater and greater feats of empathy, strengthens us emotionally and intellectually.
In his magnificent essay Notes on The History of Fiction, E.L. Doctorow asks, â€œWho would give up [Homerâ€™s] Iliad for the historical record?â€ He intends it as a rhetorical question; I worry that someday it will not be. â€œToday,â€ he declares, â€œit is only children who believe that stories, by the fact of their being told, are true. Children and fundamentalists.â€ I wish it were so. Doubtless, Doctorow moves in more sophisticated circles than I usually do, for I routinely encounter surprise and suspicion when I tell people what I do for a living. â€œYou mean,â€ they say incredulously, â€œyou just make stuff up? The stories you write have never actually happened?â€ They look at me as if Iâ€™ve just claimed to be a soothsayer or a witch doctor â€” in fact, in Malaysia, those professions would probably inspire more confidence.
Of course Iâ€™m ruthlessly generalizing for dramatic effect: people who read for pleasure are not bewildered by the very idea of fiction. Yet even they seem to place fiction writers in the same category as sportsmen and film stars: we serve merely to entertain, but being neither as athletic nor as good-looking as those other entertainers, weâ€™re condemned to scribbling away in garrets. The question of whether artâ€™s primary purpose is to entertain or to edify is an ancient one, and it is not my intention to revisit it here. Rather, I urge you to question the assumption that nonfiction informs and educates, while fiction entertains. Fiction is an escape from the real world â€” or is it?
It can be, of course. Iâ€™ve read my share of P.G. Wodehouse and Dorothy L. Sayers and will continue to do so when I need an escape. But serious fiction â€” what is often referred to as â€œliterary fictionâ€ â€” is an immersion in the real world, not an outlet from it. It seeks to be more real, more terrifying, less forgiving than the real world; it reaches, as Robert Stone once observed to Ian McEwan in a now-famous exchange, â€œfor the worst possible case.â€ In response, McEwan came up with one of the most eloquent definitions of serious fiction Iâ€™ve ever encountered: â€œWe use these worst cases to gauge our own moral reach.â€ That single sentence summarizes the higher purpose of fiction, the imperative that has fuelled storytellers from Homer to Cormac McCarthy.
By winnowing out banalities, deliberately muddying the waters of our moral universe and asking questions instead of claiming to offer facts, fiction exercises muscles that nonfiction cannot.
Preeta Samarasan is the author of Evening is the Whole Day. She was born and raised in Malaysia but moved to the United States during high school. After spending several years working on a dissertation on gypsy music in France, all the while writing fiction, she decided to switch tracks. She recently received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, where an early version of her acclaimed novel received the Hopwood Novel Award, and she lately won the Asian American Writersâ€™ Workshop short story award. Preeta will be appearing at next monthâ€™s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.