Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Fiction is Not a Thesis Paper

When a fiction writer states a reason why he or she wrote a certain book and says something like, "I wanted to talk about the [blank] experience" or "We need to see a different side of [something]", I tend to become disinclined to read that person's book.  I get the feeling that the writer conceived the book with a particular thesis in mind and then tried to figure out how to create characters and a plot to fit that thesis. Or I suspect that the writer feels, with a heightened sense of self-importance, that he or she has to tell their story on behalf of some large group of people whose perceptions about a subject, as the writer sees it, need alteration. They assume there is a "we" that they, the writer, represent.  Who this "we" is to the writer becomes clear from the tone and perspective of the book.

It seems to me that these are among the worst ways to go about conceiving a novel.  The writer is starting, in essence, with the general and working toward the specific. This procedure is perfectly acceptable, even expected, in non-fiction, where a writer is writing about a specific subject or subjects and often wrote the book in the first place to illuminate certain facts, statistics, trends, ideas.  The writer started with a thesis, an argument if you will, and then writes a book to support that thesis. Specifics are presented to buttress the general argument.

Fiction, the best fiction, works exactly the opposite way.  Obviously, writers feel passionate about any number of issues and problems in the world, but the good writers start from the specific  -- an idiosyncratic character, an unusual situation, a mere image -- and build their story from there.  Flaubert says he wrote Salammbo, set in ancient Carthage against a lunar desert landscape, because he wanted to convey a sense of the color yellow.  From that idea, with a large cast of totally individual characters, he weaves an epic tale of war, love, sex, death, betrayal, ambition -- you name it.  

Or take a book like Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star.  It tells the story of a woman named Macabea, an ill-educated typist who lives in utter poverty in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.  In part, this novel is about the struggles and suffering of the poor, the forgotten, the nearly nameless.  But first and foremost, you read about the external and internal life, the daily grind and spiritual journey, of one particular woman.  And that woman is so well-drawn, so clear to the reader, odd as she is, that, yes, you can expand from Macabea and say that perhaps she does represent a certain type and that it's a type that's universal. Poor people, poor women like Macabea, exist all over Brazil and all over the world.  But Lispector starts with one human being she invented and who is not like any other human being. Macabea is the farthest thing you could imagine from a stereotype.

In the various critiques I've read of American Dirt, the writers have pointed out a slew of books you can read instead if you want to delve into narratives having to do with the US-Mexico border and the issues related to it.  But again, the good ones will work from the inside out, as it were, beginning with real people and not working from the outside in because, as the American Dirt author puts it about migrants, "We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings."  As has been asked by many, who the hell is "we"?  Again, beware the writer who tosses around that word.  "We think this and we think that."  Really?  Do we?  Speak for yourself, author.  No wonder you're likely to produce contrived abstractions instead of complicated, nuanced characters. 

I got no sense, to cite one example, of a writer overtaken by a "we" complex when I read Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World.  Here's a book of power and vivid imagination that explores the Mexican-US border world through the eyes of Makina, a woman whose crossing and dangerous quest is at once unique to her and mythological in scope.  Or to recall one of Herrera's inspirations, the great Juan Rulfo.  His novel Pedro Paramo gives us a picture of a Mexican town, a ghost town actually, that is like nothing else in the world of fiction.  That town is a Mexican town, with a specific geography, no question.  But the people in it, most of them poor, could be people anywhere. 

It bears noting, by the way, that neither Lispector's book nor Herrera's nor Rulfo's are works of social realism.  They all tackle the social issues they deal with through brilliant elliptical language or through magical realism.  Not that one can't tackle social issues head-on in fiction.  It's done, and often.  But perhaps to some extent, these books carry power because they are products of the writers' individualistic visions, not self-appointed mandates to tell people "stuff" the author thinks they need to know.

Unfair to compare anyone's book to Lispector or Herrera or Rulfo?  I don't think so.  If the great writers are not the standard, what the hell is the point?