The Serious Business of Lying and the Enterprise of Fiction


Battle of Borodino

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Ursula Le Guin objects to the idea that science fiction is predictive. In 1976, she wrote:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Lying, you might say, is serious business. Even when it comes to fiction, when we like to be lied to. But why do we like to be lied to, those of us who read fiction and pay good money to see movies?

There’s a clue in the title of John Dufresne’s guide to writing fiction: The Lie That Tells a Truth. Fiction and film, at their best, package important truths in a tissue of lies. Some of these truths we already know before our fictive experience of them. Others we learn, if we trust the lies, when fiction happens to us. And often it is our capacity to trust the lie that makes us vulnerable to truths.

Some will protest that the novelist and the screenwriter do not lie. After all, we know “it’s only a story.” But since when has this stopped us from believing what we know isn’t so? Isn’t Le Guin onto something when she says,

In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napolean. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

And in the thick of our believing, we don’t want to be reminded that “it’s only a story.” We’re like the lad whose grandfather reads to him in the movie The Princess Bride. He’s not as ambivalent as he pretends. And neither are we. If it’s a really good story.

‘Tis the Season for Christmas Reading


There’s so much great Christmas-related fiction that you have to start January 1 to get it all in before Christmas. But the best time to dive into Christmas stories, large and small, is during the Christmas “season.” That starts earlier for some people than others. But within ten days of December 25 you should be into the spirit of things. Some good reading can help.

Here are a few tips, including some suggested reading: Read more of this post

First Lines: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy


9780141439778Laurence Sterne’s ironical work of fiction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was first published in 1759. It baffled and intrigued Sterne’s contemporaries. You may feel the same way after reading the opening sentence:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Come again? Read more of this post

Speculative Fiction by and for Christians


Twitter led me to a blog called My Friend Amy, where there’s an interesting take on speculative fiction in today’s “Faith ‘n Fiction Saturdays” category. The post addresses several questions:

  1. What is speculative fiction?
  2. What is “Christian speculative fiction”?
  3. What are the standards for high quality Christian speculative fiction?

This short post got me thinking about these and related questions. The result is a longer post sketching some of my thoughts about the general topic.

What Is Speculative about ‘Speculative Fiction’?

My Friend Amy quotes Wikipedia for an answer to this question:

Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history. (Click here for the complete Wikipedia entry for “Speculative fiction.)

The term is of relatively recent vintage. It doesn’t appear in any of the three handbooks I consult for such things:

  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 4th edition published in 1996. A new edition was published in 2008, and no doubt includes novel entries (no pun intended).
  • The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 2nd edition published in 1984. This edition was updated in 2002. Of the three books listed here, this is the best value—very affordable and reliable, with excellent coverage of authors, titles, literary movements, historical periods, terms and phrases.
  • Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch, From Absurd to Zeitgeist: The Compact Guide to Literary Terms (1997). I believe this book is out of print, but I see that (at the time of this post) one copy is in stock at Powell’s Books.

I once read an essay on speculative fiction that developed a convincing account of the form. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or where I came across the item. But I do remember thinking then that “speculative fiction” is an apt label for fiction that explores counterfactuals—ways things might have been but weren’t, or ways things might yet be but won’t. [FN: For more about counterfactuals at this website, “Run Lola Run—A Discussion Guide.”]

The interesting examples of counterfactuals are worlds very close to this, the actual world. “What if, instead of X happening at time t, something else that could easily have happened, Y, had happened at t? How would things have turned out then?” (One serious philosophical problem with speculation of this sort is that the sequel to any counterfactual at time t—the succession of events following Y, for example—may itself vary in numerous counterfactual ways. There may be many ways things might have turned out if Y had happened rather than X at t. And it’s puzzling to think that there is just one way things would have turned out in such a counterfactual setup. But I digress.)

The better fictional depictions of counterexamples would be at least minimally ‘literary.’ And they would explore themes of enduring human interest.

Could a Christian author write speculative fiction? Of course. The author at My Friend Amy’s blog alludes to several. The most obvious examples are ones that are most obviously ‘Christian.’ They broadcast a Christian message so overtly that it cannot be missed. For example, as noted in the blog post over at My Friend Amy, much Christian fiction depicts battles in the spirit world between angels and demons and the role of intercessory prayer by humans caught in the conflict. This kind of speculative fiction will appeal mostly to Christian readers, and then only to a certain kind of Christian reader. They don’t appeal to My Friend Amy for example. [FN: Some Christians, you may be surprised to hear, would argue that many such specimens of fiction are not properly Christian.]

C. S. Lewis and Others

It is interesting to me that C. S. Lewis is not mentioned. In addition to his cherished Narnia series of fantasy novels, Lewis wrote a very sophisticated series of three novels in what might be called the category of ‘space fiction.’ These are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote with subtlty and grace. It’s well-known that he wrote from a Christian worldview. But these novels do not ‘preach.’

Lewis also wrote The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. These must surely count as paradigm cases of ‘speculative fiction.’ Next time you read them, consider this question: “What sort of ‘what-if’ question is Lewis endeavoring to answer in this book?”

I think that’s the question to put to any book if you want to be sure it counts as ‘speculative fiction.’ This opens the way for ostensive definition of the term. That is, it facilitates understanding of the term ‘speculative fiction’ by pointing to clear cases of it. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Shikasta, by Doris Lessing (1979), and The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992).

It’s interesting to consider these examples in connection with questions raised by My Friend Amy. My view is that speculative fiction is a particularly congenial form for writing from a distinctive worldview, be it Christian or otherwise. It is congenial in part because it permits experimentation with the implications of a worldview without wearing that worldview on its sleeve. Doris Lessing and P. D. James both write with religious sensibilities—Lessing with the perspective of Sufism, James with a Christian worldview. [FN: Lessing was once offered the honorific title of “Dame” by Queen  of England. Lessing declined the honor. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.] The guiding perspective in each case, though often discernible, is subtly layered into the narrative. This is akin to what the great authors Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene accomplished in their more ‘realist fiction.’ [FN: See for example, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.]

For many readers of this post, the film adaptation of The Children of Men will be better known than the book. While watching the first few scenes, I thought about how this darkly apocalyptic film might render the religious component of the human condition when humanity is faced with extinction. My guess was that it would represent society as completely secular, and that any portrayal of religious people would characterize them as the kind who stand on street corners warning passersby of imminent divine judgment, in a tone that betrays their conviction that ‘none who hear will convert, and it’s just as well anyway, since they deserve to go to hell.’ That pretty much is how religion was ‘treated’ in the film.

That last statement needs qualification. What I should say is that religion, imagined under the conditions described in the film, is presented a certain way. This may be a commentary on how religion is manifest in the world today. But it’s pretty striking that no one I would call a ‘serious believer’ shows up in the movie. I imagine they don’t exist, or, if they do, they are marginally significant to the storyline. But then what would account for their nonexistence? Or what would explain their insignificance to the unfolding story? It is precisely the apocalyptic character of the story that makes their absence conspicuous. And that is interesting.

So a film or a novel may have something to say about religion even when it makes no direct reference to anything explicitly religious.

Vampires

The Amy post also asks whether fiction featuring vampires might be a venue for developing Christian themes. I’ve thought about this myself. That would be an excellent question for Anne Rice, the bestselling author of vampire fiction, and an adult convert to Christianity. Books in her newer series based on the gospel narratives has not been quite as successful as Interview with the Vampire. They are, to be sure, friendly presentations of the life and influence of Jesus. I suspect they have generated a new set of fans.

Susan Howatch

Another contemporary author known for her Christian worldview is Susan Howatch. Also a bestselling author (and British), Howatch composes stories with a realist cast. They take place in our world, you might say. See, for example, her acclaimed series beginning with the novel Glittering Images. One of her best is The High Flyer, which can be recommended to any reader with a taste for literary fiction set in the contemporary context.

* * *

A blog permits the expression of random thoughts during idle moments. I’ve exploited that opportunity here. As often happens, the flood of thoughts swelled to the point of necessary expression because of a bit of reading. This time I happened to be reading another blogger who reads.

Thank you, Amy my friend—whoever you are.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

TR on Reading Fiction for Personal Improvement


Book Cover.TR's Letters to His SonsThe American President that most fascinates and inspires me is Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve read several biographies, the best of which is by Texas A & M historian H. W. Brands. I also enjoy collections of TR’s essays and letters.

In a letter to his son Kermit, written from the White House February 3, 1906, the President reveals something of the way he viewed fiction:

Dear Kermit:

I agree pretty well with your views of David Copperfield. Dora was very cunning and attractive, but I am not sure that the husband would retain enough respect for her to make life quite what it ought to be with her. This is a harsh criticism and I have known plenty of women of the Dora type whom I have felt were a good deal better than the men they married, and I have seen them sometimes make very happy homes. I also feel as you do that if a man had to struggle on and make his way it would be a great deal better to have someone like Sophie. Do you recollect the dinner at which David Copperfield and Traddles were, where they are described as seated at the dinner, one “in the glare of the red velvet lady’ and the other “gloom of Hamlet’s aunt”? I am so glad you like Thackeray. “Pendennis” and “The Newcomes” and “Vanity Fair” I can read over and over again.

If TR felt he could read such titles by Thackery over and over again, it is because he did. Thackery is mentioned in many of his letters. Here the father takes pleasure in a shared enthusiasm with his son. And why is he so pleased with the boy’s reading predilections? Apparently because of the power fiction has to form character, to provoke thought about values and truth, and to encourage wise decisions in life.

Evidence for this dominates the quotation. Notice that TR is, in effect, counseling his son about choices in marriage. He is very subtle in this.

It’s pleasing to see that this accomplished public figure had such a relationship with his children that he would write about such things in his letters from the White House.

From the quoted portion of Roosevelt’s letter to Kermit, there is much of positive value to glean:

  • He takes time for his children in the midst of major official responsibilities.
  • He writes in a slow, reflective pace.
  • He guides by example.
  • He engages his son in discussion of ideas and values on the basis of a shared interest.
  • He shows genuine enthusiasm for great literature outside his range of responsibilities.
  • He exemplifies a manner of reading fiction that is directed by the desire to grow in wisdom.
  • He advises the young without preaching at them in any condescending fashion.
  • He regards his son as a peer in the realm of ideas.
  • He looks for points of contact between the fictional characters he meets with in reading and living individuals he knows personally.

It’s enough to make you want to go back and read David Copperfield, and check out the works he cites by William Thackeray.

William Makepeace Thackery, Painted by Sir John Gilbert

William Makepeace Thackery, Painted by Sir John Gilbert

Works mentioned in this post:

Kindle users should know that there is a Kindle collection of over 100 of Thackery’s publications (including the three mentioned in this post) that you can get with a single purchase (cost: $4.79 at the time of this post). Click here. I like the Kindle!

Book Cover.TR's Letters to His Sons.2The quotation is from page 80 in The Letters and Lessons of Theodore Roosevelt for His Sons, edited and compiled by Doug Phillips.

This is Conjecture, You Understand?


Robert Harris is one of my new favorite authors. His genre? Literary fiction in the thriller/suspense vein. Fatherland is his most celebrated work. But I first read The Ghost.

book-coverthe-ghostThe Ghost is written in the first person by a ghostwriter who is commissioned by his publisher to help a former British prime minister draft his memoirs. The project has to be completed within a few weeks to meet the publisher’s deadline. Our man, the ghostwriter, must scramble to repair an initial and very unsatisfactory draft, because the first ghostwriter has died—under mysterious circumstances, of course.

The Ghost reads well from the start. It’s immediately engrossing, for someone who likes this sort of thing. The plot is intricate and plausible. The finale is realistic but unpredictable. The narrator is the hero, and since it’s narrated in the first person, that means Harris has to be careful how the hero defines himself for his reader. It turns out, the protagonist is pretty human. He writes books that others get credit for. He’s intelligent but self-effacing. He makes dangerous mistakes, but works his way through trouble. His life is transformed by the events he narrates, but we’re not entirely sure what that means as the story comes to an end. One thing we do know—he doesn’t get the girl. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that readers will not forget what they’ve read.

Ditto for Fatherland. But the possibilities turned up here are more disturbing.

I classify this novel as a counterfactual historical novel. What does that mean? First, it’s based on historical events and real people. The setting is 1960s Berlin. The counterfactual conceit is that Hitler is still in power and is about to celebrate his 75th birthday. Harris considers what might have been, had Hitler survived the Allied invasion.

book-coverfatherlandOn the scenario he envisions, the Reich encompasses all of Europe, including England and France. Hitler’s military continues to battle the Russians on the eastern front. He’s negotiated a détente with the United States. President Kennedy—that’s Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kenney—is paying the Fürher a personal visit to commemorate his birthday. Hitler’s solution to “the Jewish problem” has been almost completely successful, and yet the details about what has happened to the Jewish population of Europe are known only to a handful of high-level members of the Nazi regime.

The story begins with an apparently routine crime scene investigation. Xavier March, of the kriminalpolizei, is dispatched to head the investigation. A corpse has been discovered on the forested edge of the river Havel. The deceased may have drowned accidentally. It may, somehow, have been suicide. The trail of clues suggests homicide.

Homicide it is. But by whom and for what reason? March is determined to find out. Soon he’s embroiled in a plot to cover up dangerous truths. Each turn in the investigation leads to further complication, confusion, and risk to Sturmbannfürher March himself.

Harris’s carefully researched novel reveals the Führer’s ghastly strategy to eliminate the Jewish race. It describes the practical difficulties that had to be overcome in order to make it work. And it envisions a horrific post-war outcome that may well have been realized if Hitler had had his way.

An American journalist collaborates with March. She believes that a public revelation of the facts would lead, sooner or later, to the collapse of a regime built “on a mass grave.” She’s confident that human beings, possessed with the knowledge of what had really happened, would not let it stand. The protagonist, Herr March, is skeptical. But he does know how, as a homicide investigator, to “turn suspicion into evidence.” And he’s compelled to do his part to sort out the nasty business. Whether the damning evidence he finds could change history is another matter.

At one point, March is explaining his theory about what the evidence means. He says, “This is conjecture, you understand?” Robert Harris has given us a suspenseful novel of counterfactual history that is filled with plausible conjecture. The last page ends with a fitting quote from Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been.”

Be Still and Know that I Am an Artist


Margaret Atwood tells a joke:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, “I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation—of this century. No—this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul.”

“Sure,” says the writer, “Absolutely—give me the pen, where do I sign?” Then he hesitates. “Just a minute,” he says. “What’s the catch?”

Atwood uses this fictional exchange to explore “the problem of moral and social responsibility in relation to the content of a work of art.” The passage appears in chapter four of her 2002 book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I’m still in chapter three, but I skipped ahead.

Negotiating with the Dead is a literary essay on the writer as artist. At least, that’s true of the half I’ve read so far. Chapter 3, titled “The Great God Pen,” traces the Art Wars generally, and the world of poetry and fiction as a theatre of war in particular. And she examines an interesting argument—strictly syllogistic, mind you—that “we should devote ourselves to beauty-worship.” An unexpected but crucial premise in this argument is Jesus’ declaration, “The truth shall make you free.”

The interesting story here is that art has displaced religion in a secular society. Atwood isn’t all that explicit about this. But what she says is suggestive. Her chapter begins with clichéd questions about literary worth and money. Since writers are warned against unrealistic expectations of monetary gain, they must come to grips with deeper incentives. One possibility commends “the social usefulness of art.” But writers beguiled by this idyllic motive are victims of censorship, often inflicted by themselves. “Thus, the heroes of Art became those who were willing, as they say, to push the envelope.”

In due course, this pushed artists in the direction of a “pure aesthetic” that pitted art against moral purpose. The upshot, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is that beauty, rather like God, “is its own excuse for being.”

Oscar Wilde drew out religious parallels with art that imitate the language of Christianity, says Atwood. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde wrote, “No artist has ethical sympathies.” He added, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”

The artist is a high priest of the imagination. But this does not require scruples. When it comes to Art, some get it and some don’t. Art for art’s sake is non-utilitarian. It disdains mammon and turns a blind eye to social responsibility. For a writer of this persuasion, there is no accountability. The only ultimate is the instinct of the artist.

Atwood explores this theme without committing herself to its creed. But she does seem to think that there are only two other motives for writing. They are writing for monetary gain and writing to fulfill a social responsibility of one sort or another.

***

Atwood is probably best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), depicting an apocalyptic future with the world’s women in subjection to a theocracy run by fanatical devotees of the Bible. The film adaptation appeared in 1990, starring Faye Dunnaway, Natasha Richardson, and Robert Duvall.

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