Fiction and the World

by | Feb 2, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

Rather incoherent, says Virginia Woolf, and also, as is the case with all theories, too definite.

Theories often seem too definite to me, too, especially theories about art, but still I can’t resist whittling away at one.  Earnest Hemingway says that when he used to get writer’s block he would write down the truest thing he knew, to prime the pump, and soon enough the words would begin to flow again.  An axiom is not at all a bad place to start from, so how about this one:

All fiction is a reflection of the actual world.

And now a postulate: Good fiction requires that the world of the book, the world in which the story takes place, be a consistent one, one in which the reader can form reasonable expectations.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a believable one.  There’s nothing even slightly credible about Alice in Wonderland, yet despite the seeming randomness of events there is a certain logic to them.  Cause and effect continue to operate even in a funhouse mirror.  We recognize that Alice’s adventures, though fantastic, are ‘real’ although they are presented in the language of dreams.  The subjects of dreams, too, are the actualities that we sometimes find difficult to see directly, in a state of consciousness, with the eyes of reason.

This is what artists do; we try to show you things, and the only things worth showing are real ones.  But since we have no way to show you the thing directly, but must depict it using paint or music or words, we are forced to offer up something artificial, a reflection rather than the thing itself.  And since we know how difficult it can sometimes be to see a thing directly, we sometimes offer it in the form of a myth, an animal fable, a fall down a rabbit hole, Oz.

At first, Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum appears to be set in the actual world.  The characters are a sick litter of puppies but are recognizable as human beings responding to history and circumstance.  Then Grass introduces the conceit that the protagonist is able to stop his physical growth at the age of four or whatever by hurling himself down the cellar stairs.  So far, so good.  One healthy conceit (an addition to the actual, a fancy, a thing conceived of), front and center, can be a useful way to bend the mirror.

Then it turns out that he also has the unique ability to ‘sing holes in glass.’  The strangeness increases until he achieves tremendous popularity as a lecturer due to his unique ability to put his listeners into psychic contact with their childhoods, thus prompting them, every single one, to lose bladder control, like a little kid, right there where they sit.  The real world at the beginning of the story has been pulled out from under your feet.  Damn consistency; Ideas and Symbolism full speed ahead.  The author can do whatever he wants to, and you are just a tourist, along for the ride.  Ever play Monopoly or anything with one of those kids who makes up new rules when he starts losing?

Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson also opens in a world recognizably our own, except that on page one the reader is introduced to the first of a whole set of conceits that informs the book.  Beerbohm was a visual artist, a caricaturist, one who works from nature but plays with the proportions, looks for hidden meanings and blows them up like balloons.  Beerbohm doesn’t spring things on you, yet the story is nothing short of outlandish  It follows a rigorous logic based, although pushed to extremes, on the logic of the world we live in.  We can imagine ourselves in Zuleika Dobson Land; we can watch the events there unfold around us precisely because they do unfold.  We’re not in Kansas anymore, and yet we are, but a Kansas refracted through the prism of the artist, and in Technicolor.