One of my professors asked our class last week how many of us were interested in writing fiction of our own. She was trying to get us to consider the implications of using one strategy for telling a story based on your own life over another. But I was left thinking instead about the implications of nearly everyone in the room raising a hand. Is the audience for any aspiring author’s work composed exclusively of other aspiring authors? If so, does that mean literature is no more than a exclusive society of the published and consumed forever screening would-be initiates, forever dangling the prize of admission to their ranks, allowing only the elite to enter, and effectively sealed off from the world of the non-literary?
Most of our civilization has advanced beyond big books. People still love their stories, but everyone’s time is constrained, and the choices of entertainment are infinite. Reading The Marriage Plot is an extravagance. Reading Of Human Bondage, the book we’re discussing in my class, is only for students of college English and the middle-class white guys trying to impress them. Nevertheless, Jonathan Franzen, whose written two lengthy, too lengthy works of fiction that enjoy a wide readership, presumably made up primarily of literary aspirants like me (I read and enjoyed both), told an Italian interviewer that “There is an enormous need for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.”
British author Tim Parks quotes Franzen in a provocative post at The New York Review of Books titled “Do We Need Stories?” Parks notes that “as a novelist it is convenient to think that by the nature of the job one is on the side of the good, supplying an urgent and general need.” Though he’s written some novels of his own, and translated several others from Italian to English, Parks suspects that Franzen is wrong, that as much as we literary folk may enjoy them, we don’t really need complex narratives. We should note that just as Franzen is arguing on behalf of his own vocation Parks is arguing against his, thus effecting a type of enlightened cynicism toward his own work and that of others in the same field. “Personally,” he says, “I fear I’m too enmired in narrative and self narrative to bail out now. I love an engaging novel, I love a complex novel; but I am quite sure I don’t need it.”
Parks’ argument is fascinating for what it reveals about what many fiction writers and aficionados believe they’re doing when they’re telling stories. It’s also fascinating for what it represents about authors and their attitudes toward writing. Parks rubs up against some profound insights, but then succumbs to some old-fashioned humanities nonsense. Recalling a time when he served as a judge for a literary award, Parks quotes the case made by a colleague on behalf of his or her favored work, which is excellent, it was insisted, “because it offers complex moral situations that help us get a sense of how to live and behave.” As life becomes increasingly complex, then, fraught with distractions like those incessant tweets, we need fictional accounts of complex moral dilemmas to help us train our minds to be equal to the task of living in the modern world. Parks points out two problems with this view: fiction isn’t the only source of stories, and behind all that complexity is the author’s take on the moral implications of the story’s events which readers must decide whether to accept or reject. We can’t escape complex moral dilemmas, so we may not really need any simulated training. And we have to pay attention lest we discover our coach has trained us improperly. The power of stories can, as Parks suggests, be “pernicious.” “In this view of things, rather than needing stories we need to learn how to smell out their drift and resist them.” (Yeah, but does anyone read Ayn Rand who isn't already convinced?)
But Parks doesn’t believe the true goal of either authors or readers is moral development or practical training. Instead, complex narratives give pleasure because they bolster our belief in complex selves. Words like God, angel, devil, and ghost, Parks contends, have to come with stories attached to them to be meaningful because they don’t refer to anything we can perceive. From this premise of one-word stories, he proceeds,
Arguably the most important word in the invented-referents category is “self.” We would like the self to exist perhaps, but does it really? What is it? The need to surround it with a lexical cluster of reinforcing terms—identity, character, personality, soul—all with equally dubious referents suggests our anxiety. The more words we invent, the more we feel reassured that there really is something there to refer to.
When my classmates and I raised our hands and acknowledged our shared desire to engage in the creative act of storytelling, what we were really doing, according to Parks, was expressing our belief in that fictional character we refer to reverentially as ourselves.
One of the accomplishments of the novel, which as we know blossomed with the consolidation of Western individualism, has been to reinforce this ingenious invention, to have us believe more and more strongly in this sovereign self whose essential identity remains unchanged by all vicissitudes. Telling the stories of various characters in relation to each other, how something started, how it developed, how it ended, novels are intimately involved with the way we make up ourselves. They reinforce a process we are engaged in every moment of the day, self creation. They sustain the idea of a self projected through time, a self eager to be a real something (even at the cost of great suffering) and not an illusion.
Parks is just as much a product of that “Western individualism” as the readers he’s trying to enlighten as to the fictional nature of their essential being. As with his attempt at undermining the ultimate need for his own profession, there’s a quality of self-immolation in this argument—except of course there’s nothing, really, to immolate.
What exactly, we may wonder, is doing the reading, is so desperate to believe in its own reality? And why is that belief in its own reality so powerful that this thing, whatever it may be, is willing to experience great suffering to reinforce it? Parks suggests the key to the self is some type of unchanging and original coherence. So we like stories because we like characters who are themselves coherent and clearly delineated from other coherent characters.
The more complex and historically dense the stories are, the stronger the impression they give of unique and protracted individual identity beneath surface transformations, conversions, dilemmas, aberrations. In this sense, even pessimistic novels—say, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace—can be encouraging: however hard circumstances may be, you do have a self, a personal story to shape and live. You are a unique something that can fight back against all the confusion around. You have pathos.
In this author’s argument for the superfluity of authors, the centrality of pain and suffering to the story of the self is important to note. He makes the point even more explicit, albeit inadvertently, when he says, “If we asked the question of, for example, a Buddhist priest, he or she would probably tell us that it is precisely this illusion of selfhood that makes so many in the West unhappy.”
I don’t pretend to have all the questions surrounding our human fascination with narrative—complex and otherwise—worked out, but I do know Parks’ premise is faulty. Unlike many professionalscholars in the Humanities, Parks acknowledges that at least some words can refer to things in the world. But he goes wrong when he assumes that if there exists no physical object to refer to the word must have a fictional story attached to it. There is good evidence, for instance, that our notions of God and devils and spirits are not in fact based on stories, though stories clearly color their meanings. Our interactions with invisible beings are based on the same cognitive mechanisms that help us interact with completely visible fellow humans. What psychologists call theory of mind, our reading of intentions and mental states into others, likely extends into realms where no mind exists to have intentions and states. That’s where our dualistic philosophy comes from.
While Parks is right in pointing out that the words God and self don’t have physical referents—though most of us, I assume, think of our bodies as ourselves to some degree—he’s completely wrong in inferring these words only work as fictional narratives. People assume, wrongly, that God is a real being because they have experiences with him. In the same way, the self isn’t an object but an experience—and a very real experience. (Does the word fun have to come with a story attached?) The consistency across time and circumstance, the sense of unified awareness, these are certainly exaggerated at times. So too is our sense of transformation though, as anyone knows who’s discovered old writings from an earlier stage of life and thought, “Wow, I was thinking about the same stuff back then as I am now—even my writing style is similar!”
Parks is wrong too about so-called Western society, as pretty much everyone who uses that term is. It’s true that some Asian societies have a more collectivist orientation, but I’ve heard rumors that a few Japanese people actually enjoy reading novels. (The professor of the Brittish Lit course I'm taking is Chinese.) Those Buddhists monks are deluded too. Ruut Veenhoven surveyed 43 nations in the early 1990s and discovered that as individualism increases, so too does happiness. “There is no pattern of diminishing returns,” Veenhoven writes. “This indicates that individualization has not yet passed its optimum.” What this means is that, assuming Parks is right in positing that novel-reading increases individualism, reading novels could make you happier. Unfortunately, a lot of high-brow, literary authors would bristle at this idea because it makes of their work less a heroic surveying of the abyss and more of a commodity.
The insight that Parks never quite manages to arrive at is that suffering is integral to stories of the self. If my story of myself, my identity, doesn’t feature any loss or conflict, then it’s not going to be very compelling to anyone. But what’s really compelling are the identities which somehow manage to cause the self whose stories they are their own pain. Identities can be burdensome, as Parks intimates his is when he reveals his story has brought him to a place where he’s making a living engaging in an activity that serves no need—and yet he can’t bring himself seek out other employment. In an earlier, equally fascinating post titled "The Writer's Job," Parks interprets T.S. Eliot's writing about writers as suggesting that "only those who had real personality, special people like himself, would appreciate what a burden personality was and wish to shed it."
If we don’t suffer for our identities, then we haven’t earned them. Without the pain of initiation, we don’t really belong. We’re not genuinely who we claim to be. We’re tourists. We’re poseurs. Mitt Romney, for instance, is thought to be an inauthentic conservative because he hasn’t shown sufficient willingness to lose votes—and possibly elections—for the sake of his convictions. We can’t help but assume equivalence between cost and value. If your identity doesn’t entail some kind of cost, well, then it’s going to come off as cheap. So a lot of people play up, or even fabricate, the suffering in their lives.
What about Parks’ question? Are complex narratives necessary? Maybe, like identities, the narratives we tell, as well as the narratives we enjoy, work as costly signals, so that the complexity of the stories you like serves as a reliable indication of the complexity of your identity. If you can truly appreciate a complex novel, you can truly appreciate a complex individual. Maybe our complicated modern civilization, even with its tweets and Kindles, is more a boon than a hindrance to complexity and happiness. What this would mean is that if two people on the subway realize they’re both reading the same complex narrative they can be pretty sure they’re compatible as friends or lovers. Either that, or they’re both English professors and they have no idea what’s going on, in which case they’re still compatible but they’ll probably hate each other regardless. At least, that's the impression I get from David Lodge's Small World, the latest complex narrative assigned in my English Lit course taught by a professor from an Eastern society.