How It All Is

All fiction is about people, and most fiction includes two or more characters in the story. The only exceptions I can think of offhand are a few stories by Jack London in which one man is confronting nature all alone. (Maybe Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” as well — haven’t read it in a long time.) In their interactions with one another, two people are a microcosm of society.

What’s more, all fiction at least implicitly makes statements of some sort about good and evil. What’s desirable, what causes suffering, whether a specific case of suffering is necessary to procure a greater good, whether a character has failed to do good out of ignorance or cowardice — all that stuff. A fiction writer who takes no position, even implicitly, on what is desirable or undesirable is inevitably going to produce a very dull story. The events in such a story can only be chosen at random, because if the writer makes non-random choices, he or she will be introducing the question of what he or she considers good or not-good in human life.

That being the case, all fiction (other than those stories by Jack London) is political. The question of what is desirable or undesirable in society is, unavoidably, a political question.

Writers of fiction have, I’m sure, the usual gamut of political views. Some of us have an axe to grind; others simply want to tell a story. But even if you’re not trying to promote your political views explicitly, they will be there on the page in one form or another. The kinds of characters you choose to write about and their economic circumstances will be influenced by your views.

It has become commonplace in the past ten or twenty years, for instance, to include a gay character. If you do, you’ll have to decide how to portray that character, which may be difficult if you’re not comfortable with homosexuality. If you don’t include a gay character, again you’re making a statement. You can’t avoid it. If you’re writing plotted fiction, you’ll probably have a villain or two in your story, and the type of villain you choose (a corporate lawyer, a crooked police detective, a sadistic pimp, a Communist spy) will reflect your view of what a good society would be like, if only there weren’t any of those evil people around screwing things up.

Whether a reader thinks an overtly political book is good or bad will depend on whether the reader agrees or disagrees with the writer’s views. I happen to think Atlas Shrugged is a pernicious piece of crap. Some people find it inspiring. I bring up that particular book because Ayn Rand’s most troubling failure was a failure of compassion. She had none. Her political philosophy was explicitly based on the idea that everybody should fend for themselves, that nobody should ever help anybody else. It’s a vile philosophy, and it could only be sustained through a systematic failure of compassion.

Good writing demands that we have compassion, even for people (and characters) with whom we disagree profoundly. We need to understand their weaknesses, their confusion, the ways in which they have been trapped into bad thinking. I haven’t done a survey, but I’d bet money that liberal writers are a lot better at showing compassion for conservative characters than the other way around.

The chore for all writers is not to oversimplify. A writer who takes the attitude, “If everybody agreed with my wonderful philosophy, the world would be a wonderful place,” is already guilty of a horrible mistake, quite aside from the specifics of the philosophy. The real world is messy. There are no easy answers. When shit happens, there are repercussions.

Failing to show the repercussions is TV writing. Have you ever noticed that when people are shot and killed in a TV script, the show almost never shows the funeral or the grieving survivors? That’s how oversimplification works. You leave out the messy stuff. You trivialize. And if you’re trivializing, that’s a political philosophy too — it’s an immature and unworkable philosophy, but you haven’t dodged the question. If you want to be a good writer, you don’t dare trivialize. Roll up your sleeves and deal with it.

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5 Responses to How It All Is

  1. Ron Greenman says:

    I think the best fiction leaves the reader somewhat ambivalent about the villain (the most interesting character(s) always). That is to say the reader ought to be glad the villain has been defeated but still have at the least, a certain amount of sympathy for him/her/them all the way feeling a sense of loss at their defeat.

    There is a Corbucci/Kinski spaghetti western from the late sixties that pits “good” townsfolk, outlaws, a hero, and bounty hunters against each other. It ends with everyone dead but the bounty hunters who ride off to collect their due. Not the conventional story.

    And then there’s Blood Meridian. I read this several years ago and I’m still disturbed. Dying to read it again and simultaneously fearful of going into that particular heart of darkness.

  2. Marco says:

    Interesting points.
    I’m a bit confused by the use of the word “fiction”. I think it is an American thing. In other languages we talk about authors, writers and books and stories; the “fiction” distinction is not used very often. For some reason “fiction” makes it feel less “real”. Anyway.

    I totally agree with you about Atlas Shrugged being crap. But not for lack of compassion (I love other non-compassionate works). For its naivety.

    • midiguru says:

      To me, “fiction” is a simple, transparent word that differentiates, well, fiction from nonfiction. My book on synthesizer programming is nonfiction. The word story is ambiguous; it can refer either to the narrative in a novel or to a short story. Both are fiction, but to me “story” refers to the content and “fiction” to the category.

      I’m curious what other stories you would characterize as being devoid of compassion. Can you suggest a couple of titles?

  3. Marco says:

    Admittedly, when I mentioned non-compassionate works that I admire I was not referring to stories. I had the philosophy of Nietzsche in mind.

    As for why I find “fiction” confusing as a term, this is because I have heard from too many writers that their stories include autobiographical references. But i understand your reasoning.

  4. midiguru says:

    There’s bound to be some autobiography in almost any work of fiction — even Alice in Wonderland, I suppose. I’m a fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries; Wolfe is a gourmet who employs a private chef; and I’ve read that Stout actually tried out the recipes he described Wolfe as dining on.

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