Monday, November 3, 2014

My Puritanism and my deep doubts about literature

Say what you will about it, Hell is story-friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned. The mechanisms of hell are nicely attuned to the mechanisms of narrative. Not so the pleasures of Paradise. Paradise is not a story. It's about what happens when the stories are over.
-Charles Baxter

I remember vividly one afternoon in the library at University of Illinois-Chicago in my second semester of graduate school. It was an ugly concrete box of a building on a campus full of ugly concrete boxes. The bathroom had a hole in the wall separating two toilets, and graffiti that was neighbor to that hole invited me to place my dick in that hole at midnight. 

I had just endured a three hour class with a rather nasty professor who had an annoying habit of rephrasing every answer to every question given by grad students in order to make it seem that she knew an answer that was slightly more correct than the one given. I was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion, one that I could not quite express, that there was something wrong with literature as a profession.

If there was ever a time that God intervened in this agnostic's life, it was that afternoon, because I found a book quite at random that changed my life. It was the now-hard-to-find book Why Literature is Bad for You by Peter Thorpe.  It isn't a terribly closely reasoned book, but it does present some arguments about why reading literature might not always be a healthy activity that pass an initial common sense test. One of them has overtones of Augustine. Augustine critiqued literature for causing fake emotion: you would cry for the downtrodden in a story, and this would make you not realize how much you ignored the downtrodden in the real world. 

Thorpe's argument is in that family. Although literature can be quite good at opening our imagination to other consciousnesses and making us see the other as something both alien and familiar, it can also trick us into accepting something we know is wrong. For example, we can be led to sympathize with Mersault in Camus's The Stranger, although if we were jurors, I hope we would find him guilty. 

I don't think that literature really means to make us feel sympathy with sinners. However much the last 20 years has seen a shift toward deeply, deeply flawed protagonists, we are usually meant to either find at the end that the hero has made some small but profound (for the hero, at least) change toward something affirming, or we are meant to find some sort of cautionary tale in the failure to change. But even so, this never-ending glut of stories about sinners, investigating the many sides of sin, the many ways to sin, the oh-so-fascinating narrative friendliness of hell can begin to take a toll on a person's psyche. I wonder if this might not be in some ways a more profound influence than that of violent video games or television. A character like Tyler Durden or Milton's Lucifer is so beguiling, that even once the lawyer withdraws the argument, its influence is already there on the jury. We allow compelling bastards deep into our consciousness in a way we might not with Master Chief blowing endless holes in aliens in the Halo series.

Stories are never going to go away. Mark Turner's The Literary Mind showed that humans naturally think in stories, even in our everyday language. "The economy is stagnant" implies a picture of the economy as a body of water (which of course it isn't). It's a story. But this essential narrative nature of humanity makes me wonder if we are sometimes too casual with the content we make.

That doesn't mean we should intentionally set out to make characters who are better than real life, or who don't make the kinds of mistakes we don't think are "edifying" for readers. But we can't treat fiction as though it were a wholly different class of writing from non-fiction. Fiction is a vehicle to say something that is best told in a story rather than in a persuasive non-fiction format. You can do that by starting with the thing you want to say and finding the story to tell it, or you can do it by imagining a story and divining what it might be telling you. But you can't just dream up characters for readers to believe in and empathize with and that's it. That's making your readers into Augustine's corrupt literary consumers, enjoying the pleasure of vicarious feelings as though they were a fine wine. 

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