The author Jonathan Franzen was interviewed on NPR yesterday and his comments about writing novels caught my attention. This particularly:
“…much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional's office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences… [but] feeling that it's absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able."
When the interviewer asked about “unsayable things” he responded:
“The great thing about novels is…you are converting unsayable things into narratives that have their own dreamlike reality and instead of having factual statements about what is [pause] ‘Here’s the factual statement I will never make about myself, I can’t make about myself, I’m afraid or ashamed to make about myself’. If that can be translated into characters who feel like they have some independent life and if they are embodying through their story that informational material about myself then I feel as if it’s not quite been said but it’s been enacted.”
Though Franzen is talking about information about himself, the description also applies to authors who use this genre to relay information about social issues they know first hand as well. He captures in these words something I’ve long understood about much of modern serious fiction; that it is an author’s way of portraying something that is a profound and also disturbing ("unsayable") truth to him or her in a way that is less direct than prose and, because it is fiction, also allows dramatic flair to be added to creatively emphasize the author’s emotion or thoughts on the subject or theme of the piece of work. As such, it can be, in some situations, an effective way of teaching the reader, adding to the vibrancy of the reader’s understanding or empathy of the subject being addressed, particularly if it is a subject that the reader has not experienced first hand, or has been previously only marginally aware of.
In this sort of previously unaware reader, the reading experience, if it is taken thoughtfully, adds insight or understanding or sympathy. It may even become a stepping stone to passionate action when the subject is encountered in daily life. On the other hand, unfortunately, if the reader approaches the book as entertainment, it tends to harden the reader, making it more difficult for him or her to respond with anything other than passive amusement when the issues in the novel are encountered in real life.
For a second group of readers, those who have encountered the "unsayable" issues portrayed in their own lives and are still dealing with the fallout the experience is quite different, and also variable. If they are still angry or frustrated, the reading can feel cathartic, expressing in a dramatic form the feelings that they are still dealing with. On the other hand, if the issues are still ongoing and raw, it can re-open old wounds and cause increased pain.
Finally, this type of fiction doesn’t work at all for a third group of readers. For a reader who has experienced first or second hand in the real world the "unsayables" that the novel deals with creatively, and has already addressed and is still addressing it directly in their own mind and actions in proactive ways, the dramatic flair of fiction is annoying. For such a reader, that fictitious dramatization often feels like a trivialization of sober reality, making a serious matter look like a form of voyeuristic entertainment that reduces the reader of it to a passive consumer. And for this group of readers, passive consumption in response to the topics being addressed is unacceptable.
This last group of readers requires personal narrative or prose that they can use in the work they are already doing. Fiction doesn’t work.