Monday, August 3, 2009

To See What I Mean

Part II.

I knew there was something I didn’t trust reading Gardner, some vague suspicion that the man was grand-standing; making loose, provocative proclamations that weren’t accounting for everything; that he was drunk. Let me throw you a bone here (probably too many bones, more bones than you’d care to chew on, all from Gardner’s ‘The Art of Fiction’):

“Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.” p. 31

“None of this high minded rhetoric is meant to deny the fact that fiction is a kind of play . . . It is sometimes remarked, not by enemies of fiction but by people who love it, that whereas scientists and politicians work for progress, the writer of fiction restates what has always been known, finding new expression for familiar truths, adapting to the age truths that may seem outmoded. It is true that, in treating human emotion, with which we’re all familiar, the writer discovers nothing, merely clarifies for the moment, and that in treating what Faulkner called ‘the eternal verities,’ the writer treats nothing unheard of, since people have been naming and struggling to organize their lives around eternal verities for thousands of years . . . But the fact remains that art produces the most important progress civilization knows. Restating old truths and adapting them to the age, applying them in ways they were never before applied, stirring up emotion by the inherent power of narrative, visual image, or music, artists crack the door to the morally necessary future.” p. 80

That’s not enough for me. Literature does more than that.

I only recently discovered my true qualm with Gardner, and it’s something that should’ve been evident from the first, but that somehow didn’t dawn until weeks after I’d given up being angry about it. The thing with Gardner is that his primary concern in terms of what he identifies as good and moral writing versus ‘less useful’ writing has to do with a story’s content. His arguments are focused on plot and character. He does talk about the differences between first person and third, omniscient vs. restricted narrator, etc, but his focus on what he argues as the morality in a work of fiction is almost entirely content driven. I’ll throw you some examples:

“ . . . the writer who denies that human beings have free will (the writer who really denies it, not jokingly or ironically pretends to deny it) is one who can write nothing of interest . . .For the writer who views his characters as helpless biological organisms, mere units in a mindless social structure, or cogs in a mechanistic universe, whatever values those characters may hold must necessarily be illusions, since none of the characters can do anything about them, and the usual interplay of value against value that makes for an interesting exploration of theme must here be a cynical and academic exercise.” p. 43

“Though we do not read fiction primarily in order to find rules on how to live or, indeed, to find anything that is directly useful, we do sympathetically engage ourselves in the struggle that produces the fictional events. Reading a piece of fiction that ends up nowhere – no win, no loss, life as a treadmill – is like discovering, after we have run our hearts out against the timekeeper’s clock, that the timekeeper forgot to switch the clock on. The only emotions such fiction can ordinarily produce are weariness and despair, and those emotions, though valid and perhaps even justified (finally) by the nature of the universe, are less useful to the conduct of our lives than are the emotions we exercise in other kinds of fiction. Not even Aristotle would argue that fiction ought [ital] to be cathartic; he says only that such fiction is most satisfying. But certainly more is involved than simple pleasure or displeasure. At least in comparison with the resolved ending (Aristotle would have said if the question had come up), the ending in logical exhaustion is morally repugnant.” p. 54-55

Now, for those of you familiar with my fiction (the select, blessed few), ya’ll know I don’t give a shit about plot. You think I know ‘what happens’? I don’t have any fucking idea – that’s someone else’s business, not mine. I mean, I’ve been working on this – it’s a problem: I piss people off. Or to give you an example of how I go about selecting a book to read, if I happen to pick one up at random at a bookstore: I don’t read the back cover. I’m not interested in the synopsis: it’s not going to tell me whether or not I’ll enjoy reading it. The context, character and storyline don’t necessarily tell me anything. What I do is flip to a random page. Sometimes the first but never more than a third from the back. And I read the prose. The language is what’s going to get me to read it. What a book is about can be anything, I’m interested in how it’s told. Now, of course plot is important, and every book that’s worth its salt has well-constructed, beautiful sentences, but I’m without question much more concerned about sentences than I am with plot. In terms of the ol tree vs. forest routine, I’m looking down at a piece of bark I chipped off in my hand, already forgetting it came from the tree beside me.

So no fucking wonder my panties get all in a bunch reading Gardner. He’s all “meow meow content content” and I’m all “woof. Shut the fuck up already.” I totally agree with the whole free will package; characters need to have agency or no one’s going to give a shit, but is anyone nowadays really worried that free will doesn’t exist? Does anyone honestly question that anymore? Maybe I’m out of the loop but come on, grow the fuck up already.

I was not upset because Gardner was assigning values to different kinds of plots (to use his terminology, energaic vs. logical exhaustion) but that he would identify the value of fiction as located in its content; what the story says (or values) by means of its plot. And for me, much of what I adore about literature and one of the primary reasons I involve myself in it is that narrative has the ability to teach me how to see. Narrative can rewire and expand upon the way I perceive and engage with the world. This has very little to do with ‘what happens’ in a story’s plot but everything to do with how the story is told.

Remember that Gary Lutz story I talked about? Probably the first post on this bitch, little story called ‘Mine’? Narrator wanting to see the father ‘eye to eye’? Is it coming back to you? Nothing really ‘happens’ in the traditional, progressive sense. The plot or ‘fictional dream’ (that’s Gardner) progresses from one scene in the life to the next, descriptive explanations of a particular summer, adding layers rather than necessarily progressing forward. So while I doubt it would qualify as ‘useful’ in terms of Gardner’s standards, it does consist of a narrator who displays quite cunning and skillfully displayed agency. Agency in how the narrator sees, perceives and then proceeds to tell.

Where I am going with this? Is this your question? We’re going to Brian Evenson. We’re going to Brian Evenson and demonstrating how he fucks a reader’s world up, how meaning (remember Samantha? There’s a reason I talked about that) can be derived not just from reaffirming a reader’s belief, and not solely by means of the content, but by changing the nature of the relationship we have toward narrative. By clipping the traditional strings of narrative that hold the reader so snuggling in place.

But ya’ll bitches ain’t ready yet.

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