Remember how I talked about anxiety? And how anxiety can lead people to read for different purposes, to seek out different kinds of reassurance (aka comfort)? Well, I think the anxiety I experienced from reading Gardner was that there was some idea or tendency for people to engage with literature in a limited way, with a certain set of rules to this engagement, and a certain set of expectations that had to be met in order for that literature to be deemed worthy or useful or good. And I believe that the assertion or belief that fiction’s content is exhausted, that its purpose is to simply remind us of what is already known, devalues what it is that fiction actually does (not just what fiction says). Now, I do concede that there has to be some recognizable truth in a work of fiction – if we don’t buy it we will emotionally and intellectually disengage from it and the piece will have no meaning for us – it won’t matter. But if we open a book or approach a story with the idea that we are reading it to confirm, or to better clarify and articulate that which already resonates within us, aren’t we just glorifying what we have already become? How is that progress? How does that “crack the door to the morally necessary future”? Doesn’t that assume a) that we are already know everything and that b) we are too lazy or gentle with ourselves to keep these things in mind or articulate them for ourselves?
I don’t know about you, but I sure as fuck don’t know everything. And by ‘everything’ I’m not speaking of everything in the universe, but just on the topic of human emotion. I can be pretty damn stubborn about what I think I do know, but I assure you, I stick my neck out with the reassurance that I am presupposed as a complete ass and that I will be forgiven my trespasses, excused with the same flippancy conceded toward drunk uncles and developmentally challenged children. Besides, who’s listening? Does anyone else have a problem here with the idea that we know everything? That life is not mysterious? Isn’t that kind of permission to die? As in: oh yes, no need to worry, we’ve figured it all out, you can rest now? We may know some things, that murder is bad, for instance. But murder is sometimes necessary? Or forgivable?
How about this: Suppose I’m willing to believe we know everything (which we don’t), or that we will one day reach a point at which we know everything there is to know about human beings and their emotions: we still don’t know dick about what to do with this information. I don’t think that many of us know the first thing about how to behave or what to actually do when life confronts us. And when it does, when life shoves its dirty little mouth at us and we’re breathing its full stink, we’re likely going to act how we’re going to act, despite everything we might want, feel, intend, know what to be true or untrue. So how is the premise that literature instructs us how to live by reiterating old truths useful in any sense? Do we read to close a circle we know already exists but that we like to see clarified, getting darker, more solidly permanent? To get a better sense of where that perimeter lies, to make sure we stay inside it?
Or maybe, it might just be morally necessary to engage with literature because the potentialities of language will never be exhausted, because each word choice and syntax reveals a way of thinking that is not already ours, because we need to see things differently. Because language can transform the nature of how we see and how we know. Because narrative is not just content but action taken toward content. How to proceed, what to do . . .
I’m anxious that one of the dangers that can exist in fiction that seeks to reaffirm or reiterate already known truths, is that this kind of fiction can (not necessarily does but it can), with repetition, teach a certain learned, limiting relationship of the reader toward the world. That if we approach narrative with a rigid set of expectations and rules for how the narrative can produce meaning (such as the ones set forth by Gardner), a reader may be in danger of accruing a very limited set of lenses with which to perceive and know the world. That the limitations of the ways we engage with narrative may be a limitation on how we engage with the world and with each other.
Now, I understand that I am prone to somewhat reactionary, over-the-top fits of contempt and rage concerning things most people, or at least a fair number of people, would consider rather innocuous or of very little concern. I am unreasonable, malicious. Cold, unforgiving, dismissive. I can be a bit of a prick and I’m not only judgmental but enjoy being judgmental. I’m a snob when it comes to people reading ‘for entertainment’ or ‘leisure.’ Fuck you. Fuck you and your Jennifer Weiner on the best fucking seller list. Go check the NYTimes. See if I’m lying. Fuck your mass market murder mysteries, fuck your Harry Potter. Yes, Harry Potter. Go fuck yourself. See I got this problem (yeah, not just the one, ha ha. assfuck) with equating pleasure with effortlessness. With thinking that a good read is something that doesn’t force a person to think too hard. Something that tickles the pudgy brain flaps but has everything set out for the expected gratifications: description enough to make the setting convincing, empathetic characters, a narrative that assumes your immediate complicity. And I’m not just referring to the easy listening crap of the trash romance and mass market set – I’m talking about any form of literature that doesn’t cost you anything. That doesn’t leave you bleeding, spent on the floor, gasping for breath, torn up and trembling. Now, a reasonable person would say there is room enough in the world, on the shelves, for all kinds of different strokes for different folks, but as I said, I am not a reasonable person. Rather than pick up ‘The Kite Runner,’ I would prefer if you could just slap me, then push me onto the ground and shit all over my face. Make sure to tell me about your feelings while you’re doing it, too.
Let’s take a breath. Are we okay? Was that a little much? The shitting on my face? Just breathe a minute. We’ll get through this. You and me: we’re in it together.