The Mnemonic Library: A Reading Experiment, in The Quivering Pen
Helen Benedict's essay in David Abram's literary site, May 8, 2014
Reporting on Afghanistan in the Shadow of the “I”
Essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Feb. 1, 2014
Why Argument Belongs in Fiction
My essay in The Brooklyn Quarterly, Fall 2013
Why I Wrote a War Novel
The Cafe at On the Issues Magazine, August 2011
Military Women's Long March to Equality
Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed, Jan. 26, 2013
ROTC and Military Sexual Assault
Columbia Spectator, Jan. 25, 2013
The Scandal of Military Rape
Ms. Magazine, 2008. Winner of EMMA, Exception Merit in Media Award, from the National Women's Political Caucus
The Private War of Women Soldiers
Salon.com, 2007. Winner of James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, 2007
When Johnny Comes Marching Home
The New York Times, April 10, 2009
Why Soldiers Rape
In These Times, Aug. 13, 2008
How to Lie With Statistics
Huffington Post, March 20, 2009
War: A Love Story
On the Issues Magazine
There exist in the world certain havens for writers: the reading rooms in the New York Public Library and the British Museum, and The Writers Room in downtown Manhattan, to name a few. I have heard that these are wonderful venues for research and writing, for meeting distinguished colleagues, and for feeling part of a grand history, but I will never know, for not one of these places would tolerate me for a second.
You see, I read aloud. I read my prose, whether fiction or non, in funny voices, different accents; I read loudly and softly, repeatedly and obsessively. Even if I am writing an entire book, I read it all aloud, paragraph by paragraph.
It used to be that I read aloud like this merely to catch unintentional repetition and awkwardness, and I encouraged my students to do the same, but lately I have realized that the real purpose is larger than that; it is to hear the music in the prose, to sing out its melody.
I came to understand the importance of musicality in prose as a result of researching my novel-in-progress about music and composers, Lost Harmony. The more I studied musicianship, talked to composers and simply listened to music, the more I recognized what E.M. Forster meant when he said, "In music fiction is likely to find its nearest parallel." After all, what is a dangling modifier but an aborted musical phrase, disturbing because it is cut off at mid-point? What is a misplaced adjective but a hiccup in what should be a trill? What is suspense and pacing in a story but rhythm that surprises enough to keep the reader listening? In poetry, the role of music has always been recognized, but one rarely hears talk of meter, measures, rhythm, or rhyme in applied to prose. Reviewers hardly ever parse the lines of an article, or discuss where the author has laid the stresses in a short story. Academic critics might, but popular reviewers almost never do. The most they usually say is that the writing is "lyrical," a term they rarely explain. Yet the tempo and harmony in prose makes as much difference to how well it works as its content.
Now that I appreciate this, I always tell my students to listen to the music in their writing when they read aloud. If they are paying attention, and if they have any sort of an ear for tune and rhythm, they will hear that too many sentences of the same length create a monotonous beat; that forced transitions are like the wrong bridge between riffs; that overlong, breathless sentences can be the same as music without rests, those essential silences that are as important for emphasis as the notes themselves. And if they listen carefully, they will hear that repeated words can sometimes ring out a song and at other times ruin the harmony. In other words, writers who listen for the music in their prose can hear when it has slipped out of tune.
I am not saying that the content and vocabulary in prose are unimportant, although James Joyce said as much about Finnigan's Wake. "Lord knows what my prose means," he wrote to his daughter. "In a word, it is pleasing to the ear... That is enough, it seems to me." Yet a clunky word choice will often offend our ears as much as our understanding. Words are, after all, sounds, and even those readers who do not read aloud will hear the tunes in their heads. Furthermore, melody and meter are created not only with individual words, but with the pattern in which they follow one another, with repetition, alliteration, sentence length, punctuation and paragraph breaks. A composer would understand the analogy: Each syllable is a note, each word a bar of music, each transition from one word to the next an interval, each sentence a phrase or motive, and so on. Prose sings as much as poetry, as much as song itself, if we would only listen.
Take, as an example in nonfiction, Joan Didion's masterful essay on The Doors from The White Album. In that tiny story, only four pages long, she not only creates suspense but brings in chorus, rhythm, and verse until the whole piece reads like the songs she is writing about. She accomplishes this with repetition and carefully measured sentence length, which give the prose the beat of a rock song. "The Doors were different. The Doors interested me. The Doors seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Kama Sutra. The Doors' music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation." She begins with a five-syllable sentence, moves to six, leaps to eighteen, and finally twenty-two, no commas, so that the whole section of the paragraph sounds like a guitar riff. "Love was sex and sex was death..." Read it aloud and you'll see.
In fiction, musical writers are easier to find. There are dozens among the modern classics, but I would particularly alight upon Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, of course, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and William Faulkner. Rarely does prose revel in its own music more than the famous, alliterated opening lines of Lolita. "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta." Joyce wrote all his words to be read aloud, so conscious and proud was he of the music in his prose, and hidden allusions to music lie in all his work. Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is a song from start to finish, for she uses rhythm and repetition in virtually every paragraph to create a sing-song tone that hums just the way thoughts do inside a mind. One can pick up that book and find examples on every page: "How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she was then) solemn..." Woolf’s repeated words and wave-like clauses create a lilting beat that captures the sense of thought upon thought lapping at the brain.
Among contemporaries, musical writers in English who leap to mind are Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Jamaica Kincaid, and Arundhati Roy. Erdrich's music comes largely out of her mix of rhythm and imagery, the latter of which is often vivid as a slap, as in this line from The Blue Jay's Dance. "My flesh is packed snow and the only colors in the landscape are the plumages of birds - snappy bee yellow of grosbeaks, arrogant crests of jays, the flames of the cardinals sinking and rising through the scrub alder." The key word in this sentence is “snappy,” for its sharp sound startles the reader mid-phrase, the way a sudden clash of cymbals might awaken a listener in the midst of a pastorale.
The music in Kincaid’s prose might well have been influenced by her Antiguan speech and ear. "That morning, the morning of my first day, the morning that followed my first night, was a sunny morning. It was not the sort of bright sun-yellow making everything curl at the edges, almost in fright, that I was used to, but a pale-yellow sun, as if the sun had grown weak from trying too hard to shine..." This sentence, from Kincaid's novel, Lucy, is like the trill of a flute, starting off with a few short darts into melody, emphasized by the use of repetition, then stretching into longer and longer riffs until it runs lightly to the end.
Roy’s lush and imagistic prose - prose, incidentally, that is afraid of neither adjectives nor unconventional grammar - creates sentences so rich in vowels that they sound virtually symphonic. “Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air” (The God of Small Things.) That sentence alone intones at least fourteen different vowel sounds. “Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.” This one sounds like a trumpet solo, with a run of cool, modest notes suddenly expanding into the wide a’s of “fatly baffled.”
I admit that this talk of music does not help everyone. Some people really are tone deaf. For a long time I thought such people simply do not read enough (usually true), and that all they need to do is absorb the stories and articles they are supposed to imitate and out will come the form and tempo required. Not so. As a writing teacher, I meet students again and again who, no matter what or how much they read, cannot produce sentences that harmonize. Even if they learn to put the information in a logical order, and to listen, their sentences are riddled with unintentional alliteration, monotonous repetition, truncated phrases. They remain disharmonious and ugly to the ear.
In music there is little a teacher can do with someone who is truly tone deaf. Is this, I wonder, the same for writing? That depends on what has caused the tone deafness. Often, I find, tone deafness is not innate but comes from lack of confidence or knowledge: the writer is so unsure of what he is writing that he cannot, or will not, say it clearly or musically. Other times, the students does have an ear for the music in prose; he or she simply hasn't learned to listen for it. These are curable problems.
Nevertheless, not everyone can or will develop an ear for the music in prose. Some of these people become writers anyway, and some do so successfully, allowing sheer suspense or plain-spokenness to get the job done. Others fill our ears with ugly phrasing, clumsy in its meaning and its sound, often justified by the assumed significance of its content. Just today my eyes glazed over reading this lead in an important New York Times story: “Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, displeased with early efforts of the committee he appointed to assess standards for the city’s art museums, has pressed for stronger language in the report that would impair those museums’ abilities to exhibit work that was considered profane, said an official familiar with the committee’s efforts.”* Unfortunately, this clunky writing is the kind we are exposed to most often in life, in newspapers, magazines and on television, from politicans and public relations hacks, business people and academics. It may well be the case that the more we hear the dissonant music in popular writing, or tunelessness in any writing at all, the more our ear for the melodic is blunted.
If I had time as a teacher to bless all my students with an ear, I would. I’d do it by making them read aloud everything they read and write in class, tape record it, and play it back to themselves later, taking notes on which sentences sing and which fall flat. The classroom does not give me that kind of time, but I can encourage my students to do this at home, even if they are writing a whole book. I can tell them to read it aloud, sentence by sentence, page by page, even if it takes years and even if it gets them banished from libraries and writers’ rooms. For I know of no better way to adjust the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of one’s prose until every page stands up and sings.
THE FRIGHTENED MUSE (2001-2006)
Originally posted on Featurewell.com in 2001 and revised in 2006
"The deaths in New York were horrible and irreparable, but they did not make us special. They did not make us more important than any other country in any other war. This is what Primo Levi understood about his war, and what we need to understand about ours."
The week after I left New York to live and write in Paris for a year, the World Trade Center was destroyed and one of my French cousins killed his wife and himself, leaving behind their four children.
Great material for a novel, people suggested.
Café and croissant in the mornings gave way to CNN as I, like so many, sat glued to those endless images of the flaming, collapsing towers the whole world now knows so well. Emails poured in from terrified friends in the States, and phone calls from bewildered relatives in Paris. The French I met regarded me with horror and pity when I told them I’m from New York, as if I had just blurted out that I was dying of cancer.
"Put it all in a story," people kept saying.
The day after the attacks, on September 12th, I went to my cousins’ funeral. The two coffins lay side by side in the church, polished wooden caskets covered in flowers and candles. The official story was that it was a double suicide, but everyone there knew the truth. I stood in the pew behind the newly orphaned children, four boys aged 22, 18, 16, and only 12, and watched their jaws clench and release, their eyes filling with tears. How will these boys ever have a chance at happiness now? I wondered. How, having been so cruelly abandoned, will they ever feel worthy of love again?
"It was a crime passionnel," one of the relatives said, and for a minute I wasn’t sure whether he was talking about the crime of murderous fanaticism or the crime of murderous jealousy.
"He was brutal," another relative tried to explain, a word that needs no translation. "He beat his wife in front of the children, and he beat the children too. When his wife tried to leave him and the boys for someone else, he killed her. The youngest child found the bodies."
French television showed bodies floating down from the Twin Tower windows, swooping like autumn leaves. The world seemed drenched in murder and suicides.
"When are you going to write about it?" people kept asking. But my muse, terrified by all this horror, had gone into hiding.
After the sermon, a macabre and inappropriate eulogy to love being stronger than death, and to a god who has his reasons even for such tragedies as these, all of us in the church were invited to walk up to the coffins and say our own brands of goodbyes. Many of the mourners were teenagers because my cousin’s wife was a teacher, and they filed slowly past, each clutching a single white rose. Most people made the sign of the cross over both coffins, laying their hands on them in farewell, but a few of the wife’s family refused to touch the coffin of her husband; they knew he had murdered her. I thought of the desperation she must have felt to be willing to leave her children and my heart raged at what men do to women; and then, remembering the events in New York, at what men do to men.
And then I understood why I couldn’t render this into fiction: It was too soon. To use events like these in a novel, one must have an idea of what they mean, how they weave into the fabric of daily life. One must know what they have taught us. The attacks on New York, the deaths of my cousins—these were too raw for interpretation. To use them so soon would read like opportunistic melodrama, as if I would stop at nothing to make a story. It would feel shameless.
Now, five years later, the Twin Tower attack has become the stuff of fiction, as well as of other forms of writing—not only in books but in movies. Reams of personal essays, poems, plays, memoirs, and stories have been written about it, and with a few noble exceptions, they are either self-serving, self-pitying, or self-obsessed. I reviewed a novel that shamelessly kills off a teenager’s mother in the Towers to give the story its plot. I’ve read essays that dwell on how the attacks have changed the writer’s self-image, eating habits, love life, or exercise regime. Over and over again, these accounts feature one inflated word that blocks out all perspective and wisdom: Me. Clichés of suffering and heroism are already obliterating the lessons we should have learned from this tragedy: that we are not special, not protected, and not innocent.
To be able to write of war or tragedy in the midst of it, to make sense of it, one must not only have distance but humility. By this I mean the sort of humility that Primo Levi, for instance, revealed in his writings about the Holocaust. Never did Levi claim to be braver, stronger, or more sensitive than anyone else; he would not even admit to exceptional suffering. Quite the opposite. Every word he wrote brought out the universality of his experience, the recognition that his suffering in Auschwitz was neither new nor unique but had been and continues to be shared by millions of people all over the world, all the time, in one way or another. His tone was the inverse of self-pity. This recognition of the way suffering humbles and unites one with the rest of the world is the very recognition I have found missing in America—glaringly among our politicians, but among a disturbing number of our writers, too.
In the cemetery after my cousins’ double funeral, the family stood in the cool autumn sun and watched in silence while both coffins were lowered into a grave, one at a time, by a grotesquely clanking machine. The littlest boy was the only one weeping by now, his small face oddly expressionless as the tears spilled again and again from his eyes.
After the burial, we gathered outside the cemetery, not knowing which to talk about first—the New York attacks or the private horror in the family. "C’est la vie," my French relatives kept saying with a characteristic shrug. "La vie est dur mais il faut continuer, n’est-ce-pas?" And in those phrases—"That’s life," "Life is hard but one must go on,"—I heard a wisdom that comes from centuries of war and suffering.
My friends in New York wrote that they were finding it hard to go on; that everyone was in shock. It wasn’t only the dead, the fear of another attack, the horror of the war we were now in, and the lost jobs and security, it was the sense that everything that mattered before had stopped mattering. My writer and artist friends, like me, felt knocked askew. Our subject matter, our obsessions, our carefully crafted observations about life had all been flung away.
My nine-year-old daughter, who was in Paris with me, found herself crying without knowing why. "Will Central Park still be there when we get back, Mommy, or will someone drop a bomb on it?" she asked. This is what we were all wondering: did the life we knew, the life we’d lived and studied all our lives for our art, even exist anymore? Now, five years later, we find that it does—and it doesn’t. Now we struggle not only to find how to deal with the Trade Tower attacks in our art, but the war in Iraq, the deaths we are causing, the mess we have created in the world.
Now, when I think back to that first week after September 11th, when these questions were still fresh and painful, I see what the French mean when they say, "We must go on." For we did go on, even then. The four orphaned boys, whose father had just rejected them in the most cruel and grotesque of ways, still had to rise every morning, just as everyone had to, for the sun is indifferent to human travails. In fact, as if to trumpet this very indifference, the sun chose that week to become its most beautiful. It took to rising just outside my window at seven every morning, peeking boldly between the rooftops, infusing the sky with audacious streaks of luminous orange and rose, before the scudding gray clouds of Paris covered it over. Or perhaps the sun was not showing indifference, but hope.
I walked for hours every day, trying to see beyond all this tragedy and fear so I could find my frightened muse. Above me, the graceful zinc roofs were slick with rain. Below me the sidewalks were littered with dying leaves, for autumn comes earlier in Paris than it does in New York. The leaves fell off the chestnut trees first, turning rust at the edges, then flinging themselves down so heavily that when one hit me in the chest, it felt like a slap. And that was when, between the roofs and the sidewalks, on the walls of the houses, I discovered the plaques:
"In memory of the 112 inhabitants of this house whose 40 children were deported to die in the German camps in 1942."
Or, "Here lived Monsieur Elias Zajdner, who died for France at the age of 41. The former Resistance fighter was deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis in May, 1944 with his three sons, Albert, aged 21, and Solomon and Bernard, aged 15. We will never forget."
The plaques are everywhere in Paris, I found, some old, some new, and they are always startlingly specific.
"In memory of the 24 girls, aged eight to fourteen, who were taken from this house by the Nazis and deported and killed in the camps in 1942..."
My skin rose in cold bumps as I read them. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, America claimed to have lost its innocence, but no one in France claimed to have ever had it. "La vie est dur," the French say instead. "Life is hard."
The morning after the destruction in New York, Paris swung into an anti-terrorist mode I had never seen in the U.S. and have not to this day: They called it Le plan vigi-pirate—the vigilant plan against terrorism. The very day after Sept. 11th, every public garbage can had been sealed overnight. Guards were checking bags at the entrances to parks, museums, synagogues, large stores and institutions, and they continued to do so for months. My daughter’s teacher told us that all school outings had been forbidden, and that no one was allowed to park a car in front of a school. When the police saw an unattended package or abandoned vehicle, they blew it up. None of this would have prevented what happened in New York, but it showed that in Europe, readiness for terrorism has long been a way of life. So when America beat its breast and demanded for sympathy and revenge, turning the genuine compassion of the French to scorn and disgust, I felt ashamed. The deaths in New York were horrible and irreparable, but they did not make us special. They did not make us more important than any other country in any other war. This is what Primo Levi understood about his war, and what we need to understand about ours.
September at last drew to a close, that dreadful September of deaths and murders. The sun rose, the stomach grew hungry, family tragedies raged and passed. Our bags were searched, our sense of security was revealed for the illusion it always was, our myopia was shaken. But in the midst of all this, we still had to shop and eat, talk and make love, work, and do our best not to behave badly—we still had to go on. I took my daily walks through Paris, the buildings gleamed in their usual grace, people smiled and did something kind, and the bread was as fluffy and sweet as ever. And I knew that although the muse was hiding, it was only waiting until enough was understood to come out in the open again.
FICTION VS. NONFICTION: WHEREIN LIES THE TRUTH
This essay appeared in The Practical Writer, Penguin Books, 2004
"Fiction steps in where the ordinary articulateness of human beings fails. It gives the human soul a voice."
I teach in a prominent journalism school and recently I committed heresy: I published a novel. It was about a Dominican-American teenage mother and was written in the voice of the girl herself.
Immediately, my students wanted to know why I had treated this subject as fiction. Why didn't I just go out and write about a real teenage mother, the way they would? Why did I have to let them down, the suggestion seemed to be, by making things up?
Then I shocked them even further. I told them that I had chosen fiction because I believed it could get me nearer to the truth.
The kind of truth I am talking about is the subjective truth of what it means to be a human being in the world. It is the substance of what happens to people not just on the outside, but within: the longings, the moral decisions, the defiance, suffering, pain and triumphs of the human soul.
This sort of truth has always been the subject matter of fiction because it is hidden from the public eye. It lies in secrets and private experiences. It rests in the silences that follow broken-off words and truncated sentences, and in the spaces between bouts of self-awareness. It hides in the blanks on a reporter's tape-recorder, behind the door after the journalist leaves and inside the mind where no interviewer can go.
Fiction steps in where the ordinary articulateness of human beings fails. It gives the human soul a voice.
But if these truths about the human condition are so hidden, my students might ask, how does a fiction writer get to them? Through research, a lifetime of experience, analysis and, above all, the imagination.
To give an example: Had I written "Bad Angel" about a real teenage mother, my ability to get at the truth of her experience would have been restricted by all sorts of factors: Her sense of privacy, the limits of her ability to express and examine herself, my obligation not to expose her every fault to the world, my inability to know what she was thinking unless she told me, and my uncertainty about how much of that was honest. Even had I interviewed her for years, I would have been limited by what she chose to say and whether she knew how to say it, as well as by my fear of exploiting her. I would have always been the white journalist trying to peek into her world, and she would have always been the Other, the way the poor and dark-skinned are so often depicted in the press. In short, I would never have been able to understand her enough to write in her voice or from her point of view.
I saw these limitations reflected in the many books of interviews with teenage mothers I read to research my novel. These girls were happy to talk about why they got pregnant and whether they would stay in school, but not one admitted to feeling loneliness, despair, rage or even irritation with her baby, let alone to neglecting or abusing the child. Yet I knew that teenage mothers often do abuse their babies. I also knew, as a mother and former teenager myself, that motherhood cannot exist without moments of blinding rage; and that teenagehood is inevitably accompanied by loneliness and moods. Furthermore, I knew that being a teenager and a mother are inherently contradictory: the first is self-absorbed, the second by necessity self-sacrificing. Yet this conflict was not even touched upon by any of the girls interviewed for the books I read. Why? Because the girls either could not, or would not, admit to these feelings. As a fiction writer, however, I could.
Let me use another example. Could Vladimir Nabokov have exposed the dark and tortured soul of his obsessive nymphet-lover if he had merely interviewed a Humbert Humbert? I happen to have read dozens of interviews with rapists and child molesters conducted in prisons, and none of them touched the understanding Nabokov achieved with Lolita. Instead of giving us sociological jargon about pedophelia, a psychological profile of arrested development, or quotes from some therapy-saturated child molester ("Yeah, I felt her up 'cause my Dad abused me when I was five"), he gives us Humbert Humbert's soul, with all its blights and beauties, its fury and remorse.
"I stood listening to that musical vibration [of children at play] from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord."
In that one sentence, Nabokov gives us the epiphanic moment when Humbert Humbert realizes that he has irreparably robbed Lolita of her childhood. But this is no confessional at a prison therapy session, offered up in the hope of winning parole. This is a poignant and intelligent revelation, H.H.'s first and only moment of true unselfishness. By giving us this sentence, with all the weight of what has come before it, Nabokov uses his knowledge of human nature to make us simultaneously sympathize with and abhor H.H.—he makes us understand him much more profoundly than could any interviewer. And the way he does it is the way the best fiction writers always do it—he conjures us, through the power of his language and imagination, inside Humbert Humbert, so that we cannot stand aloof and condemn him without thought or insight. We cannot dehumanize him because Nabokov makes us become him, forcing us to see all the facets of his personality, the monstrous and the poignant, the insufferable and the pathetic. And in doing so, Nabokov makes us just that little bit more human ourselves.
For several centuries now, readers have appreciated this magician-like ability of writers to get us inside characters and at certain truths. We have looked to writers from Shakespeare to Tolstoy for moral and philosophical guidance, and for critical evaluations of ourselves and our societies. Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair were among many authors whose fiction changed the way we saw social injustice, for example; some even changed laws. Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, James Baldwin, Samuel Becket—these and a multitude of others have held up mirrors to the human soul that have altered our thinking and the way we see and create our art. Until this current era, novelists have held a respected role as examiners of society and investigators of the human psyche; as thinkers from whom we learn certain kinds of truths and honesty that no other form of writing can offer.
But something, alas, has changed. Readers are no longer willing to take an author so seriously. Many readers seem to have lost the patience or willingness to look to fiction for moral, philosophical or even social truths. If this were simply part of the general post-1960s reaction against authority there would be less to lament, but the problem is that million of readers are turning instead to self-help books, memoirs or nonfiction, as if these forms contain better truths than fiction. All a book has to do is claim to be fact to be given the kind of attention that almost no literary novel can command anymore. Serious fiction is losing respect, and sales to boot. Many readers would rather see a reporter interview a teenage mother than see a novelist create one. Others seem to consider cold facts about how a computer works more important than the troubling mysteries of the human psyche. The novel and its unique access to the truths of the human soul has fallen with a crash.
The reasons for this fall are many. It is partly the fault of deconstructionism, mixed in with Freudianism, which destroyed the mystique of the author and put critics on the throne. Suddenly, authors became hapless beings batted about by the tides of fashion, formalism, cultural traditions and their own circumstances. Whatever messages they tried to impart were probably unconscious, certainly unintended: The poor saps would be the last to know.
Then, on top of deconstructionism came our current Information Age, in which people are driven to feel so inadequate and ignorant that they are afraid to spend time reading anything but hard fact. This, coupled with the late millennium version of a lifestyle—work twelve hours a day, spend your leisure time at the gym and forgo sleep—has given people the illusion that reading fiction is an expendable luxury. Who has time for the subtleties of fiction when the Web, television, movies, radio, newspapers and a torrent of nonfiction books all promise to fill us with the facts we need to join rush hour on the information highway? I see this attitude in my students. "I don't read fiction," they declare with a self"righteous ring. "I only have time for fact."
When people make a statement like this, what they are saying is that fiction contains nothing important; that the only facts that mean anything are the exterior, checkable kinds of facts. Insights into the human experience, examinations of the conscience, the reality behind closed doors—these sorts of matters count for naught.
Underlying the current distrust of fiction, and the mistaken attitude that important truths are not to be found in it, is something more than the fall of the author or the worship of facts, however: it is fear of imagination. I see this most strikingly among my reporter friends and students, the people whose business it is to write nonfiction. After all, the journalist's creed is never to make things up. They have been trained to think of books as little fact missiles, packed with Useful Information that will make them better people, like vitamin pills. So when I explain to my fellow reporters that my understanding of my teenage mother came not from research but from what I know of human nature, they blanche.
"But you must have based it on someone you met," they say. No, I didn't. "Then on interviews you did—is she a composite character?" No, she isn't. Sometimes I have even been asked, "Well, were you a teenage mother then?" No, I have to say again, I made it all up. They don't want to believe that an author may be able to imagine what it's like to be a teenage mother (or a nymphet-lover) better than such a person can explain it herself. A current ad for a nonfiction writing program reveals this same fear in its proclamation, "Truth is stronger than fiction"—as if fiction contains no truth at all.
I witnessed how much imagination is feared, and misunderstood, when I read from my novel to an audience containing a number of anthropologists. After I had finished, one raised his hand. "But aren't you exploiting this girl?" he asked.
"This is fiction," I replied. "She doesn't exist. There is no real girl to exploit. I made her up."
The anthropologist didn't get it. I was using this girl for my own means, he insisted; had I at least offered her my advance? Didn't I feel guilty for invading her privacy?
"You can't exploit a fictional character," I replied again. "Fictional characters have no privacy."
The anthropologist could not believe that my character was a figment of imagination because he did not understand how fiction originates. And because he didn't understand how fiction originates, he did not want to believe me. Either I was lying and the girl did exist. Or I was telling the truth and the girl was invented—in which case why should he believe anything I wrote at all?
But fiction is not, as many non-writers seem to think, a random grab-bag of uninformed, made up whimsies, as undisciplined and unreasoned as a dream. Nor is it simply reporting with the names changed. It is an amalgam of experience, education, reading, insight, analysis, conversations, observation and conscious research. Tom Wolfe could not be more wrong when he accuses novelists of failing to use the reporter's pen. Novelists never stop reporting. They spend their lives observing, thinking, watching, analyzing. And most of them conduct purposeful research as well. Many of George Eliot's novels are historical, packed with accurate details about times way before she was born; likewise for Dickens and Tolstoy. Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane all lived and researched the harsh worlds they wrote about. Today's novelists are no different: Andrea Barrett, John Updike, Robert Stone, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, all these writers and most of their comrades research constantly for their fiction, mining not only concrete facts but truths about the soul. Even if, as a Freudian might say, fictional characters are nothing but extensions of the author, they still contain all the knowledge, insight, wisdom and experience that author has collected throughout his or her life. In fact, I would wager that the novelists who do not haunt libraries, but rely solely upon their imaginations and memories, are a minority—and they, too, are drawing from a lifetime of meticulous observation. And it is exactly because of this lifetime of work that fiction writers—at least the best of them—can and ought to be believed.
All this is not to say that nonfiction has no value. The very knowledge that an extraordinary story actually happened makes that story especially fascinating. Nonfiction writers have an essential role as recorders of events, exposers of wrongdoing, explorers of mysteries and explainers of history. They can affect politics and laws in a way fiction rarely does. Nevertheless, even though they can make arguments and challenge injustice, the interior is still hidden. Nonfiction is always dependent on what can be found out and verified, and it is always limited by the private, the secret, the unrealized and the unarticulated. Nonfiction always keeps the reader on the outside.
Perhaps this is why some readers prefer nonfiction—perhaps they are, in a sense, hiding. The distance between reader and subject in nonfiction is so much greater than in fiction that perhaps it feels safer. After all, it is easier to read about the suffering of The Other than to be pulled into feeling it oneself. Perhaps people resist fiction because, even in this era of voyeurism and confession, there is still a fear of putting oneself in another's shoes.
If that is so, what a loss. In this time of ethnic and religious factionalism, of deep division between East and West, of racial division and gender hostility, fiction offers a service that readers—and publishers—would do well to heed: It gives us the chance to escape the cages of our bodies and lives and fly over impossible boundaries to become somebody else. It gives us the ability to break out of myopia and its ensuing prejudices and narrow-mindedness. Above all, fiction gives us the chance to understand the world from the Other's point of view—not from the distant outside, but from deep within.