Sunday, January 11, 2009

Escapism in Literature

This is a response to an ongoing discussion on Duff's blog about fantastical literature and television and why we like it better (in exclusion of?) realistic stuff.

I can see two reasons for this, one personal and one artistic (aesthetic?). Personally, I spend all day reading papers that endeavor to precisely and accurately describe the workings of the world around us. I find some of them fascinating and exciting and wonderful, for their ideas and (very occasionally) for their precise style. Mostly for their ideas, though. I look at the world around me through a biologist's lens, and specifically through a geneticist's lens, and that's okay. It's better than okay. When I read fiction, (and when I write fiction), however, I do not do it to understand the world around me or express my views thereupon. At least, not with precision and accuracy. For me, that's what science does, what (good) anthropology does, what sociology does. But more and more, that's what science does. [Aside: There's a great line from Stoppard's latest play, where an aging Communist is going on about materialism and physicalism and the fact that we're all just very comlex automata, that we are our bodies, and his wife (who is dying of cancer) yells at him that her body is killing her and she needs to believe that there is more. She demands that he love her with something more than the body-as-mind-as-machine, and he replies, "But that's all that I have." Which pretty much just sums it up.] But basically, all day every day I strive for accuracy, and in my free time and in my recreation I want, instead, hyperbole. (And if it's hyperbole we're going for, then Duff's comment that Austen somehow gets around his need for fantasy makes sense to me.)

The second reason is a more aesthetic choice on my part, because I agree that, to a certain extent, elements of the fantastic, or the hyperbolic, are in most of the works of fiction I would describe as the "best" works of fiction. I think that if we want something that accurately and precisely details real-life situations, it behooves us to read nonfiction. After all, the most accurate fascimiles of real-life are going to be straight-up nonfiction accounts. Memoirs and autobiographies, perhaps, in order to get into the emotional state of the main character. Point being that the strength of fiction is that you can describe things that never happened -- and hence things that could not, ever, happen. Every single work of fiction, when it really comes down to it, no matter how realistic, is, at base, a fantasy. Someone dreamed it up. And as such, I appreciate works of fiction that embrace this fact and turn it to their strength -- works of fiction that use the ability for hyperbole and fantastical elements, those which put themselves into the world of this-could-never-happen from the world of this-never-happened, and those which force us to look at the world we live in differently because of the fantasy and hyperbole they employ. I could go on all day about examples, because there are thousands upon thousands. One of my favorites, though (and the one that comes to mind immediately) is what Rushdie does in "The Enchantress of Florence". There is one thread of fantasy that runs through the story, and it is the magic of storytelling and creation. Through the hyperbole -- the Mughal Emperor creates two wives, one through his imagination alone and one through his imagination with the help of a storyteller -- we are forced to look at storytelling and creativity in a different way, and through the potency of the second wife (who becomes a part of the collective imagination and not just that of the Emperor) we are forced to think about the physical power of ideas. Sure, someone could write (most likely has written) an essay or a non-fiction account about the power of ideas and the act of creativity as creation (and in terms of realistic fiction with this theme, I could make an argument for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe" I think?), but with the hyperbole -- the emperor actually creates a /physical human being/ out of his imagination -- it stands in stronger contrast, and whereas "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe" left me with the feeling that this ability of humans to latch onto an idea and make it true (or as true as it can get) is a weakness that feeds into our need for societal approbation and our hypocrisy: that creation through ideas is essentially false and we are weak for falling for it; "The Enchantress of Florence" left me with the feeling that creativity was humankind's greatest strength. (Of course, that might very well have absolutely nothing to do with the form and absolutely everything to do with the writers.)

One final thing that Duff said -- "Yet for some reason, when I open the pages of some literary review, all the novels the critics rave about are precisely [realist works]. I think it has to do with the existential and narcissistic glorification of those critics, as they are reading about themselves."

I think you maybe have a point, but even if that is the case it is not the whole story. No critic would say that the authors you named are less than stellar. Nor would they say that about any one of a number of other truly fantastical writers. "Time Traveller's Wife" is a good example of a critically acclaimed new book that was deeply fantastical at base. As is Rushdie's latest, as is "The Adventures of Kavaleir and Klay" (sp?). On television, "Pushing Daisies" is hugely critically acclaimed -- but people aren't watching it, and so it is being cancelled. Critics are treating graphic novels with respect these days, and so saying that fantastical literature is not being taken seriously is I think somewhat disingenuous. It is entirely possible, instead, that the predominance of critically acclaimed realist versus fantastical literature has as much to do with what is being published, and what is being written, as what is being critiqued. Perhaps there is just more realist literature than fantastical, and as a result more good realist literature and more critically acclaimed realist literature.


Duff said...

Well, I was perhaps a little too harsh in my condemnation of critics. I have done no thorough census of lit mags, so cannot really say if there is any overall bias. Most of my interaction with lit mags comes from the NYT book review and the Atlantic. Yet my impressions are what they are, and I think they count for something, if nothing other than my American love of railing against the establishment.

Elizabeth said...

They do count for something, and I did not mean, by any means, to say that you didn't have a good point. There is a large spectrum between "anything that is unrealistic is by nature inferior to that which is realistic" and "anything that is realistic is by nature inferior to that which is unrealistic". I don't think that critics are even at the midpoint of that spectrum yet. But they're getting there, hopefully?