Recently I read “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. Writing about it is a thousand times harder for me than responding to an argumentative text like The Prodigal God, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea or The End of Faith (all featured in previous blog posts). In this post I want to unpack why. It turns out to be harder than I imagined.
Firstly fiction has had a profound impact on my opinions and ideas. Brave New World by Aldoux Huxley pretty much turned my intellectual life around. Prior to that text I was reasonably confident that problems (social and personal) had neat solutions just waiting to be found. I figured I’d contribute to that search. Brave New World turned me on to existentialism. Brave New World made me realise that people couldn’t be squeezed into my solutions but deserved the means to find their own.
Despite this today, my partner not I is the household reader of fiction. I borrow from a different section of the library. In fact I have acclaimed fiction books on my shelf waiting my attention, The Slap by Christos Tsolkias for one. It feels as if my reading purpose is to proceed with certainty of each step beneath me, up the ladder of wisdom. If one of those rungs is fiction then my ladder collapses. Or perhaps collapses is too harsh. I will have to repeat that step though in some more systematic way (by reading it again in a non-fiction book). It hasn’t truly been climbed if it’s only been climbed in fiction.
Bizarrely my bias against fiction overflows to affect anything that reads like fiction. What is the What by Dave Eggers has been neglected for years although I know the author is great and the subject matter is the biography of a refugee who effectively co-wrote the book. There seems to be no sense to my attitude. Surely this true tale is a reliable enough rung? Yet somehow I doubt that it is and subsequently leave it alone.
Proving that I am completely being a wanker about all this I am prepared to read biographies and histories which don’t “look like” fiction. How do I distinguish between these and “What is the What” by Dave Eggers? Partly it is the authors’ history (Dave Eggers is a fiction writer) and partly it is the subject matter and introduction where the book is placed inside a body of work about a famous person. It doesn’t feel right to say that what I’m looking for is a sort of peer reviewed credibility though. Instead I think I’m actually looking for something that doesn’t emphasise telling a great story.
One reason for this is that after finishing a great story I have a mess of sensation and emotion (joy particularly after Huckleberry Finn). I have none of the clarity of thought reading a nice analytic argument gives me (especially if I disagree with the author). If I try and explain to you what I got out of Huckleberry Finn I can almost only really say “Read Huckleberry Finn”. I can’t easily extract what I want to tell you.
This is because whatever wisdom is in great stories is experiential. The simplest stories won’t do that very well. They may just have characters that argue their points or their worlds are purely set up to present their moral. That kind of fiction I can easily disagree with and respond to. The best novels however don’t even seem to set out to inspire and challenge the reader. They merely tell a story that the reader inspires and challenges themselves with. They are like environments in which we live for a while potentially building (or degrading) our character. Mark Twain reminds us of this in a notice before chapter one of Huck Finn;
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
By order of the the Author.
Per G.G., Chief of Ordinance.
Given that Huckleberry Finn has been considered North Americas’ finest novel in regards to its characters, moral and plot it’s easy to conclude that Mark Twain, the consummate humourist, is having fun with us. However he is making an excellent point. It is not fair to the story of Huckleberry Finn to take an element of it out of its story and turn that into some kind of proposition that can be argued against or for. It’s also not fair to turn the events of Huckleberry Finn into arguments for or against any point of our own. There is something chaotic and purposeless to Huckleberry Finn. Essentially Huckleberry Finn the character doesn’t make choices for the writers’ purpose but for his own. That’s what makes it real.
What I don’t get is why this means I don’t read fiction. Take a look at my post on Gay Marriage and you’ll see that this kind of non-clarity is exactly where I think we should philosophically live. I’m sceptical of this world of abstract arguments that are distinct from stories. I certainly don’t hold them to be realer than real (in that Platonic sense of the true forms). Consider an argument such as “God can’t exist because of the problem of suffering” as one example. Although it can be false (by God existing) how can that argument ever really be true? If God doesn’t exist any becauseness of that non-existence is just an invention of our own. It’s not even a story we have told about it. It’s not like God was existing and then because of suffering She vanished. This thing we call an argument is fairly nebulously clinging to meaning let alone reality. You could even call it nonsense.
In fact if we look for “truth”- verifiable, definitive accurate statements – we are most able to see it in descriptions of event, people and surrounds. Basically empirical statements have at least “truthiness” to them. They can be more or less verified, defined and contradicted. And it’s these empirical statements that ultimately compose a story. Analytical and argumentative texts are far more likely to be removed from direct observation. In fact observation and storytelling are so neatly connected as to be almost the same thing. We tell stories automatically whenever we observe. Exposure to stories is closer to reality than any alternative.
Hmmm... Closer; perhaps this is precisely it. Perhaps this is the source of my distrust of fiction. Fiction is so like observation that the best fiction can convince us that we have in fact experienced something. The better the storyteller the more pronounced the effect. I am a little haunted by the memory that I once knew all about the justice system from television. The reality, in particular the deceit and deal making and the collusion between defence council and prosecutors shocked me when I faced it myself. There are people who I’ve encountered who learnt their streets are not safe and cops need to be more brutal, from fiction. And because they learnt it from fiction if you call them on it they can only say “You don’t get it.” What they mean is “You have to absorb the whole story as I did.”
I should add by the way, I watch a lot of fiction – movies particularly. I think that seeing actors performing their roles and also the relative brevity of a movie compared to the time it takes me to complete a book radically diminishes the effect. The exception to this are those movies which I’ve watched numerous times. The hours I’ve spent watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” probably add up to finishing a book. I’d say that particular film has had a correspondingly pronounced teaching effect on me. My favourite film from my teenage years “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the favourite from my twenties “Some Kind of Wonderful” are also in this elite category. It’s possible I’m being wilfully naive here - I might be exempting my movies from my bias against fiction to protect my enjoyment of them – but honestly I don’t think my screen time is generally anywhere near as influential as my reading.
I began this blog intending to praise fiction and damn my prejudice. As I write I can see my prejudice has a point. As a source of learning fiction overshadows non-fiction in my life. Maybe that’s not such a good thing though. Below is a list of ten things I believe, in no particular order that I learnt from my time in fictional worlds. Do you think they are sound? Is it not a little concerning that they come from “experiences” simulated by great story telling rather than my own life?
· Religions are ways of shaping society that get out of control. (Dune Trilogy)
· Heroes are found in unlikely guises. (Master of the Grove)
· Adults are people too. (Mom the Wolfman and Me[i])
· The Meaning Of Life is up to you. (The Plague)
· Don’t be a dick – especially to the elderly. (The Pigman)
· Utilitarianism misses a lot. (Brave New World)
· We can all be blind to our blessings. (It’s a Wonderful Life)
· The stuff we make up matters. (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant)
· Everything is transformed by a show tune ending. (Rocky Horror Picture Show)
· You gotta be willing to be wicked to do right. (Huckleberry Finn)
Looking at these “teachings” I realise that these are opinions that have been reinforced by real life experiences either before or after the fictional source. Maybe that reinforcement is the real basis for my belief. Maybe I’m overstating the importance of fiction because anything it teaches that doesn’t bear fruit in the real world withers and dies anyway. On the other hand I don’t think I can deny that fictional experiences act as reinforcement themselves. Even if one fictional experience is worth a tenth of a real world experience it still contributes to my conclusions. And I’d say it feels more like 50%.
Furthermore it’s also necessary to remember that these are only the lessons I can identify. As I stated above the very best stories leave you with the least easily identifiable wisdom. I wonder what I’ve learned from some stories that I can’t even tell you. It may well be that Pride and Prejudice has been my biggest fiction influence for its subtle, deeply lived morality springing from an intelligent humanistic Christianity. The fact I can’t give a lesson it taught me in a sentence is part of its brilliance and perhaps the problem. All I can say is read Jane Austen.
Oh, and read Huckleberry Finn. It’s hilarious.