Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What is the fiction writer's role in our society?

I've asked myself this again and again, as my finances go down the tubes and I wonder why I can't bring myself to stand over a deep-fryer at MacDonald's (because, you see, I'm an old bag with no marketable skills to speak of; writing is what I do best).

These thoughts were prompted by a conversation I had with a good MF at a local watering hole. (Note: I was raised in taverns, because my parents were tavernkeepers in Milwaukee. I learned from a very young age that the best learning comes from such places -- not colleges and universities and overpriced online programs, not seminars and conferences and "retreats". The most trenchant of life's lessons come from ordinary people who are scraping by, doing the best they can to survive. And this was a realization that came to me after I'd earned degrees and worked in the "professional" world.)

Anyway, my MF is in his mid-forties and dyslexic, but a helluva mechanic and carpenter and just plain decent man. He has the opportunity to apply for a job that pays $52k a year, which is a lot around here (and I mean double the average annual income). Only, the job is empty bull-work. None of his interests or skills would be brought into play -- no building or fixing or problem solving, just a lot of driving and humping . . . and not the good kind.

He's very torn about this. He has kids and responsibilities, but he also has a wife who's had an affair and isn't particularly into him anymore. He'd rather, he said, "live like a bum" than bust ass doing something he finds soul-numbing. He craves purpose and challenge and, more than anything, a sense of fulfillment. He also craves appreciation for his efforts. And he has plenty to bring to the table in return for these gifts.

I listened and absorbed.

It got me wondering: What the hell do we tale-spinners have to offer that enriches people's lives? Are we making, or trying to make, a genuine contribution to society or just indulging our egos and/or our sloth? And how do we perceive our contribution? Would society be any worse off if we didn't do what we do? Would we even be missed? (Well, yeah, writers like Nora and Stephen and JRW and LKH and other acronymous bigshots would be missed, no doubt, but what about the rest of us literary gnats?) Should we all be doing something perceptibly and demonstrably useful instead of making up stories?

I suspect most writers are thinking, People need escape from humdrum and sometimes ugly realities. We provide that escape. Indeed we do. BUT . . . couldn't one-tenth of the authors now in existence provide adequate escape? Aren't the rest of us as interchangeable and replaceable as paper clips? Honestly, I sometimes think people would get way more of a bang out of a perfectly executed burger than any book I've written!

Sorry for the existential issue-raising, but I'm genuinely curious about this. I suspect artists throughout history have asked themselves the same questions. How important is it, both personally and socially/culturally, for people to do what they're good at, even if it doesn't yield tangible results like food or widgets or big economic rewards?


Ann Vremont said...

GK Chesterton - "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

I was inadvertently blogging on this on my website--McKee refers to art as one of the four great wisdoms (along with science, religion and philosophy) and that none of the other three wisdoms effectively communicate with modern society. "Story isn't a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence."

The protagonist in Tanith Lee's Delirium's Mistress is a half-human demon who gives up her immortality so that she can be reincarnated because, as an immortal, she will always view life through one lens and the path to finding the meaning of life/existence, what is "true", can only be found through a collage of different perspectives, which humans get through reincarnation and demons never truly have.

For me, fiction plays the above roles, it inspires, illuminates and guides. It allows us, because we are still separate, to experience events both intellectually and emotionally, and therefore make greater sense out of them while attaching the proper importance to them.

(That's not really supposed to be coherent, btw, am answering on the fly in between work)

K. Z. Snow said...

You're a damned good "flyer", Ann!

Excellent, thought-provoking answer. You seem to be implying that each author (and, God knows, our numbers are legion!) brings a fresh perspective to bear on the human condition rather than a flight from it. I wanted to make such an observation part of my post . . . but couldn't help wondering if it was overtly self-serving.

Ann Vremont said...

It's a couple of different things to a reader, I would be exposed to many different perspective on basic human conditions/relations over the course of a lifetime of reading fiction. As a writer, I am forced to adopt different perspectives. Granted, the latter is more a case of my continually bending and warping the one lens I was allocated, but I think I gain a better sense of other perspectives by my own story creation than by reading others. (And, selfish creature that I am, I'm much more interested in walking my path to truth than the journey of those who might follow along on the trip.)

Lena Austin said...

Perhaps we give the reader an existential experience they themselves cannot have on their own.

There are life lessons in our stories that palatably take the reader out of the reality they live, and for a few hours they live another life lesson.

If we sugar-coat the message, there is little harm in doing so and makes the reader willing to live and learn through a story once more.

K. Z. Snow said...

"Perhaps we give the reader an existential experience they themselves cannot have on their own."

That's what I've always gotten from books, Lena. Movies and certain works of art, too. And each has been unique in my experience. I only hope readers of our more commercial fiction come away feeling the same.

Emma Ray Garrett said...

I've no doubt many an artist - whatever medium - asks these questions from time to time. IMO, it stems from the fact that not a few of us have little in the way of a balanced self-image. As if we see ourselves at once as great, visionary geniuses and tiny specks of shit on the toilet seat.

I'd still tell tales if I were rich. The fact that I'm a pauper, of sorts, has no bearing on why I write. I suppose it boils down to the fact that some storytellers are lucky enough to be able to string together words on a page and entertain/enlighten/uplift others and receive some compensation for their effort, while others struggle to write and fail. But the need to tell the story is inherent in all fabulists (be they narrator or liar), and so in the end most of us will write regardless of audience. And despite the yearning for one.

And don't I sound the pompous windbag, LOL! Too little sleep, I think.

K. Z. Snow said...

I liked this observation: "the need to tell the story is inherent in all fabulists (be they narrator or liar)."

Interesting, the implication that there's a kind of pathology involved, and writers just happen to be at the more innocuous end of the spectrum. I wonder if any studies have been done. Damn, I'd hate to think some part of my brain is similar to my ex-husband's! :-)

But it's true that people either feel driven to be creative or they don't, and once the drive is discovered and unleashed, it's virtually impossible to suppress. (Hell, that sounds pompous, too!)

Anyway, as I said in my original post, facility with language is the only natural skill I have. Whether it benefits anybody (me included) or not, I enjoy writing. Guess that's the bottom line.

Selena Illyria said...

I look at this way, people need art,beauty, writing, something to take them away and show them there is more to life than just existence. That they can aspire to something more . . .

An episode of Crusade comes to mind where a man risked his life for the last remnants of his people's art, stories, their culture.

He died but his people's work lived on.

Books, makes us laugh, teaches us lessons, causes us to think. We as writers share our own view. We give voice to ideas that are our own even if they've been "done" so to speak. We are not interchangable because our voices our unique. We tell the world our story.It would be horrible if the world had no writers, a very sad place indeed.

Erm please tell me if I'm rambling. :-)

Great blog topic.

K. Z. Snow said...

Oh, go ahead and ramble all you want, Se. ;-)

Fiction can also serve as the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. It's much more pleasant to learn about history, geography, human sexuality, and a host of other subjects in the context of an engaging story than through the dry march of facts and figures in a textbook.

I can't even begin to recount the all the novels from which I've come away as enlightened as entertained.

Joey W. Hill said...

Ann, if that’s how you write on the fly, I’m in awe of what you’d do if your brain was fully engaged (lol). While I’m not sure I’m adding anything to these already great answers, or just stating the same info in a different way, it’s too interesting a blog topic for me to keep my nose out of it.

When I read this blog, what came to mind was a program where learned scholars were debating one of the great classics, considering what the author was “intending” when he wrote so-n-so passage, or what “message” he was trying to convey. It occurred to me, that author may not have intended to convey anything. He wanted to write a great story, because something inside him HAD to tell that story. He probably didn’t think about changing the world, or founding a religion. Because writing, and persevering at writing, is a very instinctual, obsessive process. In short, the why doesn’t matter – you HAVE to write it.

And since I believe in the collective divine consciousness, made up of all wishes, needs, cycles and intentions, I also believe that if you are driven to write the best story possible, to work hard enough to see it published, it may be because your story speaks to someone in an important way. In short – yeah, maybe the world only needs 10% of us, but which 10%? Who’s to say our book isn’t intended for one specific person out there, to give them that moment of escape when they feel despair closing in, or offer them the comfort of a familiar emotion, the words telling them that others have those thoughts and feelings, too, connecting us? Ripples in a pond, in other words…

This relates to my viewpoint on my activist days. I might not have fixed the problems, but maybe I inspired the one person who WILL create pivotal change. And not necessarily with my viewpoint on the issue or charisma – maybe I gave them encouragement at the right time, or offered a different perspective. Or, ironically, irritated them so much with my approach that they were determined to do it a different way – a more effective way.

Now, that said, I don’t think that any author can do well, if they think about that too much – in short, if they let their ego take over their writing. That ripple is still a ripple – it’s important because it IS a ripple, but we can’t imagine ourselves as a tidal wave (lol). I think we all have to be like how I imagined that classic author to be – just writing a good story, because that’s what his heart told him to do, no matter whether it becomes a bestseller or ends up on a junk pile, only read by friends.

K. Z. Snow said...

"I also believe that if you are driven to write the best story possible, to work hard enough to see it published, it may be because your story speaks to someone in an important way."

And therein lies the greatest source of fulfillment for us--touching somebody.

When I published my first romance -- the humble and quite traditional Silvermist, which is lurking in the left column -- it was reviewed by a dear woman named Crystal Fulcher for Romance Junkies. It was my first review EVER. One of her reactions was, "It's not often I read a book that truly touches my soul, but this one did."

She meant it. And it made all those writing hours and my miniscule financial return (which remains, to this day, under fifty bucks) worthwhile.

Thanks for the reminder, Joey.

Ann Vremont said...

Thanks, Joey, but I was mostly just repeating stuff smarter people than me have already said. :-)

See, K.Z., what a great topic you started :-)

Clare London said...

Wow... I had things to say but the other commenters have said them for me already! LOL

But then, that's exactly what we're saying, I suspect - that every individual experience and communication adds a layer to life and therefore has a purpose / worth. (and *there's* pompous...!)

It's a layer for the reader, in extending or emphasising or developing or clarifying or challenging or irritating or enchanting or entertaining etc etc their view of and attitude to life and the human condition.

It's a layer for the author, too, in that it helps them do exactly the same thing but through their own work, helping them bring internal things to the light of day. Helping them satisfy their own search for satisfaction or understanding or self-discovery or just to show off! LOL

It can be an escape, but I don't think it's ever a lightweight thing - even the BAD fiction! There's always some emotional reaction, some influence, some intellectual stimulation, some added value. There's a certain amount of effort and energy and investment goes into everything that's produced.

I think I'm trying to say, that's what fiction represents to me, whether I'm looking at it from a reader or a writer's perspective, and so it should be given sufficient respect from that POV.

Gawd, that was a ramble! I've enjoyed thinking around it all, though!
Have a good weekend.

Clare London said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
K. Z. Snow said...

Hi, Clare! glad you dropped by.

Your post made me realize why I picked the Blogger title and tag line I use. And so I send out another thanks.

It appears even when writers are talking about writing rather than performing the act itself, they're generating a spirit of inquiry and thus furthering understanding.

I'm so glad all of you showed up. "A collage of perspectives," indeed! (BTW, nifty phrase, Ann.)

Emma Ray Garrett said...

Joey Hill said, "...learned scholars were debating one of the great classics, considering what the author was “intending” when he wrote so-n-so passage, or what “message” he was trying to convey."

LOL, you know this is one of those things I used to ponder in school all the time! And I have to tell you, the first time I had a reader response asking about the metaphorical meaning of a passage in one of my books, I think I stared at the screen blankly for twenty minutes.

I hadn't intended anything euphemistically, metaphorically, allegorically or otherwise when I wrote the page, but after she pointed it out, I could clearly see why she'd think I had. Now that was an awkward email to construct, for what could I say? "Um, I didn't think of it like that." or "Wow, my subconscious was really working overtime." Or what, LOL!