What is fiction for?

There is an amusing review of Salman Rushdie’s Golden House, published by New Statesman in September:

“Salman Rushdie’s new novel has been billed as a return to realism, which in relative terms is true enough” … “The Golden House offers the weary, ever-hopeful Rushdie reader a Dexedrine-fuelled hotchpotch of place names, brand names, sort-of-puns […] mothballed observations […] failed phrase-making […] outmoded film theory, WTF quotations […] offhand highbrowism […] plugs for micro-memes and quasi-crazes […] cameos for Werner Herzog […] bewildering suppressions of the words “Spike Lee” […] cogitations on phenomena including satirists and sitarists, shoehorned references to King’s College, Cambridge, and, to facilitate most of the above, the rhetorical device known as amplification.” … “Aversion to choice is the governing principle. Adjectives come in twos – in the novel’s first page and a half, we read, among many other pairings, “thick and strong”, “large, dangerous”, “huge, clumsy”, “sociable and neighbourly”. And the tendency towards excess is replicated on a larger scale; for example, when the spry reference to Nero Golden’s “way of walking toward closed doors without slowing down” is spoiled by the explanatory “knowing they would open for him”.” … “As a rule, Rushdie deploys language without concision or precision. One chapter opening takes a swift dive from mock-epigram into polysyllabic sludge” … “Things that aren’t amusing on their own are rendered nonsensical into the bargain.” … “holding forth is deemed the best way of transmitting narrative information.” … “the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.” … “here we have Salman Rushdie – who, as the author of Midnight’s Children as much as The Satanic Verses, embodies the novel’s powers of resistance – offering a book that seems little more than an exercise in googling, an attempt to sell the listicle as literature.”

As the reviewer points out, Salman Rushdie published works of fiction that affected the real world, but can fiction ever really be ‘important’?

I keep coming back to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote: “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

As I have said already, watching TV is not, and never will be, activism; and if I am entirely honest, I doubt reading or watching The Handmaid’s Tale has, regarding women’s bodily autonomy, changed the mind of a single adult.

And as shown by this year’s emmys, giving Sean Spicer the chance to poke fun at himself and hang out with the stars, the TV industry isn’t actually interested in challenging the status quo.

If fiction can’t change the world, what can it do? Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; – poetry = the best words in the best order.” Which is fair enough. I guess Sturgeon’s Law, “ninety percent of everything is crap”, applies across the board. If A Little Life is genuinely ‘award worthy literature’, then literature is a joke.

We use fiction to manipulate ourselves, to layer on technicolour ersatz emotions so that we know that we are really feeling something. Fiction is, at best, a lie that helps us understand the truth, it can help us articulate an idea or an emotional state we have difficulty accessing/expressing otherwise (real emotions have to be pried out of the side of a mountain with a pick-axe); fiction is putting a fake horn on a real unicorn so that we can see it. The rest of the time it is mere escapism, or voyeuristic gawping.

Human beings will always tell each other stories, it seems to be a fundamental part of our nature to do so, the thing that allowed us to make sense of the world before modern science, a way of passing on ideas and cultural norms.

Despite my cynicism, there are always glimmers of hope. Philip Pullman’s new book came out recently, teaching children to challenge blind obedience and totalitarian thinking.

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