This question and the one above it both require a kind of speculation into the interiors of two fictional characters, and maybe this is a good place to state that I don’t believe that any fictional characters, no matter how memorable, how lifelike, can be talked about, even by their author, as if they were real people, with actual psychological thickness and a reality beyond the edges of the book. Fictional characters can, on occasion, seem profound, but they are almost like figures on a ground, in the sense that all anyone can know about them is what is put there to be seen. For instance, we can imagine all kinds of things about Manet’s barmaid from the context, historically, sociologically, of the scene he paints of her, and we might even try to imagine what she is thinking about, but Manet cannot, by definition, be an expert on the vicissitudes of the barmaid’s emotions, because she does not exist outside of his painting.
You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose … That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself?
If this were a movie, this would be the end of the show and something would be decided. In a movie or a novel they would dramatize and build to the climax of the attack. When the attack came in the film or novel, it would be satisfying. It would decide something. It would have a semblance of meaning and a semblance of an emotion. And immediately after, it would be over. The audience could go home and think about the semblance of the meaning and feel the semblance of the emotion. Even if the hero got killed, it would still make sense. Art, Bell decided, creative art – was shit.
[…] Here there was no semblance of meaning. And the emotions were so many and so mixed up that they were indecipherable, could not be untangled. Nothing had been decided, nobody had learned anything. But most important of all, nothing had ended.
James Jones, The Thin Red Line
If you just shut off part of your mind from acerbic questions about this and that and limited yourself to just the words you read in through your eyes, you could almost believe all of them, even the worst ones.
James Jones, From Here to Eternity
The response of many straight women to “Cat Person” has simply been “yes, this”. I don’t think there’s anything intellectually immature in that. Perhaps male readers would like it to be so, at least in the case of this one story. Literature helps us to know the world and ourselves – as long as it’s literature written from the perspective of the default human being. Write something that makes a whole bunch of women say “yes, that’s how it is”, and suddenly we’re meant to feel embarrassed. But why should we? What if a piece expresses something we’ve long desired to articulate, but never quite trusted ourselves to say?
[…] Emotional truths, even those expressed in fiction, hurt. They force us to reposition ourselves in relation to others.
Who wants to do that? Not many straight men, it seems. It disrupts the narrative of how things should be. That’s why these stories matter.
This is, essentially, ‘Nosedive’:
Sesame Credit, a credit-scoring agency setup by Alibaba and Tencent, is designed to make Orwellian self-surveillance a reality. As well as creditworthiness, it measures political loyalty – based on user data gathered by China’s two biggest internet companies. People with low scores won’t get job offers, loans or high-speed internet; people who network with people with low scores will also get downgraded. The project, which is awaiting regulatory approval, has been decried by human rights groups as a mass surveillance tool. But it is nothing compared to what China is planning with artificial intelligence. Last month, the Chinese state issued a strategy designed to achieve global leadership in AI by 2030. As part of the plan, the private sector is ordered routinely to share its user data with the state. This puts China in the unique position among major powers of having no formal barriers to state exploitation of private commercial data. If it succeeds, China will create a consumer market whose customer data is completely interpenetrated with state surveillance mechanisms, and a population whose behaviour can be predicted right down to their choice of underwear.
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.