I’ve written short stories for as long as I can remember. If I re-read them now they go from being painfully hormonal, hyper-emotional to more nuanced, better crafted, with less telling and more showing. For a year or so now, I feel this is somewhat close to what fiction is meant to be — the best it can be is at its bravest and rawest, what I like to think of as honest fiction.
In middle school, I read a lot of Alice Munro. One of her stories about infidelity, published in The New Yorker, is something I recommend to everyone all the time, something I wish my own stories could emulate one day in its piercing, uncomfortable authenticity. It is called “What Is Remembered” and it is about a married woman who has a brief romantic involvement with a doctor, who she never meets again. Much of it is a transcript of her thoughts — genuine, impure, guilty, honest. Munro does not glorify, or apologize, for the actions of the protagonist.
I think of how the same characters might appear in a modern-day drama serial on local TV, or even how some reasonably famous local writers would use them. What comes to mind is an exhausted, predictable plot about a woman lured out of an abusive marriage into the hands of a cunning trafficker, mistreated at every corner by every one of fifty men she encounters, then left to die with sorrow and regret. Of course, such stories are indispensable — they need to be told and heard, but with honesty. A lot of bourgeoise fiction, submitted to elite local and international publications, can be dishonest in the way they represent what the author thinks is the truth: this is both a function of the author not having any firsthand knowledge or experience of such a truth, and the desire to write stories that will sell quicker and more easily.
An honest story is like a cliffhanger — it’s a hard story to digest or make sense of, like reality. That’s why it’s good. It is not a painfully streamlined story that will reveal its conclusion in the second sentence. Fiction that is monotone — that suggests that places, people, and events exist in good/bad binaries — is banal fiction. Too often, an inspired teenager will weave through bookshelves of authors to find novels that have plots that look like “dictator=oppression, blackout, must be hung!” and “woman: downtrodden, mistreated, otherwise angelic”. Not all of these conclusions are ill-founded, but they are not holistic. Work like this, which is myopic and oversimplified, is better suited to sponsored media outlets and not-so-secret propaganda publications; explicitly furthering a trope or an agenda demeans fiction.
This doesn’t mean fiction should become apolitical — it should just not become an overt, even if unintentional, tool for someone’s politics. This can only happen when a piece of work seeks to portray the world as existing in black and white. An assumed terrorist may have a backstory. An oft-lionized leader of a resistance movement may have a questionable criminal track-record. Fiction writers that cover this, with the implicit craft of their words, give fiction the depth and complexity it deserves.
The quality of fiction going south in this way is suffused with the increasing tendency to write to appease an audience, not to intrigue it. Today a woe-is-woman story, with its protagonist a singular beacon of light and love, complete with sporadic paragraphs of sanctimonious preachiness, would have a lot of potential of becoming an internet sensation. A story about a woman’s deliberated, incorrect decisions — things that would make her human, if not the paragon of virtue its emotionally charged audience wants her to be — would not be so welcome, even termed outright regressive.
Fiction has no agenda. Storytellers reflect the realities they see onto their words. Reality is not either/or, and it does not care to be politically correct. Good fiction acknowledges that there are nuances to the truth. Mediocre fiction perpetuates tired, poseur motifs that taper the reader’s emotional and intellectual bandwidth.
There is a line in Munro’s “What Is Remembered” that I think about a lot, somewhat outside of its then-context. “That’s romantic. You’re wrenching things around to make a happy ending.”
Many writers seem to be guilty of this — except the happy ending is a forced, hackneyed one. Fiction should be honest, not artificial. Whether it confirms or challenges a bias or cause, are thoughts for after the story has been told, in its truest form. This consideration should be not the epicenter from which the story has originated.
Featured Image by Patrick Tomasso