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02/16/2006

Comments

Brendan Wolfe

Well put. I, too, am a reader quick to cry "Didactic!" To paraphrase Donald Hall: If a poem can easily be paraphrased into what it means, then it may as well be an essay, not a poem. The same holds true, I think, for novels.

Joel

Of course, any depiction of a non-comatose character in anything approximating the real world will have to take local concerns, such as politcs, into account. Sometimes, a character working through these issues is what makes the novel "serious," not the issues themselves. "Elizabeth Costello," for example, is about far more than the sum of its title character's lectures, but those lectures are absolutely necessary to the novel--for its character and plot, for its metaphysical examinations, and for the way it does end up expanding the aesthetic potential of the novel. What's your opinion on Coetzee's place in this debate?

Dan Green

Haven't read EC, but I have to say that what Coetzee I have read--Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians--hasn't appealed to me very much. I'd probably concede that he's a good political novelist, but political novels aren't at the top of my list of books I need to read.

Jeff VanderMeer

I hope people do read the whole essay, because one writer I hold up as considering politics and social issues when writing is Carol Bly...surely one of the least didactic writers out there.

Jeff VanderMeer

Dan:

***See my responses below with *** by them, intercut by your actual post. I think, in general, you've latched leech-like onto one part of the essay, while ignoring other parts that don't fit your analysis.

While I am indeed the sort of reader who is very quick to scream "didactic!" when fiction begins to deal in "issues," in my opinion the real problem

****So the idea of not screaming didactic when fiction deals in issues is not the real problem, but still a problem? Just a kind of unimportant one. Or you're being sarcastic? And you think the point is made in an overly dramatic way? If not sarcastic, are you then saying that you prefer fiction that does not include politics in some way? Okay, well, that's fine. My essay doesn't say you have to. But the fact is, any number of experimental works you champion dabble in the didactic, even if not in a political way. So I'm not quite sure that your point is not undercut by your own tastes in fiction.

with Jeff's analysis here is the overly reductive way in which he's separated fiction's appeal into its "entertainment value" and "the depth of what is being said." This doesn't leave much room for writers who aren't interested either in "entertainment" for its own sake or in "saying something,"

****How does the "depth of what's being said" equate with being "didactic?" It is true I may have used a short-hand here, in that the reader generally expects some kind of "entertainment", on some level. But I count as "entertaining" Borges, Calvino, Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, Bulgakov, R.M. Berry, and any number of writers who I would claim did want to entertain even as they also wanted to grapple with deep issues—indeed, what to “say something”--whether concerning the nature of personal relationships, the politics of gender, the nature of reality, or whatever.

much less in using fiction as a podium from which to deliver lectures.

****I have a problem with this whole idea of not leaving room for writers who don’t want to be “didactic” (or, frankly, how you think I’m espousing *being* didactic unless it’s important to the structure or integrity of a particular piece of fiction). Where in the essay do I say that I have no time, patience, or respect for writers who don’t want to deal with the kinds of things I talk about in the essay? Where do I denigrate writers who don’t want to use these terms or who might not agree with the essay. All I’m saying is that sometimes it is important for a piece of fiction to engage the world in this way. I don’t think that’s a very sneering or exclusionary point of view. Nor do I think I ever said that “fiction should be a podium from which to deliver lectures.” I just said sometimes a reader needs to be patient if a piece requires more of the “didactic” than they may be used to encountering. I would think as a champion of experimental and non-commercial fiction (I also am—just crack open Leviathan 3 or Album Zutique, or any other fiction anthology I’ve edited) that you would certainly not sneer at the idea of readers being willing to be patient. Because, quite frankly, a lot of experimental fiction and experimental fictions *read* in a way indistinguishable to many readers from the didactic. I.e., it has the same effect on them.

***What’s really funny to me about your analysis of this section is that another section of the essay makes the point that using “politics” in secondary world fiction allows a writer to potentially incorporate these kinds of things in a non-didactic way because there’s more distance from the real world. Hardly advocating a podium. Although I rather feel you were standing behind one while writing this blog entry. And I also think this part of the essay is hardly suggesting fiction writers should be preachy: “Asking such questions is part of creating fully rounded characters. A character’s politics — public and private — may be inconsistent or, again, irrelevant to the main story being told, but the writer still needs to think about such issues. The questions still need to be part of the conversation the writer has with him or herself about the character.”

I think the whole idea that what makes fiction "serious" is the extent to which it allows a writer to "say something" is misguided,

*****Again, show me where in the essay I say that only writers who deal with “issues” or “politics” are “serious”? I don’t see the essay as exclusionary. In fact, by claiming that the essay is exclusionary and either/or, I think you are saying more about your own approach to literature than anything that is intrinsic to my essay.

but the implicit suggestion that making political observations and providing political critique is the most serious use of the fiction writer's time is even more objectionable.

****You may have implied it. I’m not sure the essay does. I was very careful in writing the essay not to make it a call for more overt writing about politics. Just that more care should be taken to consider these things. And then I talk about how politics informs my own work—something personal to me, not a universal call to arms. I think what’s kind of funny about your observation above is that it could be implied that you’re saying lots of works already do this, or that the true Artiste is somehow above the fray (also dealt with in my essay). But all of this aside, I don’t believe, nor do I believe the essay indicates, that making political observations and providing political critique is the most serious use of fiction.

***But this brings another observation to the fore: you’re talking in generalizations. Sometimes, depending on the work of fiction, political critique is the most serious use of the fiction writer’s time because it’s what’s right for the story or the novel. In my essay, I’m careful to give examples from my own work so as to be specific, and also so as not to seem to put words or attitudes in the mouths of other writers by citing their work by way of example. Specificity is very important to fiction, and I think it’s very important to talking about fiction as well.

Why politics rather than some other sphere of life? Is it really true, as Jeff maintains, that "all people are political in some way, even those who seem apathetic, because politics is about gender, society, and culture"?

****Well, you’ve answered your own question, sir. If politics is as all-encompassing as I claim, then, by God, it *is* the most serious use of fiction, I think you’d agree. You cannot imply an answer to your first question that is not negated by an equally honest answer to your second.

Isnt' this defining "politics" so broadly as to almost drain it of it meaning? Can't almost any activity ultimately be construed to involve "gender, society and culture"? It seems to me that to say a writer is concerned with such activities is finally to say only that he/she is writing about human beings and the various things they do.

****This is a good question. It’s entirely possible I defined politics too broadly. Or could it be I was making the point that it is somewhat all-invasive? But this is definitely a good question for debate.


And are the most pressing questions we face ones like "How do ruling elites come into being?" or "How do they stay in power"? I don't myself find these questions entirely uninteresting, but are they really the preeminently "serious" kinds of questions a writer of fiction can pursue?

***Again, please show me where I say this is the most important, most serious kinds of questions. Not to mention I also posed these questions, but they don’t fit your approach quite as well: “What is the character's relationship to his or her job? Does the character think about the ethics of supporting harm to others, even if indirectly? What are the character's politics, and how do they reflect or not reflect the character's actual actions? How does the character justify both personal and political decisions?”

***Let’s also look at the context in which I posed the question about ruling elites, shall we? It was in a very specific context dealing with a very specific aspect of one of my books: “For me, the secondary world fantasy of Ambergris let more of the real, unstylized world into my writing — and that meant those echoes of the real world that concerned politics as well. I found myself thinking about how conflict arises on a micro and macro level. How do ruling elites come into being? How do they stay in power? What are the consequences of colonialism and pogrom on both the oppressor and the oppressed? Who fills a power vacuum when it occurs, and why?” There is no way that you can, from that context, infer that I thought these were the “most pressing questions” we face. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t—depending on the specific fiction a writer is working on. But that’s not what I said.

Beyond whatever "content" a work of fiction may have to offer, what about those works in which the writer's serious effort has clearly gone into meeting particular aesthetic goals, into extending the formal or stylistic possibilities of fiction? Is such a writer to be consigned to the category of "entertainer," albeit an entertainer of some sophistication?

****Yes, “consigned” to the “ranks” of mere “entertainer”, fated to “entertain” “readers” with their “words”. (I think you quite earned the “sarcasm”, but I apologize in advance anyway. Evil Monkey made me do it.)

*****But to be serious again—as you say, what about those works in which the writer’s serious effort has clearly gone into meeting particular aesthetic goals, into extending the formal or stylistic possibilities of fiction? Well, that’s a different essay. I was writing an essay about politics and fiction. And, ironically enough, inasmuch as my novel Shriek is specifically one thing, it is most definitely a “work in which the writer’s serious effort has clearly gone into meeting particular aesthetic goals, into extending the formal or stylistic possibilities of fiction.” Oh yes—and it has a political and historical component as well. This is called layering. And, it’s also entertaining. Or it’s supposed to (readers will tell me if I succeeded or not).

To be fair,

***To be fair, you’d have to do a better job of providing context from the essay.

Jeff elsewhere in his essay does affirm that fiction has no obligation to be "relevant," that "The instinctual idea I had as a teen and young adult about Art for Art’s sake, the idea that character and situation are paramount, that some truths transcend politics — that’s all valid." But even here, the assumptions seem to be that the alternative to a focus on content is a focus on "character and situation" and that the writer of fiction is ultimately seeking to embody "truth," even if it isn't necessarily political truth.

****I think it’s fair to point out the focus on “character and situation”. I was thinking in terms of what people generally think about as an antidote to the didactic or the purely plot-driven. I could have listed more alternatives, but it wasn’t a big part of the essay. It was mostly just a bridge to other parts of the essay. But, fair cop.

***Re “truth.” There’s an important distinction between “truth” and a truth. One is general, while the other is specific and personal to an individual writer. I never say anything about Truth in my essay. All I talk about are “truths”. It was outside of the scope of the essay, but I believe a writer’s search for a truth can be found in experimental form as well as character and situation. So I don’t think we’re in disagreement there anyway.

What of the writer who seeks to discover whether fiction as a form has aesthetic potential beyond rendering character and situation through conventional narrative? Is this not in itself a "serious" undertaking?

****See above. What of that poor bastard who seeks to discover whether fiction as a form has aesthetic potential beyond rendering character and situation through conventional narrative? Well, that poor bastard—or at least one of them—is me, Dan. See above, re layering. On one level, Shriek is most definitely a response to Nabokov’s narrative techniques in Ada, as well as an attempt to create a hybrid form that is neither plant or animal, on land or at sea, etc., etc. So, yes, I consider it a serious undertaking—even a “serious” one. I don’t think my essay precludes this possibility, and I apologize again for the sarcasm but the last thing I wanted to spend my evening doing was rebutting a post about my politics essay.

And what if the "truth" a writer's work reveals is that fiction does have this potential and that the human imagination has yet to find its limits? I guess it could be said that this is a message of some "depth," although such a writer has not attempted to "say" anything. Indeed, the value to be found in such work originates in the effort to avoid saying anything at all.

****This has my vote for the most pompous ending to a post in the last week, even if I agree with the sentiments, were that not coated in poison treacle and then subjected to a further coating of melodrama. That said, I don’t subscribe to your “truth”. I believe in many truths, many ways of getting somewhere, and the journey being the most important thing. Do I think the human imagination has yet to find its limits? No. Do I think yours has? I’m not longer sure. Do I think your post was a half-assed response to a fairly innocuous and fairly specific essay? Yes. And do I think you have largely, in your post, avoided saying anything at all? That should be obvious from my responses.

***At this point, I think this is all I have to say on the matter.

Dan Green

"How does the 'depth of what's being said' equate with being 'didactic?'"

It doesn't, necessarily. But the first step toward being didactic is conceptualizing fiction as a forum for "saying something."

"Where in the essay do I say that I have no time, patience, or respect for writers who don’t want to deal with the kinds of things I talk about in the essay?"

You don't, and I didn't say you did. In fact, I pointed out your sympathy with "art for art's sake."

"by claiming that the essay is exclusionary and either/or, I think you are saying more about your own approach to literature than anything that is intrinsic to my essay."

I didn't say the essay as a whole was "exclusionary," merely that your dichotomy of "entertainment" and "depth" seemed to me to leave out other possibilities. I'm pretty sure I *am* saying more about my own approach to literature. I don't claim, in fact, that your essay represents your own "approach to literature." I do find the comments I quoted, however, to represent a common enough attitude toward the "serious" that I find problematic.

"If politics is as all-encompassing as I claim, then, by God, it *is* the most serious use of fiction"

I confess to not understanding this point.

"There is no way that you can, from that context, infer that I thought these were the “most pressing questions” we face."

Again, I did not either claim or imply that you had said this. I am indeed "generalizing" about this issue.

ed

Interesting discussion. I come into this debate as someone currently working on a dramatic piece that draws explicit parallels with current events while being careful not to make the piece didactic. I don't think that anyone could seriously claim that "1984" or "Death of a Salesman" is overly didactic -- in large part, because the visceral sense of what's going on is very well in place. And I think that is what Jeff is saying. Sometimes in the course of coming to terms with the subconscious, a writer might have a character impart a lengthy monologue. But if this is only a small fraction of the whole, I don't see what's so wrong with this. One might argue that the famous "getting wrong" aside in Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" is if not political, then quite didactic in scope. But it does clue us in on Zuckerman's motivations in a way that doesn't necessarily have the reader screaming "Didactic!" It is, one might argue, an approach to fiction in which the instinct of characters is allowed to rise to the surface.

Now a writer is obviously motivated and inspired by what he experiences, whether it's life circumstances or newspaper headlines. This doesn't necessarily mean that personal politics is the primary motivator behind writing fiction. It simply imputes that this is one of many influential factors which go into the finished product. Clifford Odets' frequent monologues, for example, might be styled as "didactic" when considered out of context. But it would be foolish to point to these as the indisputable imprint of what Odets is all about.

Conversely, I think fiction which deals exclusively in partisan monologues is disgraceful. Unworthy of ambiguity in the extreme. Because it dictates to the reader isntead of giving the reader the benefit of the doubt. I'm wondering, Dan, if there's any example of nuanced politically charged fiction that you find acceptable. What of Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter," for example? Scobie's Catholicist asides might be construed as "didactic," but in voicing his ethical code, often with explicit examples such as the way in which he delivers that note under the door, we get a good sense of how hypocritical his ethics are. Perhaps what we are identifying here is the irony beneath a character's partisan actions. And if that's what we're talking about, then is there not irony in a character delivering a political sermon?

Dan Green

"I'm wondering, Dan, if there's any example of nuanced politically charged fiction that you find acceptable."

It's not a question of my finding something "acceptable." Readers have different tastes, and my taste, by and large, does not run to political fiction. In fact, if I read a review that pronounces a given book to be "politically charged," I'm likely to conclude it's not a book I want to read. I'm always in favor of nuance, but in so many ways politics and nuance do not go together. (Although since human beings are indeed, in part, political animals, to disregard the political attitudes or behaviors of characters in fiction would be as distortive as focusing solely on these things.)

My post really wasn't about didacticism per se. I just was struck by Jeff's dichotomy of "entertainment" and "depth." Both terms are too dismissive of writers who focus on formal/stylistic ingenuity rather than on "theme."

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