By RAHN ADAMS
You know what fiction is—short stories and novels that describe imaginary events and imaginary people. Made-up stories about things that aren’t real. While that may not seem like a personal crisis to you—to wonder if playing make-believe on the written page is important—it is for me for at least two reasons.
First, I worked as an English teacher for 25 years, and I had to decide from one semester to the next how much emphasis to place on the various types of literature that my classes studied. Of course, the curriculum requires that certain literary works be taught, but the average classroom teacher does have some latitude in what she teaches and how she teaches it. After all, she is a professional educator.
Since the arrival of President Obama’s Common Core initiative, English teachers in public schools have been pushed to assign less fiction and more nonfiction for their students to read, since only nerds, geeks and little old ladies in reading circles buy books now, right? But the rest of us do read newspapers and magazines and textbooks and owner’s manuals and all sorts of other written. . . . Oh, please.
No, to be honest, now most of us read Facebook. Or whatever else we can suck from cyberspace into these black holes we call smartphones. You’re probably reading this on a smartphone, whose name is the 21st century’s best oxymoron until Jan. 20th when we’re introduced to President Trump. Our phones suck everything in, and they don’t distinguish good from bad. That’s left up to us.
To clarify those remarks, using a smartphone makes no one intelligent who isn’t already and, in fact, allows many of us, including me, to show our ignorance on any given subject at any given time. And there is nothing truly presidential yet about Donald Trump other than the fact that he defeated other more highly-qualified Republican candidates, defeated the more highly-qualified Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and is now our president-elect.
Until now, Trump was merely our generation’s P.T. Barnum, and we were the suckers he tricked into buying tickets for The Greatest Reality Show on Earth. Apparently, this was our first circus or rodeo, and Trump was a clown who distracted our attention from the more worthy candidates of both parties. We now have that in common with our smartphones—being indiscriminate suckers.
The second reason I’m wondering if fiction is still important is because I’ve been a writer all my adult life, ever since my first published article “Speaking for the Groom” appeared in the 1977 June Bride edition of The Valdese News, then a subsidiary of The News Herald in Morganton. I was 17 years old and wanted to write newspaper columns like humorist Lewis Grizzard. I see that article now and wince, though it did get a chuckle from the parent paper’s grandfatherly editor as he stood in the newsroom and proofed my story before it was set in type.
Also, in my spare time I’ve written 11 novels, only one of which has been published. If you’re anxious to suggest that I’ve failed because I’m not a good writer, then please save that insult for someone who hasn’t already considered that likelihood himself. Besides, my writing has been panned by the best. In the late 1980s, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow advised me not to rely on fiction writing to save myself from jobs that I considered to be drudgery. “But,” he added, “with much work, perhaps.”
Over the 10 years that Bellow and I corresponded, he never liked any fiction I sent him, no matter how hard I had worked on it. Still, I loved his novels Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift and, in particular, The Adventures of Augie March, and I told him so because those three works of fiction had taught me much about life at a time when I hadn’t yet lived much. Those novels had helped me grow up.
But the book publishing business has changed and continues to change. The way we read books—or long prose of any kind—continues to change. And I had been thinking that maybe Common Core is right to shift the English classroom’s literary emphasis from fiction to nonfiction. After all, my favorite philosopher Henry David Thoreau preferred nonfiction. Walden, his reflection on life, is the only book I bothered to pack Wednesday for our four- to eight-year stay on this absurd Gilligan’s Island version of America that we’re sailing toward. Or maybe we’re all moving to Hooterville. Think about it, dahling.
Even my beloved Mark Twain got his start in journalism (which should be fact-based) and gravitated toward nonfiction late in life after he seemingly lost hope in the human race. Then again, there’s The Mysterious Stranger, Twain’s last novel, which he worked on throughout the last decade of his life and left unfinished at his death in 1910. The short novel, whose subtitle is “Chronicle of Young Satan,” deals with the hypocrisy of organized religion. Now more than ever, it should be required reading in Sunday schools, if not in public schools.
So, as I said, I was starting to think, what’s the point? Why force students to study short stories and novels, and why bother reading or writing them myself? For pleasure? Well, maybe. Just for meanness? Certainly not. But much of what I read on Facebook and Twitter is entertaining, though often in some perverse way. And its brevity can’t be beat. A good meme is worth a thousand, heck, two thousand words.
Then, on Nov. 7th, the day before the election, Wilmington Star-News writer Ben Steelman noted on his Facebook page Nobel Prize-winning author Albert Camus’s definition of fiction as “the lie through which we tell the truth.” That definition or a similar one is also attributed to Twain, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, among other great writers. In all its absurdity, it’s the best definition of fiction I’ve ever read.
My definition of literature, the one I presented to my students, is broader and less ironic. To me, good literature—whether it’s fiction or poetry—is simply a picture of life framed by language. Figuratively speaking, literature can be anything from a Polaroid snapshot to the fresco of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Now, thanks to our smartphones, we all can be published authors at the touch of a “submit” button, and most of what we publish is as ephemeral as a Snapchat photo.
But some traditional fiction sticks in our heads long after it has been shelved or deleted. On Nov. 9th, the day after the election, I heard Sen. Tim Kaine quote from a work of short fiction by Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner in his introduction of Hillary Clinton’s eloquent concession speech. “They killed us but they ain’t whooped us yet,” Kaine said of Clinton’s loss to Trump. Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it better.
Then, as I listened to Ms. Clinton’s heartfelt and hopeful speech, I couldn’t help but think of another popular piece of Southern literature, Flannery O’Connor’s Gothic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which three escaped convicts, led by a murderer calling himself The Misfit, randomly encounter and then kill a young man and his wife, their two children and the husband’s mother after the family is involved in automobile accident in some remote Southern countryside.
Grandmother is the last to die. The Misfit, who sees life as “no pleasure but meanness,” shoots her three times in the chest just after the gabbling old woman finally sees their separate situations for what they are and expresses for the first time in their meeting an honest emotion. The Misfit says, “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
I think that if Hillary Clinton had given that concession speech every day of her campaign, she would have won the Presidency, in addition to the popular vote.
That isn’t my main point, though. I’m talking about the value of fiction in our lives, how we can benefit from reading an imagined story involving imaginary characters, and how we can find things in those short stories, novels and plays, too—good and bad things, even absolutely horrifying things that we would never want to experience in real life—that can help us find our way in the real world, whether we’re 10th-graders at the local high school or retirees who write blog essays to keep themselves busy.
If president-elect Donald Trump and his wife were merely fictional characters and the protagonists of a novel that was required reading in a high school English classroom, many conservative parents would be apoplectic over that book’s inclusion in the curriculum. Preachers would demand from their pulpits that this obscene story of the Trumps and their lurid past be removed and that something of greater moral value be read and discussed in its place. I wonder if even certain unexpurgated parts of the Bible would pass muster.
But Donald Trump isn’t a fictional character. He’s a real person, despite the caricature he has become. And now he is America’s president-elect. Whether for entertainment or enlightenment, I would much rather read an imaginary story about his imaginary blunders as the imaginary leader of the most powerful country in an imaginary world than suffer through the real thing with the rest of the human race. But that’s just me—and 60 million other Americans.
As the President noted, the sun did come up on Wednesday, and I trust it will continue to do so for most of us every day for the next four or eight years. God only knows what will happen to us all, no matter whom we voted for or against.
As I was thinking about what I might post this week, I didn’t want to write nearly this much on a topic that is so divisive. I considered posting something short and sweet, like “The Top 10 Things I Learned This Election Season,” but I could come up with only one thing that I haven’t already covered.
I learned that an American’s vote is more precious than even the truth: the worst liar can retract all his falsehoods, but a misguided voter can never recast his ballot. He has only the one.
Thanks for reading this column. Leave a comment below, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.