The need for fiction

February 4, 2007

Good fiction, I mean, not any old rubbish.

In the blog he wrote yesterday, my husband Chris mentions a well known “artificial intelligence” expert called Marvin Minsky and an interview he gave. Far be it from me to repeat or quibble with anything Chris says about Dr Minsky, but when I clicked on the link and read the interview, the following little interchange gave me pause:

Has science fiction influenced your work?

It’s about the only thing I read. General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.

especially when I read it out to Chris who said he shared that attitude! Oh dear, I thought. We still have a long way to go. If such intelligent people become so prejudiced, what can we say or do to convince them to change their minds? The trouble is, a lot of “general fiction” can make us squirm, not because it’s bad, but because it’s good. It rings true, despite the fact that it’s made up, and not all readers like that. Minsky’s opinion about the subject matter of most novels and short stories is a sweeping generalisation—yes, they are usually about some individual getting into difficulties, but they’re often about a person whose life is “screwed up” by something external and unavoidable or by someone else, not by himself or herself, or not only. Minsky (because he keeps clear of it) has missed the point in most great fiction, which is surely more about how a person responds to the rough treatment, and about how that person fails to cope, or copes or in spite of it.

There’s a tendency to sneer at fiction as “just” fiction: there’s no truth in it, purely imaginary, therefore it doesn’t merit our serious attention. Well, I’d claim that all but the very best science fiction falls into that category. The other kind is far closer to reality, and that’s the trouble; it’s often too close for comfort. In a review of The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, the reviewer (Winfried Siemerling) says

Historians […] had detailed Canadian slavery and the fate and fortunes of refugees […]. But perhaps it takes fiction to make it real.

That’s it! It’s a paradox, but it takes fiction to make things real, because text books are usually dry by comparison. The novelist brings in his visionary understanding of human beings (or places) and by virtue of the telling details he imagines, they suddenly spring to life, and resonate, and become memorable.

I read another article in another section of the same newspaper, this one by Margaret Atwood: a diatribe against the present Canadian government’s “non-support for the arts”. As is typical of her, she does not express herself mildly.

…it seems to be the intention of the Harper neocons to bleed and starve Canada’s cultural institutions until they croak.

And she goes on,

Once it’s lying in the ditch, Canadian art will be accused of not having been strong enough to survive in the Alpha Chimp social-Darwinist marketplace model favoured by Harper’s Conservatives, thus justifying the contempt and scorn with which the arts sector has been treated.

Unfortunately, those who see the point of fiction, modern art, etc., can’t win, because, as Margaret Atwood puts it:

There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon that shows a painter holding out his hand to a man in a suit. On his easel is a portrait of the same man with the letters A-S-S-H-O below. The painter is saying, “Can I have a grant so I can finish my picture?” That’s the dilemma, for both sides. Why should the man in the suit help the artist to finish some art in which he himself features as an Assho?


One Response to “The need for fiction”

  1. gloplastic Says:

    Anna Karenina is about people who’ve messed up their own lives. Reading it is also the most amazing experience.

    I don’t read much fiction because when I do read a book I become obsessed with the characters and I start to live it – think like them. It takes over my life. Therefore I can only read a work of fiction when I really have nothing else to do (i.e. on a long plane journey or on the canal boat holiday we took). Non-fiction is easy to read in comparison and can be dipped into – it doesn’t take over my life in the same way (interestingly even biographies aren’t as much of a ‘problem’ as novels).

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