Fiction versus Consensus

By Eisenberg, Deborah | Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Fiction versus Consensus

Eisenberg, Deborah, Michigan Quarterly Review

As the years pass - my years, specifically - I have fewer and fewer ideas about writing fiction, that is, ideas about what, in general, fiction is or ought to be, what role fiction does or should play in the world, what any given piece of fiction should or should not be expected to do, what a writer of fiction ought to aspire to or how she is to orient herself toward the planet that furnishes the objects of her explorations, and so on. As I remember, I used to have a certain number of passionately held beliefs about questions of this sort, though what they were I now haven't the faintest idea.

But I've been a bit preoccupied lately by questions of what is public and what is private, and as I happen to write fiction, I've been vaguely mulling over some ways that those questions intersect with matters of writing fiction. My thoughts about these intersections are sketchy and inchoate, admittedly, but I'll hazard a couple of observations.

So, let's start with privacy - a few things that can be said about privacy and writing fiction. It is generally the case in making art that there's only one person who can have a feeling for what it is that must be made, and that person is the artist. But what it is that must be made is not likely to be immediately apparent to the artist nor will the discovery of it necessarily be straightforward - or all artists would just sit down and make, with very little fuss, whatever that thing was. But on the contrary, the process of discovery is often long and exhausting, and it is interior; it entails tapping or burrowing into areas of consciousness that are usually left undisturbed.

Fiction writers have to sit alone in a room, gnashing their teeth over a single piece for days or even decades. But in the event that it is successfully completed, the piece will probably seem like the obvious thing to have been written, so the time that is spent on writing it is usually, in itself, reasonably humiliating. And of course, if nothing of interest comes of the effort, the expenditure of all that teeth-gnashing time is even more humiliating.

And it's the rare fiction writer who isn't also humiliated by what she finds herself writing - not only because of its infuriatingly inadequate quality, but also because of its surprising, and often embarrassing, though insistent, content. Thoughts and feelings we have previously masked from ourselves are exposed in a starker way by words - however oblique the exposure - than by, for example, line or color or movement or harmonies. And often the struggle between revealing to ourselves and concealing from ourselves the content of our psyches is grueling: That simply can't be what / want to write about, we think - it's peculiar! Or it's disgusting, or it's pointless. But the words that appear on the piece of paper are the words that appear, and if we suppress them, the piece of paper stays blank. Apparently the struggle is indispensable; whatever it is that insists on being conveyed by certain inalterable words is most profoundly satisfied when those words come from the previously unplumbed recesses of our minds.

So, first, writing fiction is something that one does alone; second, writers are likely to be glad that no one observes them at work; and third, the main thing that's needed in order to write fiction is oneself. In short, writing fiction is, in a number of ways, essentially private - it's a private activity.

However. All the arts, not excepting fiction, have public aspects. Some forms of art are highly collaborative, for example, and the artists who practice them need a harmonious working relationship with someone or other. The concert master of a symphony orchestra cannot just decide on the spot that the conductor is doing a worthless job of the piece in progress, take things in hand, and play in the way, and at the tempo, she sees fit. A dancer cannot simply re-choreograph a pas de deux in the middle of a performance.

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