Fiction

All writing is fiction.  I suppose that requires some unpacking.  One of the first things we do when we approach a piece of writing is answer the question “what kind of writing is this?”  We may not do this consciously, but we wouldn’t benefit much from reading if we didn’t.  If your significant other leaves you a note stuck to your computer monitor or the refrigerator door, you know at a glance that it likely contains pithy, factual information.  If you pick up a newspaper you know what to expect the contents to be like.  It’s quite different if you pick up The Onion.  Or a romance novel.  These categories are extremely helpful, but they can also be problematic.  Any writer knows that you write and others decide on your genre.

I read a lot of nonfiction.  It is a kind of fiction, however, since it follows a narrative and it contains mistakes, or perhaps faulty assumptions.  Moreover, nonfiction is a reflection of its own time.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s England had giants in its past.  It simply did.  Today we question his working assumptions just as surely as future people (if we long survive) will ours.  This current generation doesn’t really excel at critical thinking.  Many academics, as critical as they are in their own fields, fall into standard assumptions once you get beyond their expertise.  They accept the fictions of their era just as readily as does everybody else.  In reality our nonfiction is not the naked fact we like to think it is—it is the narrative of one perspective.  It is perhaps the truth as it is perceived in its own time.

This may seem to be a subtle distinction, but it is an important one.  Genres are very convenient handles that we use to classify what we’re reading.  Very often they become straightjackets that constrain what writing has the potential to be.  The word “genre” is related to the concept of genus, the classification about species.  Zonkeys and other, perhaps rare, but possible cross-breedings show us that hopeful monsters of the literary world are also possible.  We would soon suffer without genres in a world as full of words as this one is.  We also suffer from simple distinctions that somehow become iron-clad over time.  Think about the narrative that comes out of the White House.  We’re accustomed to it being mostly nonfiction.  At least we were until recently.  Watergate broke our trust in that, and now we live in a world of fiction masquerading as reality.  Critical thinking is, perhaps, the only way to make sense of any of this.

Write Brothers

Work interferes with my concentration.  I suspect I’m not alone among writers in this regard.  Just last week I had two fiction pieces accepted for publication (one of which won honorable mention), but the little time I can allot to writing is divided between fiction and non.  Up until now the non has been more successful at finding publishers, but last week might’ve tipped the balance a bit.  As someone who works well more than eight hours daily, culling that time for creative enterprises can be difficult.  I’m told that Isaac Asimov, in the days before personal computers, kept three typewriters, each with one of his projects ready to go.  He would work on the one he felt like at any given time without having to reload a single typewriter with a half-finished piece.  My laptop has the dubious advantage of keeping multiple windows open in which several projects are simultaneously active.

At the moment I have three book projects going; two nonfiction and one that will become novel number seven, if it ever gets finished.  Not only that, but my short stories file has many contenders for my rationed time.  Long ago I lost track of just how many tales there are—some are on disc and others are on paper.  Some are finished, awaiting revision, and others have just begun clawing their way into written form.  The problem is finding the time to work on them.  The oft-heard lament of the working writer is that life is more working than writing.  And having had some minor affirmation of my fictional functionality recently, I’d love to explore that a bit more, but who has time right now?  Even as I finish typing up my blog post for the day the hour to begin work is looming.

Stephen King’s advice to wannabe writers is to read.  A lot.  Although I do my best to keep this dictate among my personal commandments, I run into the immobile object of nine-to-five-plus repeatedly.  If I take a vacation (which is seldom) it is often “to get away,” but writing is more a matter of aging in place.  Finding your comfortable spot where your thoughts flow freely and where the coffee pot’s just in the kitchen and if an idea catches you before sunrise you can spend time wrestling it even after light filters in through the curtains.  Those are rare days since weekends are for doing the chores neglected in your forty-five-plus hour work week.  And settling between fiction and non is never an easy decision, especially when one has just received a vote of confidence before login time on a Monday morning.  For now, however, I have to concentrate on work.

Myth and Magic

Magic and religion are difficult to tell apart.  Scholars have known this for some time, but don’t often say anything about it for fear of offending.  A few days ago Religion News Service ran a story headlined “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.”  While many reacted with shock, to me the fact that a foundational text can be identified at all is a relief.  You see, reading is good for you.  Really, really good for you.  One of the most hopeful things I observed as a parent was the increased quality and volume of young adult literature available.  Of course it’s produced to make a profit, but the fact is it showed that reading is alive and thriving.  If the young make a habit of it, well, let’s hope that habit’s hard to kick.

My own reading doesn’t always keep pace with my desire to do more of it.  I go for a couple of weeks sometimes without finishing a book.  I begin to feel depleted.  There’s something spiritual about reading, and fiction can reach parts of your soul that are on guard when non-fiction’s your subject.  And that’s like magic.  It took a couple years for me to catch on to the Harry Potter craze.  Eventually my wife and I broke down and bought book one and read it together.  As millions of readers can attest, that first book was a fishhook.  We all really hope the world does contain some magic.  Many people find that solace met with religion.  Either way, fiction can enhance the experience.  We read the original series, hanging tensely until the final volume came out.

Many of those who believe in a magical religion protested the sale of magical fiction.  We were still in Wisconsin at the time, but we saw the protestors outside a local bookstore the release day for one of the later volumes.  Like Death-Eaters the protestors opposed Harry Potter.  The root of the problem seems to have been unique truth claims.  Whenever a religion declares itself the sole harbinger of “the” truth, every other way of looking at things becomes evil.  Even if it expressly declares itself to be fantasy fiction for young adults.  Years have passed, and Harry Potter, like other forms of pop culture, has grown to the status of a religion.  Even Nones want to believe in something.  Magic and religion are, after all, very difficult to tell apart.

Quoth Hardy

There are days when the quote from an author is the best thing to happen to me.  You probably know those kinds of days—days when there’s nothing really to stay up for so you go to bed early.  Lengthy days when your Muse wins easily any game of hide-and-seek.  You see, I save most of my fiction reading for bedtime.  If I turn in soon enough I can read quite a bit before falling asleep.  Not to sell you a false bill of goods, but that’s not the source of the quote.  It actually came to me from an unrelated email about the Bible.  The quote, while lengthy, comes from Thomas Hardy:

By the will of God some men are born poetical. Of these some make themselves practical poets, other are made poets by lapse of time who were hardly recognized as such. Particularly has this been the case with the translators of the Bible. They translated into the language of their age; then the years began to corrupt that language as spoken, and to add grey lichen to the translation; until the moderns who use the corrupted tongue marvel at the poetry of the old words. When new they were not more than half so poetical. So that Coverdale, Tyndale, and the rest of them are as ghosts what they never were in the flesh.

This comes from a letter to Professor D. A. Robertson of the University of Chicago, dated to February 1918.  Hardy was a known critic of religion, but like most writers of his day he knew the Bible.  Now, I’d never generally put myself on the same page with Hardy, but something similar to this thought had occurred to me long before I saw this quote.  We treasure ancient writing simply because it has survived.  This should be a sobering thought to any of us who try to forge our thoughts into words.  We have no way of knowing if, at the time, an author was considered great.  Merely the passage of time can make writing unfashionable in its age appear brilliant.  Like rocks tumbling over each other at the base of a cataract, they find polish over time.

My particular context for receiving this emailed quote was the King James Version of the Bible.  Often considered sacred in that translation, it was not uniformly well received when first published.  There had been English Bibles before, and since the Good Book is the foundation of western literature, a new translation commanded attention.  It had its critics, but over the centuries the translation itself became holy, whether it deserved it or not.  Similarly, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible helped to codify the German language.  We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Scripture, not for its theology, but for its immense influence on western thought.  As Hardy noted, it may be the passage of time that makes writing great.  Even so we might be wise to pay attention.

Not Quite Thursday

I discovered Jasper Fforde, as these things so often happen, at the recommendation of a friend.  A writer of rare talent, he’s conjured a few meta-worlds where fiction is the subject of fiction.  Probably best known for his Thursday Next novels, the premise is that fiction can be distorted by malevolent sorts within the Book World, which is like the Outside (our world) only much more interesting.  The sole problem with series is that in order to follow the storylines, you need to be able to recall where things were left the last time.  That’s complicated when you don’t read the books in order.  I haven’t followed Thursday Next in sequence—I find Fforde’s books sporadically and pick them up when I do (I prefer not to buy fiction on Amazon, for some reason).

The latest installment I found is One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.  It’s a bit more convoluted than the last plot I recall, but the writing is still good.  In this story, which mostly takes place in Book World, the written Thursday Next has to find the real Thursday Next (who is, of course, also written, thus the “meta” I mentioned earlier).  This is probably not the best place to start the series for neophytes.  There was an interesting aspect, however, that I feel compelled to share.  The majority of this novel takes place on an island dedicated to fiction, divided into different “countries” by genre.   Just north of Horror and east of Racy Novel is Dogma.  It’s just southeast of the Dismal Woods.  This plays into the plot, of course, but the placement is interesting.  As Thursday tells it, the full name of the region is Outdated Religious Dogma.  Then I realized something.

Simply placing Dogma on this island plays into the idea that religious thought is fiction.  There are other islands in Fforde’s world, including non-fiction.  Dogma, of course, is not the same as religion.  The definition of dogma is something that is incontrovertibly true, by the authority that states it.  Problem is, nothing is inconvertibly true any more (if it ever was).  When Christianity ruled Europe, such ideas became highly politicized.  Indeed, parts of the world could well have fit into the Book World map.  Fforde’s novel is really just for fun, and Dogma doesn’t play a major role in the story.  That doesn’t prevent it, however, from being a legitimate point over which to pause and wonder.  Fiction can be factual, but not in a dogmatic way.

The Truth of Fiction

The thing about reading is that it’s a lifestyle.  I record books both here and on Goodreads, but I read a lot more than books.  Although I don’t have much time for magazines or even newspapers, I read a lot on the web.  And billboards.  And sidewalks.  I’m quite content doing it.  One thing I’ve noticed in all this reading is that fiction writers tend to be more often cited as experts and intellectuals than do non-fiction writers.  Oh the non-fic practitioners get their footnotes, and other specialists mention them, but fiction writers get analyzed, probed, and explored.  Literary types wonder what they meant by some obscure doggerel they wrote.  When’s the last time a non-fiction writer drew that kind of attention?  It makes me wonder about all the time I’ve been spending on non-fiction lately.

I suffer from graphomania.  There’s no cure.  The other day I went looking for an old, pre-electric typewriter to get my fix in case the power goes out.  I have notebooks, zibaldones, commonplace books.  I carry one in my pocket.  I have one on my bedside stand.  And the thing I’ve noticed is that the ideas that come to me unbidden are often fictional.  You see, I have a hidden life as a fiction writer.  That persona is very poor since he’s never made any money from his writing.  He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize some years ago, but he never won.  That fiction writer has been suffering cabin fever because I’ve been finding publishers for my non-fiction work.  I wonder, however, if maybe I shouldn’t be spending my time on fiction.  It’ll never get me to the point I can make a living on it, but it might get quoted after I’m gone.

Writing, after all, is a stab at immortality.  Those of us who do it are legacy builders.  Even as the web has moved us more and more toward visual, iconic forms of entertainment, it has still left a few dusty corners for the written word.  When I pass the sometimes impressive graffiti on the way into New York I think I know what the vandals are feeling.  We’re kindred spirits.  We don’t want to be forgotten.  Whether with spray can, fingers on a keyboard, or fountain pen (or maybe even an old-fashioned typewriter) we are trying to say, “I was here.”  I used to print out all my blog posts in case the web failed.  It grew to thousands of pages.  I had to stop.  I was beginning to act like a fictional character.

Spoiler Alert

I work in a cubicle. That’s just one word shy of the famed “six word novel” challenges. I’m wondering what qualifier I should add. To understand this dilemma you have to realize a few things. My first professional job (professor) included a three-room office to myself. Also, I am a middle-aged man amid a work-pool of mostly twenty-somethings (everyone else my age has their own office). My cubicle has walls six feet high, so I can’t see, but can hear my just-out-of-college neighbors. Very few people talk to me at work. In fact, I can go an entire week without anyone saying anything to me, right here in the largest city in the country. The office is generally very quiet. You can hear everything. This leads to my concern with a very specific peril regarding work in a cubicle.

Much of the meaning in my life comes from what I read. In addition to all the books I review here on this blog, I have quite a few fiction projects going at any one time. I happen to be reading a book just now that was recently made into a movie. The reason I know it’s been made into a movie? My unseen, 20-something colleagues began talking about it yesterday morning. Complete with spoilers. Now, they couldn’t see the contortions on my face, hidden in my cubicle. The people who sit next to me work in a different department than mine and I have no reason to speak to them—they don’t even know who I am. Should I, like the voice of God, thunder unseen from my cube, “No spoilers!”? Or should I just continue to sit here with my fingers jammed firmly into my ears and hope that when I pull them out I don’t learn anything more about what I haven’t read yet?

I know it’s just me. I don’t read the blurbs on a book before reading the book itself. I don’t read reviews of movies before seeing the film. Guys my age appreciate the craft of story, building up to the reveal, not getting it in Monday morning water-cooler talk. I finally got up and walked away from my desk. There’s nowhere private to go on my floor, so I went to the stairwell and pointlessly climbed to the top floor and back down again. I returned to my desk and they were still talking about it. Not only was it Monday morning in a New York City where nobody had spoken to me in the three hours since I arrived in town, but there wasn’t even a spoiler warning for one of my favorite pastimes. Such are the perils of cubicle life.

The Big Shill

Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.

Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.

Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

Flat Devils

Fiction is a framework to approach reality. People are drawn to stories because they help us to make sense of a bewildering world which wasn’t, in reality, custom made for us. Marta Figlerowicz’s Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character explores the types of characters that modern novelists are taught to avoid. She points out, however, that they occur in great novels beginning from the early stages of the category up through fairly contemporary classics. The flat protagonist, in short, isn’t believable. I’m not enough of a literary critic to judge her examples, but I have been thinking of one such character that occurs in popular culture all the time—the personification of evil. In my reading on writing I’ve learned this is to be avoided. Nobody is pure evil. Popular media begs to differ.

Being of working class sensibilities I can’t separate myself from the lowbrow crowd, I’m afraid. My fascination with Sleepy Hollow is pretty obvious on this blog. One of the recurring themes in the series is the antagonist that is indeed pure evil. Whether it’s Moloch, Death, Pandora, or the Hidden One, those who are evil represent the dark side of humanity, or the universe. They glory in destruction. Of course, in late Judaism and early Christianity this was a role taken by the Devil. As a child I was taught that it was wrong to feel sorry for Satan. This clashed in my head with the idea of forgiveness and with the love of all. Could God not love his (and he was masculine) own enemy? How could we hope to do the same, then?

In the most ancient of religions, as far as we know, evil wasn’t personified. Yes, evil happened, but it was simply part of the matrix of being. Some gods tended toward good while others tended the other direction, but a being of pure evil doesn’t seem to have existed. Even Tiamat loved her children, at least until they killed her consort. The stark black-and-white world of monotheism can’t explain evil without an divine enemy. A flat protagonist, to be sure, but one you can always count on to do the wrong thing. The closest we come to that in real life is the Republican Party. Insidious, sneaky, using every possible loophole to shove their agenda through, they are the perfect flat protagonists. No, I’m not inclined to believe in the Devil. Or at least I wasn’t until November of 2016.

Bibliotherapy

This may sound strange, considering the source, but I fear I don’t read enough. An article by Sarah Begley in a recent issue of Time, reinforces what we’ve known all along—reading is incredibly good for you. Even fiction. Especially fiction. For the most part, as I’m commuting, I read non-fiction. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it doesn’t always help with literacy issues that might call for a bibliotherapist. You see, literacy builds a kind of psychological strength that helps with real-world issues. Part of it is because many books go through a rigorous process of approval. Still, it’s important to realize that this kind of reading may not be the popular fiction that can be found in grocery stores and airports—although even that is fine—but the level of writing that really helps is somewhat mysteriously labeled “literary fiction.” The kind of book an author writes, rewrites, and rewrites. Deep thought and care go into such books, and they can be a help to their readers. Reading isn’t just fundamental, it is transformative.

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I remember my school years well. Kids are amazing in their level of energy. They crave activity and experience. Getting them to read can be difficult. You need to sit still. And concentrate. Concentration isn’t easy. You have to train a child to read, and, at least where I grew up, that was a struggle. The fact that it’s possible to graduate from high school and be functionally illiterate is one of the signs that learning to enjoy reading doesn’t always take hold. I knew guys in middle school who would rather do just about anything other than read. I often wondered what anyone could do to make them realize what they were missing. I read books and stories that took my breath away. There was something incredible going on between the covers—but how to convince others?

Recently a colleague pointed out to me that those of us in publishing are, statistically speaking, a very small number of people. We work in an industry that serves a small number of people. We are an odd lot. We read books, and some of us write books, and we do so for a small sector of society. Signs are hopeful that interest in reading is growing. Leading by example may help. At any one time I have at least one, generally two or more, fiction books going at the same time. On the bus I read through non-fiction at a faster rate. Maybe the mix is actually right. Fiction reading takes more time. It could be because I’m getting more out of it than I realize. I just wish I had more time to do it. More time for reading health. I may need to see a bibliotherapist.

Zoo or Farm?

It comes as no surprise, I hope, that I read lots of fiction. While not every book I read makes it onto this blog, a good many of them do, along with some I haven’t read yet. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals is one of the latter. A suspicion is itching way down deep telling me that I’ll probably end up a fan. Part of my suspicion comes from having read a story on NPR about the book. First of all: dystopia. Need I say more? I admire those who try to paint a future with a lighter palette, but I’ve been observing the way those in power behave and it kind of makes me think optimism about improvement is just a tad naive. People are too easily lulled into apathy by things like sports and the internet. The Romans used bread and circuses. Meanwhile those in power help themselves to a bit more until you can’t even get on an airplane without a total stranger seeing you sans briefs. If I can’t be trusted by those I elect, what cause do I have for hope? But enough about me. The book’s the thing.

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Night of the Animals, according to the NPR piece, is kind of a reverse ark. The animals in the London Zoo are understood by a man and they ask him to release them. I don’t know what happens, but I sure hope to find out. When interviewers ask Broun what it was like to spend fourteen years working on a novel, he responded in a way that, I suspect, many writers would understand. He said that it was a spiritual journey. Writing this book was his search for God. Many of us must nod our heads to that.

Concentration is becoming a dying art. I’ve written a number of books in my life—by far the greatest number remain unpublished—and I know there’s nothing like the intense concentration you experience when lost in such a world. Yes, it is spiritual. It is also a cry to be heard. As George Orwell well knew, we are the animals hoping to be heard. Zoos represent entrapment. Broun states that he wanted to explore how people are trapped in his novel. Looking at a system that rewards greed and keeps workers in unfulfilling jobs just so they can keep the system going while their CEOs buy another hotel chain or sports team and decide to run for office, I begin to hear the oinks, whinnies, and neighs all around me. And I haven’t even read the book yet.

True Fiction

PassionMusesIn this world of rational materialism, people still turn to fiction. Some prefer it in the form of movies, television, or internet, but those of us “old school” like our fiction in print. No matter how we take it, fiction appeals to that part of us that makes us human—our range of emotions. This became clear to me in The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. As a typical human, I spend a good part of my mental energy trying to make sense of things. Our social existence can be quite confusing and isn’t always rational. If you doubt this, read the headlines. Keith Oatley offers insight into psychology, or mental life in general, with this little book. We read stories because we like to find ourselves caught up in emotions. Successful writers can draw us into the fictional world not with reason, but with feeling. We seek emotional satisfaction and what we can’t do in fact, we can in fiction.

This aspect of human existence also plays into religious texts. Those of us raised to read sacred texts literally lose a lot of what they have to offer. Fact may tell us what to believe, but fiction helps us learn to feel. Thinking, as many cognitive scientists now believe, incorporates both rational and emotional information. Reality, in other words, isn’t purely reasonable. We interpret things. We interpret with our guts as much as with our heads. This combination of different ways of understanding the world—and the society—around us blends into a distinctly human milieu. We can’t reason our way out of emotions. They are who we are.

While teaching full-time I found myself turning to novels to recover from all the research I was doing. Reading only non-fiction (which, I suppose, is what The Passionate Muse might be) can lead to a lopsided view of life. I’ve had colleagues tell me that fiction is for others—non-academics, those who don’t have the weight of the intellectual world upon their shoulders all the time. Interestingly, since I’ve allowed myself to read more fiction I’ve discovered that the wisdom embedded in stories often surpasses that of erudite monographs. Scholarly literature, of course, has its place. Still, it leaves room on the plate for desert as well. Oatley builds his academic study around a fictional story he wrote to show what he wanted to tell. The rational meets the imaginative. I feel more human already.

Same Old Story

Once upon a time fairy tales were considered appropriate only for children. Unlike myths, fairy tales are frequently oral (yes, there are oral myths but this is not the place to discuss technicalities) and have origins that are obscure. A friend recently sent me a story entitled “Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought” by Bob Yirka on phys.org. Using phylogenetic analysis, researchers have traced some fairy tales back thousands of years, into the Bronze Age of the ancient Near East. This will no doubt surprise some analysts who supposed fairy tales were a more recent, European invention. The tales change with time and distance, no doubt, but the basic story is very deeply rooted in who people are. Fairy tales are adult fare, after all.

I tried to make this point in an academic article that was rudely rejected by the journal Folklore some years back. I mean “rudely” literally. I’ve had academic articles rejected before—many of us have—but the letter that came with this one was insulting. My “error”? Suggesting that the story of the musician who travels to the underworld came from ancient Sumer. The article had its origins in my wife’s reading of the Mabinogion. The story of Bran’s head being washed down the river still singing reminded me of an Edinburgh ghost story the tour guides used to tell right outside our window. You’ve probably heard similar: a tunnel is discovered, a musician (a bagpiper, since this was Scotland) is sent down while playing so that those above can follow the sound, but the musician never emerges. I traced the story through the Celtic tradition of Uamh ‘n Òir, the cave of gold, through Bran, Orpheus, and finally back to Ishtar’s descent into the underworld. It was a fun piece, but serious. It ended up published in a Festschrift to a scholar with a noted sense of humor.

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, traditional stories often go back very far in history. We haven’t the tools to trace many, nor can the results be taken for Gospel, but the implications can. People are storytellers by nature. We find meaning in what would today be called “fiction.” Too often I’ve had to hang my head in embarrassment when admitting to a fellow academic that I read (and sometimes write) fiction. It is something, however, that ancient mythographers and folklore singers would have understood. We can be academic some of the time, but we are human full-time. And telling stories is something that predates even the Bronze Age. Of that we can be completely certain. And they lived happily ever after.