Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fiction in the Information Age

In an information-obsessed age, fiction and poetry have the disadvantage of not being information. They are written, which is a format associated with work, research, tasks; but they are not information. The exception is a work of fiction so popular (like Twilight, or Lord of the Rings) that knowing it well becomes a kind of social currency – in other words, the details of the story become information, with a clear and specific value, same as cash.

Otherwise, to have value among readers, fiction must seem to be a form devised to disguise information so scandalous or dangerous it cannot be told in the form of fact. Fiction becomes the act of obliquing: saying, “I have a friend who has this problem,” instead of admitting to your problem. Only more so, more removed. Because fiction claims it is not even the life of your friend, but of an entirely made-up person. In this, it is closer to religion than to fact.

Religion is of course the fiction that transcends its form: it is a fiction accepted as information by a large group of people, and within that group the “facts of the story” are vital information, information that is often utilitarian: it tells them their future, and how to behave, and what to eat, and who are friends, and who are enemies. Is there any more important and essential information in this world than that?

So fiction has become, to us, the form that speaks the truths that can’t be said. But this identity for fiction requires the subterfuge remain intact. We cannot go into a work of fiction aware that we are reading disguised facts. If we do, the disguise fails, the truth is found out, laid out for all to see. The author is exposed, and embarrassed, or shamed. See Orenthal Simpson, How I Did It, as an example of failed fiction. We must suspend not only our disbelief in the fiction, but we must suspend our belief in the ur-fact we imagine the story is derived from. And so the primary stated purpose must always be something else: entertainment.

Any resemblance to persons living or dead is simple coincidence. The story is fiction in whole – entirely made up for your entertainment. Here, friend, is a great lot of bullshit. Enjoy! And yet there is a wink behind that bullshit. Greater truths are being told than mere information could tell us. More than any other, fiction is a form that requires mental feats of derring-do. The mind must be capable of holding two contradictions at once: everything I read is true, some of what I read is false; everything I read is false, some of what I read is true. Religion, too, requires adherents to accommodate contraries and contradictions, and this extraordinary imaginative act, this resolving of opposites, has long been the fount of creation: it has created states, wars, paintings, cathedrals, treatises, dramas, stories. One could argue it has created culture itself.

Contrary ideas held in one mind are the matter-antimatter reaction of the human soul: the mind explodes with energy and that energy is set to resolving the problem, explaining how things may be both up and down, both yes and no. From this conflict spins a narrative. We want and need to believe in the narrative if we are to make sense of the world. And so the function of fiction is to be real, to stop being fiction, while insisting quite convincingly that it is nothing more than an entertaining lie.

To be continued: next time, non-fiction.

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