Why I Prefer to Read Fiction without Lessons or Messages | Jane Friedman

Why I Prefer to Read Fiction without Lessons or Messages | Jane Friedman

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Today’s post is by writer, podcaster and editor Wayne Jones.

In an episode from the second season of The Simpsons in, yes, 1991, Homer hopes that allowing Bart to donate his rare blood type for a transfusion to save Mr. Burns’s life will result in a substantial financial reward. When they receive only a thank-you card, Homer writes an angry letter to his boss, who ultimately does reward them—but with a huge Olmec god’s head carving that of course is of no practical value to the family. A debate ensues about the moral of the story, but Homer concludes there isn’t one: “It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened!”

I feel the same way, though not dismissively like Homer. I don’t read fiction to be taught anything. For sure, there may be things in fiction that depict the way things are (or should be) in the world, but if that seems like the author’s main purpose, then for me it’s a hard no, as the kids say.

What I want in fiction is a virtuoso demonstration of the use of our messy, malleable, beautiful language. I want to see clichés avoided and in their place fresh, strong, exuberant images and descriptions and stories. I want the author to pay attention to how they are saying something even more than to what they are saying. One of the characters in the great short novel Lord Nelson Tavern (1974) by Canadian writer Ray Smith dismisses Jane Austen because all she wrote about were “the absurd concerns of silly small-town girls in England around 1800.” Another character disagrees, because regardless of subject matter, the important aesthetic for Austen was that everything was “closely observed and accurately rendered.” Again: it’s not the what that counts but the how.

Perhaps the icon in defending fiction lacking messages is the great American writer Vladimir Nabokov, who chose to push back against ridiculous claims made about his character based on some people’s reading of Lolita (1955). Modern editions of the novel now generally include an afterword, “Vladimir Nabokov on a Book Entitled Lolita,” in which he states:

There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.

No morals, no messages. The John Ray whom Nabokov refers to is the fictional writer of the foreword to the novel, who says the exact opposite of what Nabokov believes: “for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson … ‘Lolita’ should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”

A few weeks ago I began re-reading the short stories of another great American writer, Raymond Carver, whose fiction was published mostly in the 1980s and 1990s (the movie Short Cuts is based on his stories). There isn’t much that’s offensive in the subject matter of Carver’s writing, and certainly nothing close to pedophilia, but there’s also not a single lesson to be found in or between the lines of his extremely spare prose. There are scores of examples. “Kindling” (1999) is about Myers, a man “between lives,” who rents a room in a couple’s home. The story presents the interactions of the three of them as well as the daily routine of the couple, which Myers adapts to. He starts writing things in a notebook, and the story ends after he writes an entry, and: “Then he put the pen down and held his head in his hands for a moment. Pretty soon he got up and undressed and turned off the light. He left the window open when he got into bed. It was okay like that.”

That’s all. Whether this story has a message or a theme depends, I suppose, on your attitude toward fiction, whether you need it to say something in order not to be pointless. I could imagine a reviewer talking about the “theme of adjustment” or the “strong message about resilience and adaptability.” For me, though, these just seem like so much contrived aggrandizing, and I cringe at how such reductions always risk ignoring the real beauties of the story: the tone and pacing, the carefully chosen dialogue, the portrayal of character in just a few actions or words, and so on. I see an analogy in how some people view abstract painting. They ask what it means. Or they say that they can see this or that item from real life in it, just as you might see clouds form something that looks like a face or a teapot or the shape of Newfoundland.

The lack of messaging is not just a hoary technique of the past. The young American writer Tessa Yang, author of the short-story collection The Runaway Restaurant (2022), says in an interview that she doesn’t “write fiction with morals or messages in mind,” and the subject matter is about as far removed from Raymond Carver as you could imagine. In “Night Shift,” a young woman takes a pill to try to keep herself awake, and soon she’s talking to a small green dragon who’s sarcastic and tells bad jokes and riddles. But there’s no “just say no” and no “moral in tow.” Pretty much the entire collection is like that.

When I was a student at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, I took a course from Northrop Frye, a self-effacing scholar who had read pretty much all of Western literature and made a name for himself with his book Anatomy of Criticism (1957). I was a shy guy then in my early twenties and during the whole term had the courage to ask him only one question, but the answer stuck with me. I forget the details, but he made the distinction between writing (like nonfiction) which is a “structure of belief” and literature, which is a “structure of the imagination.” I still make that distinction. Fiction, short stories, plays, whatever—they are not works which aim to make you learn or believe in something real. Instead, they follow the open and very broad “rules” of the imagination. The skill of the writer can transform just a bunch of stuff that happened into something pretty beautiful.

Wayne Jones

Wayne Jones is a writer, podcaster, and editor in Ottawa, Canada. He has published a book about personal minimalism called Less and Less, as well as the novel The Killing Type. He’s also the co-author of a biography of the standup comedian, Greg Giraldo: A Comedian’s Story. His book My Sam Johnson: A Biography for General Readers will be published in September 2023. Wayne also hosts the podcast Writing & Editing. For more detail about these and other activities, see WayneJones.ca.

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