If you were looking over a fiction writer’s shoulder as she worked and asked her, “Why are you writing that?” Her various answers might boil down to a rather simple statement, “Because I want to make something good.” Of course, the seeming simplicity of that response is not really so simple. It begs the question, What is good? As it relates to the literary arts, the best answer to that question that I’ve come across is from the American philosopher Richard Rorty. The points I make below are more or less my attempt to summarize his ideas in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (1989) and apply them to the genre of literary fiction. First, a couple of quick points. Andrew Oberg has already written well for Drugstore on the topic of writer motivation here. When reading that piece, I couldn’t help thinking of a figure I’d come across in a recent non-fiction book called Going Clear, about the history of Scientology. The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, still holds the world record in titles written by one author, a number that exceeds 1000. Early in his career, he wrote for money: the going rate was a penny a word.
I have no idea if Battlestar Galactica is still being read, nor do I have an inkling of readers’ aesthetic judgments if they do read it. I do know that novels as different as The Color Purple and Anna Karenina have been lauded time and time again and that fact calls for some kind of explanation. So, in fiction writing, what is good? The are two main camps and it’s important to remember (regardless of one’s personal preferences) that both are right. First, we say a novel is good if it draws us out of ourselves and allows us to see some moral truth about the world that we’d previously been blinded to. Leo Tolstoy said, quite famously, that he considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be amongst the highest achievements of the human mind. In his view, that novel was good because it aimed at addressing an injustice, a social evil, and succeeded at getting people to see it. It’s usefulness as a tool for moving the human heart is paramount. Vladimir Nabokov, less famously but more playfully, said he wished that Tolstoy had been chained up in his later years and been forced to write literature as beautiful, as perfect, and as socially useless as Anna Karenina. Here, confused students might ask, “Doesn’t Nabokov care about justice and righting wrongs?” Readers who conclude from statements he gave in interviews that he was some kind of right-wing conservative, or some kind of libertarian in U.S. parlance, miss the point entirely. He wanted political hands off of aesthetic pies. When pressed about his political views he came out with old-fashioned liberal values: freedom to live and speak and write the way one chooses. He was anti-cruelty and said NO to executions and torture. Compared to most American presidents, he looks positively dovish.
If the two camps can be summed up as Justice and Beauty, it’s time to turn to Beauty. But before taking another step we should retire an overworked phrase, “art for art’s sake”, because novels are written, published, and read for readers. That means living, breathing human beings with their own aims and motivations. In this sense, great works of literature can still be useful, just not in the social sense. Rorty does an excellent job in his book at showing how great books can provide us with the sense of who we are and how we come to be as individuals. I fumble now to find the double-italics feature for that last phrase. Every birth brings into the world an utterly unique, and therefore precious, form of consciousness. But that which comes into the world is coal; effort makes it a diamond. A life in literature is one time-honored path which allows a human consciousness to develop, grow, fine-tune itself, refine itself, and expand itself over its lifespan. In my next post, I will look at a couple more examples from each camp (which suddenly strikes me as an ugly word since I’ve just finished watching Shoah and am a few chapters into Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved). For now, I’ll leave you with a question: if you had to select a quintessential example from each of the two branches in literature, what two works would you choose?