The Tyranny of the Real
If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch Patrick Rothfuss Explaining Why Literary Snobs Are Wrong. I’ll wait until you’re done.
Okay, so as somebody who happens to straddle both the academic/literary world and the fantasy/spec-fic world, I’ve run into a lot of the same sentiment that the girl who came to Rothfuss’s reading did. During my MFA program, I had a couple workshops where Fantasy or Science Fiction were outright rejected as viable submissions. In one such workshop, one professor (a lit-fic short story writer) used to ask us what books we’d read recently. Each of us would have a turn. When they got to me, I said Steel Beach by John Varley – a science fiction novel (and a hell of a fun read, by the way) – and the woman reacted as if I’d belched in her face or something. She pretended I hadn’t said anything and class moved on. That stung a bit, let me tell you. I hated that snob and her sneering assumption of what qualifies as literature. Still do.
Part of the divide between the worlds of so-called “Literary Fiction” and that of “Genre Fiction” (an artificial distinction, and I whole-heartedly agree with Rothfuss that everything is a genre) has to do with the concept of “realism”. What is “real” and what is “not real” is, for some reason, important to us in our stories. There are great swathes of people out there who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still believe that what is written in the Book of Genesis is factually true. These people don’t do this because they are crazy (or, well, not necessarily), but because the understanding of the “real” is of such incredible psychological importance to the human mind.
In Plato’s venerable Allegory of the Cave (which, for you spec-fic philistines, is basically the same thing as the Matrix, except without bullet-time or snazzy outfits), he depicts to us a world in which the people trapped in the cave…
…can see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave…and if they were to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them…[and so] the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
Plato here is describing what philosophers refer to as the “Veil of Perception,” which was explored more fully by thinkers like Descartes and Locke, but basically involves a central problem of human experience: what we see is necessarily filtered through our various senses and our senses are not always reliable. Since we cannot always trust our senses to reveal the truth to us, we are required, therefore, to either exist in a permanent state of doubt and skepticism or, conversely, to take certain things on faith as true so that we may operate in the world without anxiety. Of those two options, most of us tend to choose the second one. We prefer to think of the real as being actually real since to do otherwise would require an awful lot of work and not a little bit of discomfort.
Enter fiction! When we read a work of fiction, we are being lied to, completely and totally. None of the things being described happened, none of the people are real people, and none of the places are real places. We have to suspend our disbelief in order to engage with fiction. We have to accept these blatant lies on faith. We do this because we are able to gain from the experience – the story, even if false, resonates with our understanding of the world.
Now, in “Literary” Fiction (which is primarily focused on the real, concrete, and even contemporary world), suspension of disbelief is easy – it’s barely even noticeable. Even those stories that involve the fantastic are very tightly bound by certain realistic expectations. From such realist fiction, though, the realm of writing travels very, very far. Fantasy fiction is the furthest of the bunch, arguably – a world that is very much not our own, adhering to its own laws, governed by its own cultures and history, and so on and so forth. The suspension of belief at that end of the scale is fairly substantial – it asks you to accept the impossible as plausible in order to engage in the story. While I can readily accept that this isn’t for everyone, the supposition that doing this automatically disqualifies you from a serious literary discussion is fatuous nonsense. As Rothfuss rightly points out, many of the great works of literature are fantastic in nature. Were they to be published today, they’d get stuffed in the Scifi/Fantasy shelf right alongside Rothfuss’s stuff (and my own, though I hesitate to put myself in the same company as Rothfuss as yet).
The big question, though, is why does realism even matter that much? If all fiction is lies, anyway, who cares what the lies are about?
We writers, we are all liars. We lie about different things and in different ways and to different degrees, but it’s all lies anyway. We lie because we’ve found that’s an easier way to get at the truth, ironically enough. To say this writer is telling lies that are too big to believe is splitting hairs – I don’t buy Holden Caufield, nor do I accept Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as realistic, but what of it? What we’re debating here is matters of taste, not truth. We are quibbling over style without bothering to have serious discussions about content. Something “not being real” is not a criticism, because none of us have any real way of distinguishing the real in the first place.
Read what speaks to you and be willing to listen to that which at first seems strange. That’s all you need to find true literature, no matter what genre it is.
There is a price to knowledge.
It is more dearly bought than thou thinkest.
A son wishes to know his father’s secrets. To learn them is cheap – time, patience, vigilance, cunning are all in ready supply. These are not the price. The price is in the knowing.
The son learns the father is a cheat, an adulterer, a coward, a liar. Or the son learns the father is a hero, a paragon, a faultless man of integrity. Or the son learns his father is exactly as he appears, and nothing more. The exact fact does not matter.
To know is to cease to hope. Learn, and kill possibilities with broad strokes. Slay thy dreams with every learned fact. Build thy prison out of truth and evidence. Watch thy youth die at a pace with thy tutelage.
Think thou that I and my brethren were ever thus? We once walked with men in an age before thy reckoning. We were scholars, prying at the seams of Truth, seeking the answers to all questions. We learned them. We Know.
The Knowing had a price. Death became our slave, pain our tutor, power our currency. We were undone; our humanity withered with our imagined wisdom. We cared not. We wished to Know, and there was no price too high. It is only now, with the perspective of aeons, that we can savor the rich irony of our quest. We wished to become gods through our learning. Instead we have become servants; slaves to the Truth. Custodians of the Answer.
The wonder in our souls is but a half-remembered whisper. Our curiosity is as dead as the cities that birthed us. We are men no longer. We are husks, hollowed out with secrets. Thou cometh hither to seek such secrets; for them thou shalt pay. This, though, I give thee for free:
Ask not. Let thy secrets lie. Dwell in the possible.
The Lure of a Good War Story
I love listening to veterans talk about their experiences. Usually it’s the ones that don’t like to talk about it that have the most incredible tales. These stories aren’t really the har-har, slap-your-knee, ain’t-it-cool type things you usually get from anecdotes – they’re something different. You, the listener, are getting a glimpse of a place you probably will never go, assuming you’re reasonable lucky and live in a serviceable stable society. War isn’t noble or good or awesome or anything like that – I’m no jingoist – and the stories that come from it aren’t there to entertain. They exist, for me, as a fascinating window into a state of human existence beyond the scope of my experience or understanding. I crave them because I want to hear how regular people react to completely impossible, improbably scenarios. They’re hard things to understand sometimes, or sometimes they’re too easy so long as you don’t ask, but they draw you in anyway; they get you caught in their teeth and won’t let go. They stick with you forever.
Tim O’Brien, in his simply incredible collection of short stories The Things They Carried, has one story called “How to Tell a True War Story” that puts the trouble with war stories best:
You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterwards you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’re got your answer.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the ways all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen – and maybe it did, anything’s possible – even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.
The experience of war is a mess, from what I am given to understand. Tim O’Brien knows this better than most; I am willing to trust his word. He’s right about the question of truth, anyway – truth doesn’t depend on fact and never has. Those who compile their understanding of the world on the basis of fact alone are living half a life, are seeing half the world.
For this Veterans Day, I’ve got two war stories for you. The first is from my Great Uncle, now deceased, who was a tank commander in the US Army during World War 2. He drove a Sherman through Italy and, at one point, experienced 150 hours straight of combat. Straight – no breaks. A week of being shot at, shooting, being scared as hell, and barely sleeping. You don’t believe it, take it up with him. He didn’t talk about it much, but I do have this story:
Bro (my uncle’s name) and his crew never left the tank if they could avoid it. They slept in it, they ate in it, the lived in it – a rolling armored apartment with not much elbow room but lots of armor plating between them and any bullets heading their way. They were driving up through the Italian countryside – I don’t know where they were going or their precise mission, but it was close to the front – when they come upon a German motorcycle leaning against a tree. This was a sweet bike – brand new BMW, still shiny, no apparent damage. Yeah, sure, it’s just a motorcycle, but this is a tank full of teenagers and early twenty-somethings and this is a free BMW motorcycle. The Germans were running for the hills at this point, so they figured it was left behind.
Breaking with all tradition, they decide the bike is too valuable to leave behind for some infantryman or supply douchebag to snag as his own, so they all hop out of the tank and lift the thing up on the back and spend a minute or two tying the thing down. After they get it secure, they get back inside the tank.
The second the hatch closes, the whole tank shudders and the world roars as an enemy artillery shell hits the tree the motorcycle was leaning against. The tank is fine, the guys inside are fine, but the motorcycle was shredded to ribbons. Had they spent another ten seconds outside admiring the thing, they would all have been dead.
That’s it – that’s the story. My Uncle Bro went on to weather the whole war without sustaining injury until the very end, after V-E Day. His tank was being transported via train to where it would be loaded up and taken back to the States. True to form, he was sleeping inside. When the tank fell off the train, he bashed his head open on the metal bulwark inside and had to have a steel plate put in his skull.
What’s that all mean? No idea. Did it happen? Don’t really care. It sucks me in anyway. I think about it all the time – those guys peering out their hatch and through their little view-slits to take a gander and a gleaming BMW and risk their lives on it. I love it, and I know it’s true in all the ways that matter to me.
The other story is something different. Met an old guy at a party once – faint German accent, well dressed, said he was a dentist. Told me this story:
He was a soldier in the German army in World War 2, and he served on the Eastern Front. He was at Stalingrad and he related, with a kind of ghoulish grimace I can’t simulate or understand, how “when the Russians came, they came women first.” He said there were men who wouldn’t shoot the women, but the women had knives and cleavers and axes and clubs, and when they got to you, you died. “So,” he said, “I shot the women.”
One day he was firing his gun (I gathered from the description it was either an MP40 or Sturmgewehr or something) at a human wave coming at him, howling for blood. The air was so cold and the gun was so hot that his hands were numb so, when he heard the sharp crack, he expected to see that his gun had jammed. Instead, the bottom of the gun had been blown off by a stray bullet (or perhaps it was aimed – who knows). It’s path through the gun had taken off the bottom of his right hand – the last two fingers.
At this point in the story, the old man held up his mutilated hand – his evidence, his proof. He then added, “It was good that they shot off my fingers, because I was put on a plane to the rear for medical attention. It was the last plane out before the rest of the army was cut off.”
He showed me that grimace again and chuckled dryly. “Not many others made it out. Nobody I knew, anyway.”
After the war he came to America and spend decades not telling anyone about what he had done during the war. Then, one day, he decided he ought to talk about it. I don’t know if I believe him, but the story stuck with me anyway.
Where am I going with this? I’m not sure, except to say that we ought to remember that the veterans we welcome home bring with them a heavy burden of narrative. How to describe something so alien as war? Not many are equal to the task; still, if they should talk to you, it is the least you can do to listen.