Yesterday I wrote that “fiction’s job, best as I can tell, is to be good fiction.” That’s a lot simplistic (and completely tautological), and since I scribbled it I’ve wondered if there’s a better way to make the point that fiction that serves a larger purpose always feels compromised, a little less true to itself. If fiction doesn’t have a job, what’s its purpose?
In an entertaining interview with Levi Asher, Up in the Air and Thumbsucker novelist Walter Kirn offers the kind of summary response I was looking for:
My job—my only job, the way I see it—is to dedicate myself, with my whole being, to reflecting, animating, and discovering that in the world (and in my myself) that speaks most energetically of our remarkable situation here as beings who get just one shot—so far as we know—of accommodating a reality that we encounter through no act of will, must abide in without the assistance of a rule book, and are granted no clear vision of our progress through, or any guarantee that progress is possible, measurable, or what it would constitute assuming it were.
That’s a mouthful, and all those rhetorical switchbacks means it likely won’t make it into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. But it’s as good a description of the fiction writer’s purpose as I’ve come across.
The entire interview, by the way, covers plenty of interesting ground about Kirn’s dual duties as a novelist and critic, as well as the process of transforming a novel into film. As bloggers used to say a lot more often, read the whole thing.
7 thoughts on “Job Description”
I put it like this in a piece published at Luna Park on Tuesday:
“But if we are to say anything important, if fiction is to stay relevant and vibrant, then we have to ask the right questions. All art fails if it is asked to be representative—the purpose of fiction is not to replace life anymore than it is meant to support some political movement or ideology. All fiction reinscribes the problematic past in terms of the present, and, if it is significant at all, reckons with it instead of simply making it palatable or pretty. What aesthetic is adequate to the Holocaust, or to the recent tragedy in Haiti? Narrative is not exculpatory—it is in fact about culpability, about recognizing human suffering and responsibility, and so examining what is true in us and about us.”
Nicely put. Link?
Will teach me not to look back at where I’ve been:
The job of fiction is to entertain, but sometimes it conveys truth better than nonfiction.