Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Search of Coffee and Bad Fiction

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Yesterday afternoon, with friends both old and new, I attended an IFOA roundtable discussion, Individual in Society, moderated by Carol Off, with Lauren B. Davis, Johan Harstad and Bharati Mukherjee. This event was unequivocally intelligent, informative and smartly entertaining. It produced some great sound-bites on writing. In retrospect, however, I find myself with questions about Canadian politeness and wondering how to ensure that roundtables live up to the potential of their billing.

In terms of pithy sound bites, it was most interesting to hear a revisiting of the question of empathy. Lauren Davis, in discussing her new novel Our Daily Bread about a poor family ostracized on a mountain in Nova Scotia, suggested that from non-fiction we “learn about others,” but fiction builds empathy because it helps us “experience the lives of others.” Bharati Mukerjee added that it was the intimacy of fiction that based its power for empathy.

I was particularly drawn by Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s description the lead character in his book with the great sound-bite title, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to you in all the Confusion? He makes a conscious decision to settle for second best, to be in Harstad’s words, “not a celebrity but a purposeful wheel in a larger machine.”

Equally interesting was Bharati Muhkerjee’s description of how workers in call centres in India are told to take on phony American names and phony American identities, right down to memorizing the statistics of population, schools and football teams from their phony American home towns.

In retrospect this Sunday morning, however, maybe I need more coffee but I find myself coming back to the billing, “Individual in Society” and left wondering if perhaps if the discussion was a little too polite, a little too much individual and could have been a little more societal. Now I absolutely recognize that any three writers on an IFOA stage may have never met and also that they are not trained improvisers. All writers answer questions in the inspiration of the moment as best they can and in this case, unfortunately, all the questions were about links and similarities. The writers were largely asked to describe, not to evaluate, and they obligingly did so.

Can’t a writer can be both polite and evaluative, compare, contrast and even disagree with the works of other writers? Be in a panel and try to evaluate both similarities and differences in their works? This panel focused entirely on similarities. I’m left with the uneasy feeling that I’ve been told that poor back-woods Nova Scotians have the same self-determinable choices in life as call center operators in India and middle class Norwegians. I’m left wondering about the differences in power that all the writers seemed too polite to address. I freely admit that I am exposing a bias both contentious and contended, the position that writers should be able and willing to be conversant sociological critics of the world of their novel. But is it unreasonable to expect more of that kind of discussion in a roundtable called Individual in Society?

Lauren Davis quite eloquently protested the notion that we are “bombarded by insistence that we choose a side and demonize the other side.” It would have been equally interesting to me to hear some comparative examination of the self-determination, or lack of it, achieved by the characters in these three novels, a discussion about who has their side ascribed to them, whether they want to be on the team they are handed or not.

I admit I both lost my patience and had to add to my list of "Good Literature Hates Politics" quotes at all the head-nodding on stage when one writer announced, “The purpose of good fiction is to ask questions not to answer them.”

While it’s perhaps a little too Zen for a Sunday morning, I would suggest that if you write an entire novel that has no answers, abdication is your answer. If I spend five years of my life doing something, I want some answers from it, and just as in “good non-fiction,” I want the reader to benefit from my expertise. I want to offer readers a short cut so they don’t have to spend five years but can start by evaluating, sharing and debating the answers I’m suggesting.

I’m off for another coffee now, but here’s what I think without it. If “good fiction” by definition prides itself on providing no answers to the myriad of urgent questions about the individual and society, where can I get some caffeinated “bad fiction” that unashamedly both asks such questions and wakes me up to some possible answers?

4 comments

Pagok -- what a great post! I love your statement about writers writing to discover truth and share insights in the hope their work will inspire readers -- in fact, I always hope my writing will inspire people to work for change and if I inspire a wee bit of moral indignation, I feel I've been successful. When I was once reading from THE RADIANT CITY, a novel about a war correspondent and how people respond to violence, someone in the audience asked me why I wrote such a dark and disturbing book -- didn't I fear people would just stop caring? I responded, On the contrary, I'm reflecting a difficult reality and I hope you'll rise up and change things!! (Got a standing ovation for that one, if I may brag.)

As for offering answers -- I find every reader responds differently. Certainly with each of the books I've written, I have been asking/exploring a particular moral question. By the time I finished writing the book I had discovered an answer that felt true for me, and yet when talking with readers I've been both astonished and delighted to hear they came to their own truths. By bringing themselves to the work and reading deeply, they found their own answers, which perhaps might not have been mine, but which were valid nonetheless. And perhaps that's what Chekhov was getting at after all. We must be careful, however, not to slide into the area of what Ms. Mukerjee called "pamphleteering". Nobody enjoys a personal rant masquerading as a novel.

(By the way, I also wish Ms Palmer had asked a question of the panel when she had the chance. There was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions, but no one did.)

I'm left wondering why your title refers to "bad fiction" as if only good fiction does not answer the questions you want the writer/author to answer. For me, a good read raises questions I haven't thought of yet, and the fact that I may spend years wondering about the answers is not a negative characteristic of the writing itself.

I hope you found your cup of coffee today, and that you enjoyed it. It must have felt so bad for you, having to write and share something public without enough caffeine.(That's me being empathetic with just a tiny bit or moral indignation.)

This is indeed a thoughtful and relevant discussion on the question "what defines good fiction"? Unlike most who are perhaps following this blog, I am not a fiction writer. But it is highly interesting to read how writers themselves assess quality (and social relevance) of their craft.

As a non writer, yes, I would agree that criteria of good fiction include generating empathy and understanding of others. It also involves raising relevant questions (by which I mean social or moral questions) that obliges the reader to think, assess their own attitudes and actions. I also support the criterion, raised by Dorothy, that good fiction should suggest answers, or at least clarify moral positions on issues.

My question (directed to writers) is whether one could add another, even higher standard to which good fiction should aspire. This is that of raising "critical consciousness" and moving the reader to engage in positive change, either on a personal or social level. This would, as Dorothy hints, take us into the realm of politics and addressing the unjust use of power (as individuals or in society) to abuse or exploit.

I raise this question because my view is that the magnitude of unnecessary human suffering and injustice (hunger, climate change, environment, growing inequality) is so vast and pervasive that it ought to more seriously inform our personal and institutional projects in Canada. Does effective fiction have potential role to play? If so, how?

Perhaps it is not reasonable to hold fiction writers up to this standard. Most fiction writers likely do not consciously write to bring about social change. My sense is that the best creative writers seek to discover truth, and share their insights with others, in the hope that their work will inspire readers and help them discover their own truth. It would not be reasonable to predict how one's writing will ultimately affect readers and society. And yet...there have been significant changes that were greatly inspired by gifted fiction writers.

I would be interested in hearing more from fiction writers themselves on this topic.

I close with a final question. What most often moves people to change themselves, and to engage in positive social change? Empathy, I would argue, is perhaps a pre-condition, but is not a force in itself. Moral indignation, and yes, moral outrage are (and have been) stronger determinants of change.

Is it reasonable to suggest that fiction writers seek not just to create empathy, but aspire also to raise the deeper emotion of moral indignation?

Dorothy -- thoughtful essay, thank you. As one of the panelists, I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with my fellow authors, however, as rightly you point out, there wasn't an opportunity to really dig down into the grit of the subject and, with the discussion focused on our respective works (for which our publicists are thankful, of course), it did make for some odd comparisons. I think the problem wasn't politeness, but rather a question of time being so short. How wonderful it would have been to spend the time discussing nothing but the idea Harstad examines in his book, that perhaps we might live more fulfilled lives if we weren't constantly trying to be "the best" (whatever "the best" means), or Mukerjee's views on women's self-determination in developing cultures, or even my own query about how far one person must go to save another. We might even have discussed nothing but how politics affects fiction but, given that we were asked to cover a lot of ground in a little time, alas, we did the best we could. As for the quote which caused you to lose patience (and yes, I am the person who voiced it, sorry about that), I'm afraid I was paraphrasing Anton Chekhov, who said, ""What is obligatory for the artist is not solving a problem; but stating a problem correctly." Good fiction should, I believe, make you both think and feel. It seems the conversation did that, so perhaps it wasn't all bad? ;-)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page