Friday, January 14, 2011

THE NEED FOR FICTION: Water Dog on Dry Land

(NOTE: Inspiration is everywhere for the astute writer. Newspapers and news feeds, snatched bits of random conversations, Top Ramen instructions, weather forecasts, out of print tales of derring-do, buttons from San Francisco’s Beat Museum, road maps, bobble heads, blurred photographs of dead relatives, bookmarks, and newt mating rituals provide the enterprising writer with the starting blocks and information to crank out a really nifty novel, or at least a swell short story. A writer works all day, every day, in search of his or her next great idea.)

“What’s the fuss about fiction? That stuff is only make-believe,” said a guest during the holiday season. Instead of a dead tree, sprigs of holly, and hanging mistletoe, the apartment was crowded with books on shelves and stacked in the hallways waiting for more shelves. (The guest was not Mr. Detroit, who turns fifty this month, and will miss the gala celebrations being held in his honor due to previous commitments in Rio de Janeiro with a swimsuit model who cannot be named due to contractual agreements with L’Oreal and Mr. Bubble.)

Like the blue moon or an eclipse of the sun, stupidity makes a brief visit. “Stupid” by itself is an adjective and means a lack of basic intelligence. Slap on a suffix and “stupid” becomes “stupidity,” a noun. Both poke their heads out of the French language around the middle of the sixteenth century, from the Latin “stupere,” to be amazed or stunned. Though “stupid” and “stupidity” have a fine beginning, neither is worth the trouble to look up the etymology. Stupid is as stupid does. Got me?

Fiction has a purpose beyond what is written in the flap copy. With the novel, the reader can experience different times and people and cultures that nonfiction, even creative nonfiction, can only report. That fiction is make-believe is preposterous when writers labor over injecting the real into his or her stories. Fiction comes from real people with real conflicts, the dull parts deleted so that these elements are shown in relief.

Reading any book is a complex operation. Words enter the eye by the pupil, and the cornea and lens focus the rays on the retina at the back of the eye. The rods and cones of the retina translate the words to electric signals, sending them to the left occipital lobe. Individual neurons seek patterns and we react in light of what we have read before. What happens next when reading fiction is dangerous: empathy.

Anyone who cares about Africa beyond sending money to Bono should read Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART. THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK by Doris Lessing slaps the remaining sexism out of the most pointed of heads. The novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Gardner, Djuna Barnes, Umberto Eco, Jorge Amado, Jonathan Lethem, Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, John Fowles, and Iris Murdoch show us at our best and worst. These writers encourage readers to join the big messy world. They are (in some cases, were, on account of they are dead) committed to inclusion, not isolation. Reading fiction makes us more human and vote for Republicans less often, and there is nothing make-believe about that.


The Barnes & Noble bookstore at the Eastridge Mall in San Jose sponsors a writing group and this coming Tuesday, January 18, I’ll be appearing as part of their Writers on Writing series. The shindig starts at 7:00 PM and promises to be the event of the season. Expect tirades, excellent hygiene, gossip, thrills, and lots of talk about telling stories. Signed copies of THE DOG will be available for purchase, each one a bargain. Paul Weller’s musical question, “I’ve got a pen in my pocket/Does that make me a writer?” will be answered.

7:00 PM, Tuesday, January 18
Barnes & Noble
Eastridge Mall
2200 Eastridge Loop, Space 1420
San Jose, CA 95122
(408) 270-9470

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