This piece began as a continuation of a post I wrote some months ago, “A Study Guide For Human Society, Part I.” That post laid out my thoughts on the best way to organize one’s history reading. I promised my Patreon subscribers that I would continue the series with a post laying out my personal philosophy for reading literature and behavioral science. That post will be published in a few days. Yet this Part II was growing large and unwieldy; I have decided to trim it down by removing some of its material and making this material its own mini-essay. Consider what follows a footnote to the “Study Guide” series of posts.
Let me propose a schema. I believe all works of narrative or dramatic fiction can be placed into one of three categories. These categories are not a discrete ternary. They are better thought of as a sliding scale, or perhaps something like one of those “political compass” graphs that float around the internet, albeit one with three sides instead of four. Each of the three sides represents a different approach an author might take to characterization, plot, and reality.
When I say “reality” I mean the world that you and I live in. Fictional narratives are always a mix of the real and the imaginary. In a fantasy or a science fiction novel the breaks with reality are obvious. Our reality is not populated with tiny hobbits or killer robots. Discerning readers will usually only “suspend disbelief” and accept the presence of these beings in a story if other aspects of the story’s presentation matches our understanding of how reality works. Other authors might depart from reality purely for aesthetic reasons. Elizabethan playwrights did not have their characters speak poetry on the stage to replicate the way people speak “in real life.” They did it because Elizabethan audiences valued verbal artistry and poetic imagery as goods in themselves. But these performances were never just dazzling celebrations of the spoken word (though they certainly were that). The poetry of an Elizabethan soliloquy served narrative ends; the best were superb snippets of characterization, set pieces of human psychology.
The dividing line that separates the good narrative literature from the great lies here. Readers can tolerate terrible plot holes if they believe in the characterization of the fictional men and women who jump through them. An enduring novelist, playwright, or screen writer was first a curious psychologist. These story tellers care about human behavior—what humans do, why they do it, and what might lead them to do something differently.
But a story-weaver can explore why humans do what they do from several angles. Those who prefer the first corner of our compass might be called devisers, artificers, or thought experimenters. The imagination of these men and women is stirred by questions of “what if?” and “how could?”. Utopian and dystopian literature is dominated by this impulse; here the what-ifs are asked not about individual people but entire societies. Replace ‘societal’ with ‘technological’ and you have described “hard” science fiction. But you find artificers in almost all literary genres. In most of these the what-ifs and how-coulds are psychological. What if there was a normal, bookish guy who got it in his head that he must live above the rest of the human race? Thus Crime and Punishment. How could an honest and unjealous man be convinced to murder his newlywed? Thus Othello. Story telling in this mode is at its base a gigantic, engrossing thought experiment. Of necessity, novels of ideas almost always take this form, and characters in these stories are often meant to embody specific philosophies of life or ways of living. In the hands of less able authors, these characters never rise above rude caricature. But if artificers can yoke their explorations to a character that acts and thinks with the complexity and intensity of a breathing human being—well, then they will have written something that will be remembered.
A second strand in this corner are those writers who embed their experiment not in the characters, but in the situations their characters face. Often these situations are exceptional or extraordinary—think of the biographies of Joseph Conrad’s Jim or Kurtz or the strange happenings at Charlotte Brontë’s Thornfield Hall—but not absurd or impossible. Conrad had no more personal experience with ruling ‘native’ kingdoms than Brontë had with mad-wives: those scenarios were put into the plot not because they were common, but because they were strange. Strangeness allows the artificer to explore certain ideas and themes that more conventional plotting would not allow. These are thought experiments for the sake of gripping narrative.
In the opposite corner from the artificers are a group of authors that I might label chroniclers, reporters, or perhaps witnesses. If the artificer builds social worlds out of an imagined scenario, the witness builds her imagined scenarios out of a social world. The witness rarely sketches characters that are ‘larger than life’: her characters—and their world—simply are life. Or at least life as the witness sees it. The witness concerns herself not with what-if but what is. She is seized with a desire to capture the world as it really is. Oft her characters are pastiches of individuals she has known. Most ‘novels of manners’ are told from this angle; an honest roman à clef can come from no other. But the work need not be limited to the actual social world of the author: many of the most famed novels of this type, say Eliot’s Middlemarch, are works of historical fiction. The setting is less important than a determination to put into story form what human life is really like. The human society so chronicled can be ancient or modern, at war or at peace. That does not matter so much as a commitment to rendering the normal foibles and fancies that set humans apart from each other in whatever setting they are placed.
One might say that the distinction I drive at here is the difference between Breaking Bad on the one hand and The Wire on the other. I crown Dostoevsky king of the first style, Austen queen of the second. Of similar focus to Dostoevsky, though differing greatly in style, setting, or theme, we might throw in authors as diverse as Miguel Cervantes, John Milton, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Henrik Ibsen, Joseph Conrad, William Golding, Aldous Huxley, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin. Toward the other side of the sliding scale we might safely put Ben Johnson, Honore Balzac, George Eliot, Erich Maria Remarque, Vasily Grossman, Chinua Achebe, Tom Wolfe, and near every autobiographical novel you have ever read. Some writers swerve between two poles: the Tolstoy of Sevastopol Sketches was a chronicler; the Tolstoy of The Death of Ivan Ilych an artificer. Cao Xueqin wants to artifice (and with some characters and set-pieces succeeds in his aim) but is fundamentally too in love with the world of his memories to stop himself from reporting on it. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has a foot in both worlds; I am convinced that Monsieur Thénardier is included in the novel because Hugo thought it would be dishonest to center his story on the saintly criminality of Jean Valjean (a story all artifice) without tempering his tale with more typical criminal thuggery.
The triangle is completed by a third corner. These story tellers believe that central truths of human existence cannot be related through straight forward descriptions of reality. We might call these writers myth-makers, imagineers, or fabulists. Some writers are attracted to fabulism because they believe it is the task of literature to capture the emotional experience that attends human life. Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” is a particularly on-the-nose expression of this philosophy. Joseph Heller’s and Franz Kafka’s most famous stories are another example of the type; the byzantine bureaucracies that haunt the protagonists of Catch-22 and “The Trial” do not actually exist, but the sense of helplessness and alienation experienced by all whose fates turn on declarations of government machines that these tales invoke is real enough. The countless experiments in unreliable narration, absurdist plot lines, surrealist prose description, or spare minimalism that have marked the last century of high literature all fall in this bucket. The connecting thread here is that they reject realism as insufficient for capturing subjective human experience.
A much older model of fabulism is the construction of actual fables. The elaborate allegories of Spencer’s Faery Queen count here; so too do the symbolics of Melville’s Moby Dick, and the mythic story-beats of books like Cormac Mcarthey’s Blood Meridian. These stories intentionally replace realistic settings and characters with highly stylized creations. Their characters are archetypes; in these stories plotting often takes back seat to aesthetics. I do not know why mythic imagery is so effective at messing with our emotions. But it is. Mythic fabulists give no fealty to psychological realism: the men and women of their stories stride on to the scene like colossi, larger than anything that could fit into an actual human frame. Whether archetype or allegory, it works: their image is impressed upon us. Scenes of their triumph and suffering are seared into our conscious, all desire for realism defeated.
The magical realists are an obvious example of this sort of thing in modern literature. Fantasy is another especially tempting vehicle for the mythic fabulist (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings certainly belongs in this corner). But the mere presence of magical tropes does not a myth make: I would classify J.K. Rowling, for example, among the reporters of children’s literature, not among its fabulists (much less its devisers!). The world and premise of Potter is fantastical, but the series’ appeal is not really found in the fantastic. The real pleasures of reading Rowling come from the grand social web her characters inhabit. Petty squabbles and soppy friendships are the soul of the Potter series. Their setting is almost secondary—you can imagine Harry, Hermione, Ron and company transported to some other place or time and still delivering a riveting adventure.
I originally devised this schema to make sense of my feelings about Shakespeare. But my thoughts on how to evaluate him according to this framework are long, and this footnote to another series of posts is long already. My judgement of how to fit Shakespeare in must be published as its own post.
[EDIT 6/11/19: That post has now been published. Read it here.]