[february 2021] the real & the ideal
in which i inspect the standard of reality in fiction
what a month. january is already a rough time. throwing in a pandemic, a coup, and an economic revolution spearheaded by reddit just seems unfair. as for me personally, the spring semester came at me fast and even though it’s only week 2, i am already buried in grading. which i realize is my fault, considering i’m the one who assigned homework.
so after hearing your feedback, i thought i’d make this newsletter even more writing-related by writing more about writing. this month i’ll start off by talking about the nature of reality in fiction in a segment i call “been thinkin a lot about.” more on that below.
i’ve compiled a folder of PDFs of the short stories i teach most often, which is to say, the stories i like enough to re-read every semester. most of them are literary fiction but a few veer into fantasy, sci fi, and horror.
i know before the MFA, i didn’t really know what a short story was. like i knew, abstractly, the concept of a short story (it is as it sounds), but i could only list a couple i’d ever read as an adult, and i hadn’t read anything that had been published in the last decade. i remember wondering why i was even being asked to care about short stories. who writes short stories? who reads them? apparently, a lot of people. short storyists are a lot like fanwriters in that they make no money and when you talk about your writing in public, people give you that “why would anyone waste their time with that?” look.
so here’s why i was asked to care about short stories: a good short story gives you the entirety of a world in a very condensed space. moreover, it can sometimes leave you as satisfied as a novel in a fraction of the reading time. all the stories i’ve compiled here are ones that stuck with me, that i find myself recommending over and over to writers who want a good example of developing character, or weird narration, or establishing stakes.
if you’re a writer considering publication or an MFA in creative writing, i highly recommend familiarizing yourself with short stories, if for no other reason than to get the feel for them so you can write some of your own. if you can get a few short story publications under your belt, it’ll be easier to open doors when you’re ready to query agents for a novel. also, short stories make a great writing sample for grad programs, workshops, fellowships, residencies, and grant funding.
if you want to check out more short stories but have no idea where to start, the 2020 best american short stories just dropped in november, or if you want a cheaper one, used copies of 2019 and earlier are available on thriftbooks. if you want an overview of the history of the (american) short story, there’s also the best american short stories of the century. fair warning, though, while it’s more diverse than expected, it’s still a bit heavy on dead-white-dude writing.
content warning: the stories in the above-linked folder may depict instances of sexual assault, suicide, and/or abuse. i have not labeled them individually with warnings but i hope to soon, as well as provide a catalog with summaries.
i’m also still working on my essay and novel recs. more to come on that hopefully next month.
my experience writing fic in small/dead fandoms (aka fics that will probably not get any traffic)
for a complete list of my writing-related posts, check out this masterdoc (which i still need to update it with the past few months’ posts).
stuff i’m into rn
i’m about halfway through the rhetoric of fiction by wayne c. booth which has more or less become my narrative bible. it’s a little dated (1961) but it tackles banal writing adages that are somehow still believed, like “show don’t tell” and whatnot, and breaks them down with amazing insight, clarity, and research. it’s a bit of a dense text so i’m only reading a few pages a day, i think the first time i’ve ever let myself read something so intentionally slowly. now i’m kind of obsessed with doing things slowly. reading slowly, writing slowly, cooking slowly. i even drive slowly, because it’s so rare to go anywhere at all, and i want to enjoy it. also, it’s very snowy where i am. also also, the battery died in my car this month and i really have to make it a point to drive more often.
i have 2 openings for initial writing consultations in february! if you’re interested, please fill out this google form.
you can learn more about my services on my carrd.
been thinkin a lot about
compulsory reality in fiction. many of us have probably received feedback along the lines of, or thought to ourselves as we read, “that’s not realistic.” many of us believe, consciously or not, that fiction that is more “realistic” is inherently better than fiction that is less “realistic.” for some of us, real means a saturation of details, the clear depiction of the surfaces of things. reality is found in the rendering thereof; if you can “see” it, it’s real. for others of us, it might be the development of complex characters and their growth across a narrative. and for yet others, reality is subtlety, or misery, or the idea of “slice of life,” a term i don’t think means anything, because aren’t all stories a slice of a character’s life? what would a story that’s not a slice of life look like? you’d either have to take away the “slice” part and render a whole life, which is impossible, or you’d have to take away the “life” part and create a dead story, which may be possible, but why would you want to? even if you wrote a story about a rock, the rock would be brought to life by virtue of being written about.
anyway. i think the word “real” is a shitty word for the same reason “slice of life” is a shitty phrase: everything is real and therefore nothing cannot be real. slices of life are all we know because we are alive and cannot truly perceive not being alive; reality is also all we know, and any depictions beyond reality are thus made real because they have been depicted.
so the “goal” for fiction to be “realistic” seems to me to be a false one. all fiction is real because it exists and no fiction can be truly real because it’s only a facsimile of reality. not to get all “this is not a pipe” but writing is just making squiggles, and we as a community of English-knowers agree that certain squiggles correspond to certain sounds, and certain sounds together make words which conjure meanings. and words put together into sentences into paragraphs conjure even more complicated meanings. and when those paragraphs are woven into narrative we create yet more and more complicated meaning.
every time you write anything — a text message, an email, a tweet, a fanfic — you are taking the infinite abstraction of your own cognition, narrowing it into a single concept, and representing that concept with patterns in the form of sounds represented by letters and given meaning with words, so that the infinite abstraction of your own conscience can be fractionally witnessed by the infinite abstraction of someone else’s. and even though we can’t definitively prove for ourselves that any other thing possesses a consciousness, writing shows us the shape of someone else’s mind, and tells us we are not alone.
and yet we still expect writing to be “real.”
have you ever read a story where a character sneezed? like just, a description of a sneeze for the sake of it, with no purpose or function in the plot? if not, is it because our characters aren’t real enough to sneeze, or because the sneeze isn’t relevant to their plight? what would a written sneeze look like, and why would somebody want to write it? moreover, why would somebody want to read it? that leads me to wonder, do we depict reality in the service of narrative, or narrative in the service of reality? in other words, do we write to portray reality (sans sneezing), or do we depict reality to constrain our writing, the way one might request bumpers when bowling so as not to fall in the gutters?
i’ve never read an artful rendition of a character pissing or shitting, either, even when those things are related to a character’s plight and circumstance — stories involving long road trips, living in the woods, being kidnapped. the only exception i can think of is when those things are eroticized (we do not kinkshame here in this lkwrnl), the same way it’s rare to find detailed sex writing that isn’t for the purpose of reader arousal. are there just some things about the nature of being human that are too intimate, too complex, or too boring to write?
once i wrote a murder that takes place in a small fictional midwestern town in the 90s (for the ~aesthetic), and it went uninvestigated by said town’s police force. early readers repeatedly commented along the lines of, “that’s not realistic.” and i thought, no, if anything, the incompetence of police is too realistic for the heightened reality i’m trying to render. have you ever heard of a cop solving a murder that didn’t come with an obvious suspect or immediately found evidence? i haven’t. that doesn’t mean those cases don’t exist, but i definitely think they’re less likely than mass media has us believe, and the average small-town police force has far less motivation (and possibly training) to solve crimes than we think.
i started working on the above-mentioned novel in 2016, and my goal was to depict a reality that hovers above the surface of plausibility. in this novel, which is based on macbeth, a preteen girl, mercy, becomes jealous of the love her best friend elisa shows to her father. mercy decides to get her older and very unstable brother to kill him. naturally the deed goes awry, but it does occur, and the cleanup is far messier than anticipated.
is it plausible for a 12 year old girl to plot and execute the murder of her best friend’s father? no. is that what this book is about? yes. a book about a 12 year old girl who has a perfectly healthy relationship with her best friend and who has no feelings toward her bff’s father one way or another is probably far more “realistic,” but that’s not the book i’d want to read and certainly not the one i want to write. my goal of a heightened reality is what henry james calls the intensity of illusion, the thing that allows a reader, through the witness of one’s distilled cognition into language, to exit physical, knowable reality, and enter a new and unknown reality. and isn’t climbing to that higher place, that intensity of illusion, the purpose of fiction? if it’s not, what is?
the best feedback i got on the aforementioned murder scene was from one of my professors, who, of the perfect calm of all children involved, said, “they just shot a guy. at least one of them would be freaking out.”
he was totally right, but it opened up a lot of questions for me. by what standard did he reach that conclusion? was it something in the chapter itself, was it his personal understanding of the work of narrative, or was it the logical conclusion of the slim plausibility of the scenario? moreover, where did i come up with the idea that all of my preteen characters would commit a murder and proceed to be very chill about it? if an implausible scenario begs the expectation of emotional distress, would it be more compelling to buy into that expectation or deviate from it? is it even my obligation to be compelling when i can never have a cogent grasp of the personal tastes of my audience?
that brings me to what appears to be reality’s opposite: idealism, the state those of us who write fanfic are often trying to achieve. we’re working in an entire genre of ideals, of happily ever afters, of hurt that is always followed by comfort, of glossily rendered sex during which everyone orgasms and no one has to pee afterward. we fix broken texts and continue incomplete ones. sometimes, we want to make existing things better, deeper, more complicated. but all the time, we want to make a text more than what it is.
some see this process, this drive for the ideal, as antithetical to realism, and i think that’s part of the reason fanfiction and other idealistic genres (romance, etc.) get a bad name — the assumption that more real (which for some means more miserable) is better, and therefore its opposite, the ideal, is worse. for them, i have this quote from vladimir nabokov:
For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.
the ideal, aesthetic bliss, the intensity of illusion. these are all phrases that boil down to the same thing: you the writer get to define the constraints of your own reality. you get to choose if your world even complies with the known laws of physics. and if it doesn’t, you get to choose which ones to break, and why to break them. you get to choose if your stories take place in a real house in a real town on a real day. if you wrote a story that takes place on september 11, 2001, would the events of that story be shaped by the events of that actual day, or are you writing a better world where 9/11 doesn’t happen? consider the consequences of both: why might you want to write reality? why might you want to write ideality? how do these things shape your identity and goals as a writer?
no matter where a work falls on the real-ideal spectrum, you have to accept that prose itself will only ever be a verisimilitude of reality and therefore an interpretation of it, one that might be interpreted differently by a reader. in writing and everything else, you can never have complete control over what others perceive. it’s like giving someone cash as a gift. they might buy themselves something nice with it, or they might spend it on groceries. the point is, eventually we all have to let go of our realities.