The title of Joshua Landy’s How to do Things with Fictions should not lead you to believe that what is written therein is anything like a recipe book or a technical manual; no, instead, what Landy’s short book is after is proving that fictions do things at all—that is, rather than being about things, a fiction does things for its reader—or can—a claim, he argues, that is no longer obvious if it ever was. The reason for our dull-witted view of fiction is that “For some reason, we have systematically—albeit unwittingly—engaged in a long-term campaign of misinformation, relentlessly persuading would-be readers that fictions are designed to give them useful advice.” You can argue with that last part, but if you read the book, you’ll see that’s just the first of our reading deficiencies: if we look to fiction for advice [on how to live our lives], it can only be because we suppose that fiction has a paraphraseable content (as this post will have). If a fiction is about, then it can be paraphrased, and if it can be paraphrased, it can be reduced, and if it can be reduced, shouldn’t it be reduced?
By focusing on one relatively uninteresting aspect of fiction—its “subject,” for lack of a better word—we teach readers that the experience of a fiction is secondary or even tertiary to the reading—if it is considered at all. Thus, Cliff’s Notes. The very existence of such a thing as Cliff’s Notes should tell us that we have completely misunderstood fiction under Landy’s theory, and not at the level of the student, but at the level of the teacher: teaching for message, for content, for subject is teaching readers how to read fiction badly. There is a great deal more subtlety to Landy’s argument, and a great deal more nuance, but then, he has 250 pages to convince you, and this post will be much shorter than that. Almost everything that goes on in our discussions of fiction reinforces the idea that fictions are about, but Landy writes that fictions really are (and can do): Our discussions of fiction give us the idea that we ought to be reading to find out what it is that we are reading, but what we really ought to be doing is allowing the text to train us in how to think and how to be. Fictions are processes, are courses of study, and are either rigorous or, well, not.
The reason I am telling you all this is not that I’ve just read Landy’s book, but rather that, having just read Landy’s book, I see some of the things that I dislike about fiction in a new light, and I want to share my misery with you. On the radio this morning, I heard an interview with a novelist. This interview went as interviews with novelists in popular media typically go—there was a little talk about the characters she had created and a very little talk about the way the book had been written, and a great deal of talk about the book’s “subject,” which, in this case, happened to be Zen Buddhism (there was more to it, but the point is, I really don’t care what the book was about). This author was only too happy to talk about Buddhism, since she was—whaddyaknow—a practicing Buddhist! She was all too happy to throw over her novel as a topic for discussion so that she could talk about the research that had preceded the writing of it (she may as well have talked about the Cuban missile crisis, or Care Bears, or Watergate). I mean, really, why talk about fiction when one can talk about Zen Buddhism? Not even a novelist wants to talk about the novel when she can talk about Buddhism.
(When I was much, much younger, over half a lifetime ago, I, too was laboring under this misunderstanding. I read Michael Crichton, for crying out loud, and not because I cared about his characters or about his prose, but because I wanted to know more about pathogens and genetics and whatever other shit he was shoveling. I know I wasn’t alone because, hey, the dude made a ton of money. It’s been a long time since I bought a book based on its about, but I can tell you that I have not bought books based on their abouts. When it’s clear from how the book is packaged and sold that not much thought has gone into anything other than what that book is about, I usually think that it is a book that will not be worth reading beyond reading what it is about—I mean, that’s what’s gotten the most attention. Why should I treat it any differently than its author or its publishers have treated it?)
In the classroom and in the salon and the book club, this view of fiction—as about—can be hard to shake. It is pernicious. Goddamn symbols! It’s as though the writer was writing in code—why couldn’t she just tell us what she means, instead of inventing characters and images and shit? Why can’t Shakespeare just come right out and say “Murder is bad,” so I don’t have to read this entire fucking play? I mean, if that’s all you wanted to say, bro, then just say it! If we ever worry about this kind of thinking (and I think maybe some teachers—and most readers—don’t), what we are worrying about is that our students or fellow readers have missed the point. But maybe they haven’t. What if, instead, they have learned all too well what our literary discussions had to teach, because what those discussions had to teach was that fiction has a content, and that content can be mined and extracted, tested, boiled down, and discussed? Aren’t they then right to demand aphorism, apothegm?
Isn’t that the problem? If a fiction can be paraphrased, why not paraphrase it? Why write fiction at all, when what those fictions are trying to say can be said, simply and concisely, without resorting to the trappings of fiction? I have sympathy for David Shields when he writes that he’s bored by much of the fiction being written today, and I don’t think, in being bored by it, he’s misunderstanding that fiction—no, I think it is that, having been taught that fiction is about, writers are writing about. With Mr. Shields, I have to ask: What is the point of such fiction? Well, what? Want to write about Zen Buddhism? Do it! There’s no reason to create characters to do that, is there? Would you create characters to write about the President’s State of the Union address?
But listen: I don’t blame the author I heard on the radio. Even if you somehow manage to not write about, they still get you, coming and going. When pitching a novel, the writer is usually asked to write a short summary as part of his or her query to his or her potential agent a paragraph. About. This process gave me fits when I tried it, and I eventually gave up. Though I felt like I was being more than a little precious in having these fits—”Respect my gift!”—the process invites resentment. Dear agent: if I could “explain” my book in a paragraph, wouldn’t I have just written that paragraph, spent the rest of my time lifting weights and weeping with my fellow Americans? The exercise seems designed to demonstrate that those best at it are, perversely, very, very bad writers, for, if one can “get the idea” of a book after having read a single paragraph, why on earth would the book need to go on for 200, 300, 800 pages? But now I see that this isn’t a perversity on the part of the agent, or not entirely: they’re looking for aboutness, too, and they’re looking for it not necessarily because they‘re bad readers, but because everyone else is. Ahem. Bad readers are the ones who buy books. Ooh! A novel about Hatha yoga? I’m so into that right now. I bet I’ll love it!
But it’s not the fault of those readers, either. If you can successfully tamp down the rising gorge and write that successful query letter, your agent will sell the novel based on its about, and either you or your publisher will have to craft anew yet another about for the back cover or the inside flap, and then you’ll sell that book based on its about in interviews, and you’ll get reviews based on whether the book’s about matches the venue’s idea of its readers’ interests, and book clubs will choose it or not based on that about, and so on. In some way, every conversation we have around a popular fiction must have its about. Once the book has been published and bought and talked about, it gets grouped with its cousin abouts, on shelves and in classrooms: The Chinese-American Experience. The 1960s. The City. The South. It isn’t that these aren’t interesting or worthwhile subjects—they are. It is that they are subjects, and, by grouping things based on subjects, we tell students and other readers that the subject is what is most important. And we reinforce that view of fiction, over and over, in so many different ways (many more than I could hope to catalogue here, and anyway, Landy has made a better go of it, and I think you should read his book), to the detriment of the exercise of reading a fiction well. If we are reading a book to find out what it is about, then it follows that what it is about must be worth finding, and why should we think that? Because it will make our lives better, like, um, good advice? And you wondered why people are so concerned about violent video games, why there is so much fuss over “likable” characters.
“What is this story about?” is, finally, a question that has overleaped its purpose, since contained within it is the better question: “what is this story?” Having come to the end of this post, you will now be able to say what this post is about; when next someone asks you what you’re reading and you tell them, they’ll then ask you what it’s about and you’ll answer them as best you can because that’s the world we’re living in, and we all get the fiction we deserve.