When researchers plan experiments with living subjects, they must take the plans for their experiments to a Research Ethics Board. Fortunately or unfortunately, creative writers are not obviously subject to a similar set of rules. Yet over the last couple of weeks, I took part in three creative writing thesis defenses where some version of a Research Ethics Board was manifested in the questions the committees and external examiners asked the writers. (Thesis defenses are private affairs, so I will not reveal any of the candidates' names or the specific questions asked of them--my own version of blog ethics.)
What we often attempted to understand or to query was the perspective from which the writers saw their characters. Was it writerly or readerly? How was it influenced by issues of class and education? What was the relationship between autobiographical material--things the writer had either experienced or witnessed--to "made up" material that the writer created because the story needed it, because it was suggested by the material, or because the writer simply wanted to add it? All of these questions can be honed down to a single one: what is the writer's relationship to "realism"? And, as the scare quotes suggest, what is realism? How can any single individual, no matter how gifted a writer and wise and compassionate an observer, create a verbal simulacrum of the "real" world?
Ever since Henry James wrote "The Art of Fiction" in 1884, we have read and practiced fiction with increasing self-consciousness that reached its height in postmodernism, which queried the possibility of making a coherent narrative out of messy life or of using words to capture characters or their complex motivation. (Interestingly, this aesthetic has been waning over the last ten years or so, and writers have turned back to less self-consciously constructed fictions. Maybe we don't really want a dozen epistemological questions with our fiction.) George Eliot or Jane Austen might have told you they were simply reporting what they saw or describing how the world worked, "translated" perhaps into coherent narratives with an engaging arc that spurred readers on. But James prompted us to ask "What are characters?" and "What elements of a story's arc might resemble my life?" Stendahl added a wonderful metaphor for fiction: it is a mirror carried along a roadway. That mirror might reflect the world, but it can only reflect the part that fits within its frame. And the person who carries it always determines the perspective from which the mirror captures or encapsulates the world.
As Stendhal's metaphor suggests, writers always already have perspectives that influence the creation of plot and the attitudes toward characters. It's easiest to get a fix on the ideology of plot: who gets rewarded? Who gets punished? Are characters able to achieve their hearts' desires or does the world they live in make this impossible? What are those desires and what do they say about the social construction of desire? Thinking about character is a bit harder because what we try to conceive of is characters--the authors' constructs--who are somehow given free will. If our mirror is held to life at the angle that highlights the extent to which people are shaped and directed by their social and cultural milieu, are we doing them an aesthetic and ethical disservice if we don't allow them to transcend societal constraints?
The lingering assumption here is that the creative work is both the writer's and not the writer's, allowing something to happen in the creative process that might lead us to treat our characters differently than the way we had intended. Thus we give them a kind of free will to tell us who they are, what they want; as well, we allow the world we've created, which has its own set of rules, to ignore those rules from time to time. How do we give up control of something we've so carefully made? What are readers asking the creative writers to do but transcend ourselves in the service of art?
Of course, Virginia Woolf has given me some insight into what we are asking of the artist. In one of her earlier essays, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," she talks about the fact that Galsworthy, Bennett, and Wells are "materialists." That is, she criticizes them for creating a social and economic milieu down to the last detail, one that shapes and constrains their characters in a way that is no longer true to the modernist ethos. Last week, I finished reading--again--one of her later, and most popular novels--The Years. When she began work on this project, she had hoped to write an "essay-novel," one that combined fiction with social commentary, but Leonard reminded her that modernists don't mix politics and art. In her effort to strain off all the politics and social commentary, Woolf has left us with a family chronicle that fails really to be a family chronicle. And in her own defense, she wrote that this was a failure she'd worked hard at; in some respects, then, she meant its lack of context to part of its effect.
So this week, I picked up the ultimate early twentieth-century family chronicle, Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga--Galsworthy, one of Woolf's materialists. Dare I write that she misread this work? For what Galsworthy is doing is critiquing the materialism of the Forsytes and using this family as a kind of synecdoche for the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century upper middle class. We might even feel that Galsworthy--who won a Nobel Prize--lacks the kind of ethics we were querying in our creative writing students, because the characters are so often presented as "types," so often dismissed by generalizations about Forsyte this and Forsyte that--their love of property and propriety--that we might imagine every one of them wearing metaphorical corsets (or waistcoats for the gentlemen). But I have two caveats here. One is to ask "How does the writer interrogate social practices or social trends without showing some characters' inability to escape them?" The other is to observe that the minute Galsworthy begins to like a character--like Old Jolyon--that kind of critique and simplification disappears.
But back to The Years. The essay chapters of that work became Woolf's very political feminist argument, Three Guineas. In the last chapter of this improbably long letter to a male friend about how to prevent World War II, she talks about the importance of protecting culture and intellectual liberty. One of the most powerful strategies any artist can adopt in the protection of art and knowledge is disinterestedness.
Isn't disinterestedness one of the qualities we find in our greatest artists? Shakespeare, Donne, George Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Alice Munro, Faulkner: none of these writers seems to have a single "take" on life. We return to them again and again because we can always find a new perspective that illuminates our world and our humanity. The rest of us carry a mirror down the roadway; while that mirror has a frame that might represent a world view that is manifested in our plots and our characters, our job is always to attempt to see something beyond that frame.