Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Phases of non-fiction and fiction

In her Hogarth Essays Series, Virginia Woolf published a remarkable, lengthy essay she titled Phases of Fiction.  In England, the 1920s inspired a whole host of meditations on the nature and the craft of fiction, from Percy Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction to E.M. Forster's Aspects of Fiction, to an odd book entitled Scheherezhade, which explored the seductions of story.  It had suddenly occurred to critics, writers, and readers that regarding the novel as a species of artsy journalism would not longer do; in answer, they began to explore the poetics of the novel.   Of these you probably know Aspects of Fiction, whether I've made you read it or not:  in this series of Cambridge lectures, Forster talks, among other things, about plot and character.  "The King died and then the Queen died" is not a plot, he tells us, though "The King died and then the Queen died of grief" is.  Plots, he opined, depend on causality, not simple chronology.  In a later lecture he explains his theory of flat and round characters, which some English teacher has doubtless drilled into you.  Flat characters don't simply lack complexity; they are captured in a characteristic phrase or two and could not stretch beyond the pages of the book that contains them.  You can imagine round characters, however, conducting a life outside the book or even becoming embroiled in scenes the author doesn't think you need to know about.  These reasonable pieces of advice aside, Aspects of Fiction is quite an odd book.  It's hard to tell whether Forster wrote it for readers, critics, or  writers.  Woolf reviewed Aspects of Fiction and then wrote her rather cheeky reply, I would argue, in Phases of Fiction, whose audience is quite clear. 

Woolf cared about readers, and it's the reader's peculiar and ever-changing hunger that she explores, limiting herself to the novel.  Respecting the novel's antecedents, she begins by talking about the "truth-tellers," those writers whose primary reason for writing a novel is to explore and reflect some truth about human nature and the societies and environments we create for ourselves.  But we all tire of truth from time to time, so she carefully follows the hungers of the reader as they find themselves in need of a little Gothic fantasy or of the style-driven intricacy of the poetic novel.

Summer brings out these vascillating hungers in me.  I wrote about my glut of historic fiction in "The Stories We Tell" and "Deadheading the Roses."  During my holiday with Veronica, I read Frances Spalding's astounding biography of Roger Fry, which Woolf (who wrote her own biography of her friend and formalist art critic, Fry) would have approved for being so full of story and analysis.  Long hot nights--and don't nights get longer when it's hot, inviting us to read in bed until well past midnight and damn the consequences?--make me want to read books with an exquisite sense of style, so I've returned to Proust and am re-reading Woolf's most  poetic novel, The Waves.  Yes, I'm reading The Waves because I need to write another chapter, but no one ever reads The Waves only with ulterior motives.  The thing about hot nights that makes me want to read complex, challenging work is that I'm just hanging out until it's cool enough to sleep, so reading a paragraph over a couple of times to suck the full flavour out of it is simply a timeless pleasure. 

This last weekend, I discovered among the books sent to Wascana Review, Anthony Bidulka's mystery Dos Equis.  Bidulka's detective is  Russell Quant, charming, witty, thoughtful, and gay.  The murder is, as Veronica puts it, "a plot device," not something that horrifies and outrages us because we know and like the victim.  Nevertheless, there is moral outrage leavened by very "out there" characters and twists and turns of plot.  But even better were those moments when Russell, who is our narrator as well as our detective, stopped to reflect for a few moments and took me into a life I couldn't imagine leading, helping me to understand those different lives.  It was delicious for a warm weekend.

But what I've found myself hungry for is illumination, preferably provided by fact.  Does this happen to all old farts:  as you get farther and farther from the generations that are experiencing and creating change,  the less you seem to understand the values that motivate people, sometimes to the extent that you wonder if there are any values there, or whether people simply pursue naked self-interest?  In Canada, I've been dismayed by a federal government that denies or squelches evidence that doesn't accord with its ideology.  In Regina I'm disappointed with a mayor who has to leave the  "legacy" of a stadium rather than a city with sufficient housing.  In politics everywhere, the "conversation," when there is one, is not about truth, service, justice, but about winning.  So I approached Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion with some hope.  It doesn't address the fact that most American congresspeople, regardless of the campaign debt they bring into their first day in office, leave Congress as millionaires.  (Haidt is perhaps less cynical than I am.)  But it does explain (without changing, unfortunately) the Harper Government's dislike of evidence.  Apparently all of us are 90% elephant and only 10% rider.  Most of us don't make "rational" decisions, but lean toward what seems natural, intuitive, or pleasant.  Only occasionally does the rider manage to convince the elephant to change its mind.  Haidt's book also suggests why the world seems more polarized right now into camps we label left and right.

I won't be able to give you all the twists and turns of his argument here, nor to follow the elegant complexity of his thought, so let me give you the broad strokes.  It is an accessible book, filled with clear arguments, funny and illuminating metaphors, as well as lots of examples and evidence. He has anticipated the fact that many of us will read the book on the fly, and so includes summaries of each chapter that serve as foundation stones of his bigger argument.  His examples come from a range of scientists working in a range of disciplines,  helping him to construct a bigger picture of human social behaviour.  He appeals to scholars and thinkers like Edmund Burke, Emile Durkheim, Plato, and Darwin.  What he helped me to do is to better understand other peoples' motives and reasoning. It's harder now to simply dismiss people who think differently than I do.  I have more ways of understanding other peoples' motives, behaviour, and values. 

What I found most central to my own thinking was the research on Moral Foundations Theory.  He and an army of graduate students asked a wide range of people from varied cultures a series of questions designed to elucidate the modules that make up moral matrices.  If you're a left-leaning Westerner (and if you're reading this particular blog, you probably are), you belong to a group Haidt calls WEIRD--an acronym that stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic--you're one of the world's moral outliers.  Westerners think of themselves as highly autonomous, whereas other cultures emphasize a network of relationships to family and community.  Hence we're likely to to emphasize the modules that focus on the morality of care (rather than harm) and fairness (rather than cheating or stealing).  But other groups include four more modules:  loyalty, respect for authority, emphasis on personal freedom, and a concept of what's sacred.  Moreover--and here's the kicker and why you should read the book--those four modules promote, for better or worse, groupishness.  They help like-minded groups of people, whether they share religions beliefs or promote free market capitalism (where liberty is privileged) work together toward common ends. 

Essentially, the political left thinks that compassion and fairness will, morally speaking, get you a long way.  But the political right's ability to appeal to more moral modules and to create cohesive groups (think Tea Partiers, fundamentalist Christians, and those promoting the primacy of the free market) gives them a political advantage. 

I don't think Haidt is thinking in terms of realpolitick--in terms of elected officials who will do anything to get themselves re-elected, but in terms of good, thoughtful people who want to create a better society.  Paradoxically, he's accomplished what a good novel should:  he's made it difficult to simply dismiss people who think differently than I do.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Kathleen. And I love that you found Dos Equis delicious on a warm weekend!

  2. I did indeed. Insomniac Press also sent me Tapas on the Tamblas, which will suit my next hot weekend. I love discovering a new mystery writer who isn't focused relentlessly on darkness.

    You might enjoy my first novel, Blue Duets. It's told from the perspective of three different characters, one of which is a gay violinist. I needed him for some "comic relief," though I also had a couple of friends read the novel to make sure I made his character complex, engaging and realistic.

    It's good to get acquainted!