Tag: moral obligations of writers

On fiction as wish fulfillment

I talk a lot about fiction as wish fulfillment, by which I mean fiction as a means of playing out a personal fantasy.

Fiction writers choose characters they want to be inside, pains they need to work through, problems they want to solve. Some write obvious wish fulfillment, with heroes who always look good, use their powers wisely, and win every battle. Some write what looks like anti-wish fulfillment, inventing the worst and scariest things that could happen (or have happened), gaining power over them. When the author’s fantasies and the reader’s don’t overlap, the writing will be called self-indulgent, incomprehensible, boring, or even immoral.

Fantasies are a very individual matter, easy to sneer at, hard to assess rationally.

I have become skeptical that there are acceptable and unacceptable fantasies. Either you like someone’s fantasies or you don’t. And we all know people like stupid things, right? Even smart people like stupid things.

I have become skeptical that there are pathetic and non-pathetic fantasies. It’s meaningless to say that the girl-gets-swept-off-her-feet fantasies in a bodice-ripper or Twilight are “pathetic.”* It’s meaningless to say that the power-and-charm fantasies of James Bond flicks and superhero comics are “pathetic.”** The truth is, fantasies without ambitions can be considered pathetic by definition—but they’re also no more pathetic than any form of play.

I have become skeptical that there are healthy and unhealthy fantasies. No matter how realistic and noble a fantasy may be, it can be taken to excess and turn into a poor substitute for reality. Meanwhile, somebody with utterly deranged fantasies can make a few bucks writing gory crime thrillers or kinky romances, practice moderation elsewhere in life, and be considered generally healthy.

*For the record, I haven’t read Twilight and I’m not sure I’ve ever read a bona fide bodice-ripper. I’m just going by things people say.

**Though surprisingly few people do, I’ve noticed. It’s almost like men’s and boys’ fantasies are tolerated and encouraged while women’s and girls’ are treated harshly.


Literary fiction publication: Harper’s

What: Harper’s Magazine or just Harper’s, one of the oldest monthly magazines in the U.S.
When: June 1850 to present
Who:  Masthead
How: Store; also, advertising
$: Don’t know how much they pay
Awards and recognitions: According to Wikipedia, has won twenty National Magazine Awards; too big to get a Pushcart ranking
Typefaces: Goudy Old Style

Harper’s is willing to publish formally unusual stories (“The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear”) and rather oddball stories (“The Return,” “The Depressed Person,” “The Dream of the Consortium”). Looking back at my Harper’s tag, I see I liked almost all the stories I’ve read quite a bit.

They sent David Foster Wallace to a state fair and on a luxury cruise. That shows vision. (Though I’m ambivalent about nonfiction that strays from the truth, and ambivalent too about Wallace’s flawed real-life character.)

Harper’s’ reputation is unfortunately stained by reports of their decision to publish a piece doxing the creator of the “Shitty Men in Media” list. (Edited to add the tweet below.)



Short story: “Ovando”

“Ovando,” by Jamaica Kincaid

3,824 words

First published in Conjunctions, Issue 14, Fall 1989; the first story in the anthology The New Gothic (Random House, 1991), edited by Conjunctions‘ Bradford Morrow and also Patrick McGrath; selected by Karen Lord to appear in Strange Horizons, August 31st, 2015 (no longer available online)

In one sense, I find it very easy to understand how Kincaid came up with this story. She condenses a brutal historic invasion into a surreal meeting of two characters; she gives her narrator the perspicacity to tell us exactly what kind of person and societal force Ovando is. And bitter gallows humor:

They looked around and at last they saw me. In unison, like a clap of thunder, they all said, “Mine!” Ovando, seeing the danger in this, said “Draw lots,” but the people who drew my head really wanted my legs, and the people who drew my arms wanted my insides, and so on and so on until they fell on each other with a ferociousness that I could not have imagined possible.

I have very little memory of writing the above, but it seems good, and I may reread this story someday, so I’m posting it.

On Edith Wharton

“One of the brave things that Wharton does is to recognize the coexistence of the world of passion and the world of strictures. I don’t know another writer of her era who felt so seriously bound by the rules of society, and who took so seriously the great forces of emotion that were aligned against those rules.”

—Roxana Robinson in The Millions

On character race

From Lillian Li’s essay “Why Write Characters of Color?”:

“I’m currently working on a novel about a Chinese restaurant, and the biggest event, a fire, was originally added in as a placeholder, until I could find a better catalyst for the plot. Over a year later, this fire has become a load-bearing pillar for my novel; to replace it would be to rewrite the entire project. But the reason this fire is so integral is because I asked the question, at some point in the writing process, of why this story needed a fire. […] If I had never questioned my decision to include the fire, the event would have stood out, like a lump of flour unincorporated into the narrative gravy. The readers would be stuck asking the question for me, the arbitrariness of the fire distracting them until it had seized their attention entirely.

“When American writers arbitrarily decide the race of their characters, and then ignore the question of race, they are courting the same conundrum, even if they phrase it a different way. We often hear this baleful refrain, ‘Why can’t a character just be black, or Asian, or Hispanic? A white character can just be white, after all.'”

It’s a provocative essay, worth reading in full. I find it a little discouraging as a white writer, because I’m intimidated by writing characters significantly different from myself. But I think I also see the great potential Li is pointing towards—creative potential and potential for social change.

Short story: “Chicxulub”

“Chicxulub,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Appeared in the New Yorker, March 1st, 2004 (online here); featured in the September 2015 episode of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

4,463 words (my guess was 4,000)

This story reminds me of “Bullet in the Brain,” although it is more linear, and “Forever Overhead,” although it uses a different technique. I find it pretty impressive. Lionel Shriver reads it well—sort of coldly. To read it with too much emotion would kill it.

Shriver and Deborah Treisman talk about the strangeness of writing an experience you haven’t had, and seeing it move someone who has. Shriver takes it rather lightly. But how much of a compliment is it, really, if a stranger sobs over your story? Couldn’t it also be a condemnation? How much of other people’s pain belongs to the writer, and how much does not?

Short story: “Suicide as a Sort of Present”

“Suicide as a Sort of Present,” by David Foster Wallace

Collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (May 28th, 1999, Little, Brown and Company); read by the author on YouTube; part of the story is excerpted here

Maybe 1500 words?

This is such a good story.

Of course Wallace’s death complicates (or rather, oversimplifies) the way we read it, and probably makes it horribly cruel to his family. All the same, it’s really good.

I’m pretty sure the suicide/present is the son’s, and I suspect he took others with him.


“[The officer who shot Tamir Rice] had no information to suggest the weapon was anything but a real handgun, and the speed with which the confrontation progressed would not give the officer time to focus on the weapon.”

—retired FBI agent Kimberly A. Crawford

No fucking shit, Sherlock! We all saw the speed at which the confrontation progressed. It progressed really fucking fast because the police officers, in their wisdom, chose to drive up to the boy really fucking fast and shoot him really fucking fast. As a matter of fact, there was no confrontation until the police drove up. The kid doesn’t even seem to notice them until they’re on top of him.

In the comments on the NPR article, I saw someone make a joke about how, if you want to take out a hit on someone, you can just call 911 and say, “I saw this old lady pointing a gun at people!” And then they have no information to suggest that her umbrella is anything but a disguised rifle, etc. But the fact is that Tamir Rice got shot because he was black. If he had been a white guy, the police would have tried to get more information and the confrontation would not have progressed quite so fast. That’s true regardless of whether some piece of shit ex-FBI agent thinks she can defend her cronies’ behavior, and regardless of how depraved the legal use of force has become in this country.

On how to respond to a volcano full of baby skulls

“[T]he bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, ‘There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.’ Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living. You shouldn’t lie. If there aren’t any, so far as you can see, you should say so, like the Merdistes. But I don’t think the Merdistes are right—except for Céline himself, by accident, because Céline (as character, not as author) is comic; a villain so outrageous, miserable, and inept that we laugh at him and at all he so earnestly stands for. I think the world is not all merde. I think it’s possible to make walls around at least some of the smoking holes.”

—John Gardner (The Art of Fiction No. 73)

On David Foster Wallace’s anti-irony

“Are his harangues against the tyranny of irony meant to be taken in earnest, or are they artfully constructed simulacra of what a sincere anti-ironist might sound like? Or both? If one way to escape from the blind alley of postmodern self-consciousness is simply to turn around and walk in another direction—which is […] what a great many very interesting writers, without making a big deal about it, simply do—Wallace prefers to forge ahead in hopes of breaking through to the other side, whatever that may be. For all his impatience with the conventions of anti-realism, he advances a standard postmodern view that ‘the classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops us right into spectation. It doesn’t set up the sort of expectations serious 1990s fiction ought to be setting up in readers.’ Wallace, then, is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth. Janus-faced, he demands to be taken at face value. ‘Single-entendre principles’ is a cleverly tossed off phrase, but Wallace is temperamentally committed to multiplicity—to a quality he has called, with reference to the filmmaker David Lynch, ‘bothness.’ He wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark.”

—A. O. Scott (x)

Well, yes! Like I keep saying about irony and sincerity: why not both? Why not both?

That said, I read Infinite Jest when I was already getting deep in a self-reinforcing pattern of self-conscious and almost solipsistic thinking. I think I understand the trouble Wallace got himself in by forging ahead.