The Power and Import of Purpose in Fiction

The problem with this comment as it is stated and framed is that “thinly veiled satire” — Jonathan Swift anyone? — can be just as effective as “deep, absurdist allegory” or more effective.

This is no comment on Saunders’ story which I’ve not read. In fact, Saunders own comments on “political fiction” are severely wanting as well — in particular, this:

“You would never want to be a political writer if the process was, “I believe X, now I’m trying to prove it through a story.” That’s propaganda, cause fiction doesn’t really work that way.”

Is that a fact? So if say it appears to me that the US government or say the German Nazi government is/was acting criminally by various invasions, and if it appears to me that these criminal governments are getting away with it because people are acting like “Good Germans,” that is, being obedient to authority, etc, then if I as a novelist try to show that this is indeed the case and how profoundly it is the case and how in many ways profoundly immoral such a situation is, realistically or by way of quality caricature, then we are to think, no, that is “propaganda” and therefore bad and mistaken because “fiction just doesn’t work that way,” that is, novelists would be mistaken to think they could “believe [understand] X,” and then “try to prove it through a story.”

Heaven forbid anyone ever attempt to try to show something they actually believe, that is, understand, by way of narrative. Heaven forbid they have a purpose in writing. Don’t we know that no great literature ever had a purpose and no great author ever tried to prove anything in writing? Not George Eliot or Cervantes or Defoe or Swift or the great Russians or, well, obviously any of the greats…shallow and weak minded fools that they were, banishing all strong opinion, understanding, and overall purpose from their midsts, we are relieved to note. Thankfully, they proved nothing.

All story is in some sense tentative, of course, just as all science is in some sense theory. It doesn’t mean nothing is proved.

As Noam Chomsky notes: “It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do….”

But don’t hope to give “deep insight,” striving writer, because you just might wind up proving something, like there’s a bunch of “Good Germans” around here, in this way and that way and the other way, which would in any case be utterly useless and unimportant knowledge, since soft heads like Chomsky are surely wrong that:

“We learn from literature as we learn from life…. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry [science], which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope.”

Such misguided thinking about attempting to prove anything about anyone or any situation in fiction thankfully rules out by definition — whether it’s aware of it or not — parable and allegory and most satire and plenty of other purpose driven fiction, unless we are to understand that authors don’t really understand what they are allegorizing or satirizing, that it might demonstrate the nature of any obvious or unexpected moral and other qualities. But we don’t want to work our heads too much by trying to prove anything that might have any grand heft or utility, so thankfully we can put that aside.

“If I say all red-haired people are evil and I have a story where all the red-haired people do mean things, I haven’t proven anything, cause its all made up.”

Well all the Hitlers of the world can breath a sigh of relief. I guess all the Hitlers are made up. Oh I know he drank tea and wine or whatever and professed to be a Christian and wasn’t he a vegetarian too and so on? So I guess we should focus on that since he was really a human guy. Oh sure he slaughtered the Jews and others, but that doesn’t prove anything does it? Should we really mention that there was anything really terribly evil about such a person? Should we attempt to prove that any “Good German” novelists had anything to do with facilitating and not impeding his rise to power? No, surely that would be too didactic for “right” fiction — fiction that is not wrong. Yes, “Good Germans” are safe from being portrayed by “proper” fiction. That’s not the way fiction “really works.” It doesn’t prove anything. That would be propagandistic.

Apparently then not only is much dystopian writing not proper fiction, neither is much great writing at all.

And all those people with shades of gray hair would appear to be safe from authors who would

“never want to be overtly political in a sense of…propagandistic”

because, hey, we don’t want to ruffle the feathers of those “Good Germans,” you know, wouldn’t want to dramatically reveal and portray the errors, often hideous and contemptible — and quite dramatic and knowable both — of their ways, which is what quality, important fiction would do. It would do that work that is insightful and that especially if done variously and repeatedly also serves an important and invaluable function as propaganda, in the best sense of the word.

“But I think if you look deeply enough into any human action, it’s political. … In a way I think the best fiction is political in the sense that if you take any political thing and shrink it down, it’s one person being frustrated or humiliated or something like that.”

Of course. Or ennobled and humanized and so on.

Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel: “The criteria for evaluation of a political novel must finally be the same as those for any other novel: how much of our life does it illuminate? how ample a moral vision does it suggest?—but these questions occur to us in a special context, in that atmosphere of political struggle which dominates modern life. For both the writer and the reader, the political novel provides a particularly severe test: politics rakes our passions as nothing else, and whatever we may consent to overlook in reading a novel, we react with an almost demonic rapidity to a detested political opinion. For the writer the great test is, how much truth can he force through the sieve of his opinions? For the reader the great test is, how much of that truth can he accept though it jostle his opinions?”

Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist: “‘The novel must not preach,’ you hear them say. As though it were possible to write a novel without a purpose, even if it is only the purpose to amuse. One is willing to admit that this savors a little of quibbling, for ‘purpose’ and purpose to amuse are two different purposes. But every novel, even the most frivolous, must have some reason for the writing of it, and in that sense must have a ‘purpose’. Every novel must do one of three things—it must tell something, (2) show something, or (3) prove something. Some novels do all three of these; some do only two; all must do at least one…. The third, and what we hold to be the best class, proves something, draws conclusions from a whole congeries of forces, social tendencies, race impulses, devotes itself not to a study of men but of man. In this class falls the novel with the purpose, such as ‘Les Miserables’. And the reason we decide upon this last as the highest form of the novel is because that, though setting a great purpose before it as its task, it nevertheless includes, and is forced to include, both the other classes…. [The novel] may be a great force, that works together with the pulpit and the universities for the good of the people, fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak, that an evil tree is still growing in the midst of the garden, that undoing follows hard upon unrighteousness, that the course of Empire is not yet finished, and that the races of men have yet to work out their destiny in those great and terrible movements that crush and grind and rend asunder the pillars of the houses of the nations.” 

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