Things I Wish Somebody Had Told Me

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This post originally appeared on February 22, 2013.

Yesterday I wrote a course description for next semester. It was due only a week ago, so I’m feeling pretty good about getting it done. I’m thinking about the course today, which I’ve titled “1968” and which will be on that historic year in arts and letters, in part because I haven’t chosen the texts yet (use comments section to suggest texts! There’s too much to choose from!). I have some idea of other texts I want to include, but kicking around ideas for possible fiction has gotten me thinking about the criteria I’m using for choosing course material. I’ve been looking for fiction that has characters that feel real, through whom my students can feel what it was like to be alive in 1968. I’ve been looking for fiction that paints a realistic picture, that captures 1968 in amber. And I’ve been looking for fiction that has something meaningful to say about 1968.

What I’m realizing is that these preferences express a set of assumptions about fiction that I often work against in my students. Further, they’re a set of assumptions nobody made me reflect on when I was an undergraduate (not successfully, anyway).  Over the years I’ve done a lot of this reflection myself, with the help of critics who have  convinced me of  some pretty basic truths about fiction, and I’ve internalized them over the years. In retrospect though, I wish somebody had told me these basic truths early in my undergraduate career.

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #1: Characters Aren’t People.

If you read writers talking about writing, you will come across someone saying that she listens to her characters and lets them determine what they do in her stories. I know what writers mean when they say this, and it may feel this way to them, but it’s not quite true: writers try to create characters who act in a way that is consistent with whatever personality they have tried to give them: they try not to have them do things that seem “out of character” (the fact that people often act “out of character” is a subject for another day). Likewise, if you listen to your students (and I hope you do), you will hear them talking about characters as if they were real people. Often they use a word that has become a bête noir of mine and say that characters are “relatable.” They will talk about whether or not they like characters, they will psychoanalyze them, they will confuse them with their authors.

Why is this important? Because the constant battle is to get students to look at form—to get them to understand how literature is constructed through a series of authorial choices, choices that have calculated effects on readers. That’s why it’s important not to ask students, Why does Character X do this? but rather, Why does Author X choose to have Character X do this? While students aren’t wrong to have feelings about characters, they need to be able to recognize and think about how and why authors make their characters act the way they do.  Students need to remember that characters are made of words.

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #2: Realism Is a Trick.

Related to Thing #1, this basic fact is something that everybody knows deep down, but its ramifications are often not realized.  While undergraduates don’t necessarily need to watch you diagram structuralist insights about signification on the board to get this (though I think it’s a great idea), they might benefit from you talking early on about what Barthes called the referential illusion—the false idea that works of literature can actually represent the world faithfully. What writers do—and if you press the point, no student will persist in maintaining that the black squiggles on the page “are” the world—is paint a picture of an idea of the world, with varying degrees of verisimilitude, detailed description, and, in Barthes’ great insight from “The Reality Effect,” the inclusion of insignificant details, which makes the picture seem more real. (A bit of instruction on the history of realism as an ideal in the Western novel—on the way in which it wasn’t the centrally important thing in the prehistory or early life of the novel and only became the default mode in the late nineteenth century—can help too.)

Reading novels and stories with the unexamined assumption that they are representations of the real can keep students from appreciating the artistry writers practice—the way they do things with words that create reading experiences that have effects on readers, that make them feel things and see things. Reading for realism can also make it harder for students to consider the factors that influence a writer’s picture of the world—things such as political beliefs, historical moment, any of the things that make us perceive the world as we do.

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #3: Stories Don’t Mean Anything.

If I’ve said any one thing in a classroom more than “No, tell me what you think” (or possibly “Please don’t use the word ‘relatable’ in your papers because it causes me physical pain”), it may be “Good fiction doesn’t have a moral.” It’s one of those things that is generally true but will admit exceptions, at least for some people; while Milan Kundera has said that there was nothing George Orwell wrote in his novels that he couldn’t have just as easily said in a pamphlet, most readers will admit that there are a few powerful works whose main aim is to drive home only a single message. Still, the larger point is that part of fiction’s power lies in its ambiguity; it can show us things about the world we may not have seen before, it can push us to consider ideas we’ve not thought much about before, but it doesn’t generally have what less sophisticated forms—fairy tales, parables—have: a moral.

It’s also true that even if writers want to drive home a single point about something, even if they are skilled at their craft, things will get away from them. Whether they are trying to keep two ideas in dialogue without picking a winner, as Bakhtin said is what makes great novels great, or are trying to display a Single Great Truth about the world, language and culture—meaning—is too complicated, too rich, to play along. This is the great frustration of so many students—what do you mean there’s no right answer?—and of many teachers who want to confine a novel to its “theme.”

So I’m going to continue planning this course, and maybe I’ll talk some more here someday soon about the process of text selection—about how I want to be wary of looking for texts with characters like people that capture 1968 in amber and have something to say about what happened then; about how to pick texts that challenge these assumptions about fiction; maybe even about how certain kinds of courses and critical approaches lead to the privileging of these assumptions. For now, I’ll just try to remember to pass on these three Things to undergraduates, who sometimes just Need to Be Told.

About the Author
Teacher and scholar of 20th- and 21st-Century American literature and culture. Author of 50 Essays and Literature: The Human Experience. Author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s, coeditor of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace and The Clash Takes on the World: Transnational Perspectives on the Only Band That Matters. Series Editor of The New American Canon: The Iowa Series in Contemporary Literature and Culture. Website: faculty/