June 24, 2018

The Future of Fiction in a Fictional World


I’ve brought this up maybe a few too many times as it is, but back around 2001 when I made the jump from memoirs to novels, Morgan pointed out that fiction was much more honest and truthful than non-fiction. It was an observation that cut two ways. In pragmatic terms, she was referring to my dealings with publishing house libel lawyers. The stupid bastards would force me to rewrite sections of the memoirs, in a word force me to fictionalize them, if there was even a whisper of a chance someone might sue over the honest things I’d written. But these same lawyers would never even glance at the novels, given they were fiction to begin with. I could write exactly the same things I’d written in the memoirs, but by calling it a “novel” I was in the clear.

            At the same time her observation hinted at the distinction Werner Herzog made between the “Ecstatic Truth” and the “Accountant’s Truth.” Fiction had the ability to plunge deeper into the sometimes harsher and darker realities of human life, while non-fiction encountered endless roadblocks constructed from the simple, undeniable facts of the matter. Yes, the facts could be interpreted this way or that, but you can’t claim McKinley wasn’t shot or the Andrea Doria made it to port without being either a novelist or an idiot. If you’re the former, you could run with either of those speculations to say something more profound about the vagaries of history than anything that’s ever appeared in a history textbook.

            At least there was a time when that was the case. During the 2016 presidential campaign, I began writing about what I dubbed the Post-Satirical Age. We’d been on our way there for decades, maybe even generations. It seemed, even before the election proper, that we were about to crest that hill, and there would be no turning back. The other side was too steep. Things were simply becoming too absurd, too mortifying, and it was happening too fast.

            Since at least the fifth century B.C. satirists had always been the guardians of public sanity, those soldiers who could stick a finger in the eye of the powerful with an audible “toink,” taking the piss out of the pompous and corrupt for the amusement of all, right? But we were clearly on the cusp of an era in which the powerful did everything they could to beat the satirists at their own game.

            Once the election results came in, it was clear we had lost the war. Worse, no one had the slightest clue as to how bad things were going to get, or how quickly. As delighted as I was to see the Nihilist Workers Party program of 1985 finally fulfilled to the letter, it also meant I was pretty much out of a job.

            There’s no point in hashing through any of the details, all those crimes against the public sanity perpetrated by the present regime. We all know what the fuck’s been happening. As my friend Derek Davis pointed out, the administration has been working straight out of the Goebbels playbook to keep us all confused, aghast, and dispirited.

            Historically, frightening political times have always had a knack for inspiring great and revolutionary art in reaction. Amid all the warfare and starvation in Italy under the Borgias (as the man said), we also got Da Vinci, Michelangelo and The Renaissance. World War II spawned countless great novels and novelists. The ennui and paranoia that followed the war gave us film noir, the Beats and hard bop. The upheaval of the Sixties gave us the Pop Art scene and all that music. The ongoing war in Vietnam, Nixon and the death of the hippie era gave us the indie film renaissance, punk rock and Gravity’s Rainbow. The Reagan years gave us hardcore and another indie film revolution. As bad as things had suddenly become, you’d think there would have been an explosion of angry creativity across the arts over the past year and a half, but if there was I sure as hell wasn’t seeing it. Movie theaters were still packed with comic book fantasies, what was being passed off as punk rock was as tepid and flaccid as everything else that had come out over the previous two decades, nobody cared enough about painting or sculpture to notice if anything interesting or revolutionary was happening there. But there was always literature, right? Even if nobody was reading anymore, you could always count on the novelists to capture and skewer the times for future generations.

            Six months into the new administration, my agent called and told me to stop writing fiction, as there was no point. There was no way I could top what was going on every single day. I wasn’t insulted by her directive—it only made sense. Hell, I had a devil of a time keeping up with post-9/11 America as I was trying to write Unplugging Philco, and this had gone way beyond those simpler times. The whole world, even what we like to think of as “the news,” had become a grand and sprawling work of satirical fiction, an epic farce unlike anything anyone had ever witnessed before. The darkest corners of my imagination could never have conceived of an Education Secretary like this, or an EPA Administrator or HUD Secretary or CDC Director like what we ended up with. And I’m not even going to mention the president or his family. Maybe I could have imagined them, but certainly not in this much grotesque detail.

            But I was just small potatoes, right? I was just a cheap hack of a pulp novelist, so if I never wrote another book, who would care? There were others out there, bold and brilliant men and women of letters with the imagination and the wit to pull the whole rancid swamp into sharp focus. Writers who could grapple with the insanity, put it all in perspective, and offer us some kind of lifeline, right?

            Then I talked to one such novelist. He’d been around a long time, he was respected and esteemed, and his novels had always had a bit of prescience about them. But when the question of how one went about writing fiction in a sloppy and terrifying fictional world came up, he said:

The current American reality, the worst and most depressing I’ve known, leaves my imagination in the dust. I can’t keep up with it. And anything I write that doesn’t come to grips in some way with what I firmly believe is the dying of American democracy would be one more failure on top of a sense of failure that’s already nearly unbearable, except it would be an ignoble failure as well, a corrupt failure, which is too terrible to contemplate. I’m speaking for myself, understand, not anyone else. I admire enormously any other writer who can function in this moment and glean meaning from his or her work in whatever way and in whatever form. For me, however, frolicking on the playground of the make-believe doesn’t cut it anymore.

            Turns out he, too, had spoken with his agent and told her he wasn’t going to be writing any more fiction in the foreseeable future. And we aren’t the only two. I know plenty of novelists who’ve said the same thing. Of all the crimes against the country perpetrated by the present administration, perhaps the most sinister and diabolical of all was robbing fiction of its ability to be Truthful.


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