October 2, 2010

The reason to read fiction: to engage with the mind of someone who isn't trying to sell you anything.

Argues Lorrie Moore (who's not saluting but having trouble keeping the light out of her eyes):



I love the idea that what we want from reading is to intertwine our minds with the mind of another human being and I understand why Moore connects that to freedom from commerce and why she find that purity in fiction. The funny thing is to want to write when you don't want to sell anything — even any ideas. It's not always true of fiction and not only true of fiction, but it is what we really want to read, isn't it?

45 comments:

Fred4Pres said...

Of course an author is trying to sell you on something, if it only be that author's greatness.

Synova said...

Oh, I think that even a fiction writer wants to sell something.

A romance writer is "selling" ideas about love, and likely a number of other ideas about how people are or how they ought to be.

I write hack-genre science fiction and I'm certainly aware of what I'm trying to "sell".

Perhaps the difference is that it's designed to be a no-pressure sale. You just put those ideas out there.

Fred4Pres said...

Reading fiction is escapism from boredom. And it gives us insights on our own lives and helps us reflect on that.

But we read (for pleasure) because it is fun.

And writers generally do not describe writing at "fun" because it is hard work. But they still enjoy to complete a work and that part is fun for them. And it is nice to get paid for it too.

edutcher said...

Fiction creates another world which interests and captivates us. Witness Sherlock Holmes or the Sackett novels of Louis L'Amour.

Synova has a good point, but I would think in some (maybe most) cases it would be more sub-conscious.

However, I don't think Ms Moore gets non-fiction. It isn't necessarily "selling something" to say, "Hey, if you're interested in butterflies, here's some stuff you may not have known". You can argue the author is selling his/her own brilliance, but some people just enjoy the subject (and it shows in the writing).

Tyrone Slothrop said...

I had probably read 30,000 pages of fiction before I was twenty-one. In the thirty-five years since, I've probably read at most a third of that. I really wonder why that is.

My sixteen-year-old daughter, surrounded by cable TV and the Internet, still reads fiction voraciously.

Anecdotal, I know, but does the whole enterprise rely on young minds?

wv: nomess-- wife's instruction when I cook.

Bob_R said...

There is something corrupt about a rich, tenured, chaired professor at a public university denigrating the life of commerce on which her ample comfort depends.

Synova said...

Okay, I see what she's saying.

Prose in fiction is very different from prose in non-fiction, generally. The sentence structure is different, the word choices are different, and the purpose of particular situations is different.

So I could write... I saw buffalo and their breath reminded me of dragons because it was in the cold before dawn and the shadows of the buffalo were smoking in huge billows...

Or I could write:

We saw buffalo before dawn; hulking shadows against a hillside. The frigid air turned each hot, moisture laden breath to gusts and cloudy billows.

I pulled the car onto the field road, up to the fence. “Hey, kids. Look.”

And I thought of war horses silhouetted against ice crystals and moonlight, and I thought of the origins of dragons and why ours have fire.

... which isn't *fiction*, but it is fiction.

I'm not impressed with the arguments that everyone ought to read novels. It's a new conceit that is really popular right now. But I did want my kids to read a few novels simply because the narrative arc is much longer than other sorts of writing. And I felt that was valuable to experience.

tim maguire said...

Of course they want to sell you something--they want to sell you a book. They may love libraries, but they would prefer you pay.

Like Tyrone, the older I get, the less fiction I read.

chuck said...

Ah, but weren't Dostoevsky and Balzac driven to produce by the need for money? Perhaps that also explains a certain "pulp" quality to some of their stories, they needed to entertain as well as edify.

Necessity is the author of authors.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"It's important to engage with the mind of someone who isn't trying to sell you anything."

Really?

Is she not selling me the book?

If not, where do I get my free copy? Amazon.free? Far as I know, Amazon.free don't exist.

I'll tell you what's important. It's important to engage with a mind that can easily see through fucking sophistry.

Ann Althouse said...

"Of course they want to sell you something--they want to sell you a book."

And, of course, Lorrie Moore clearly says exactly that in the clip you presumably just watched. So... you disagree with her... why, exactly?

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"There is something corrupt about a rich, tenured, chaired professor at a public university denigrating the life of commerce on which her ample comfort depends."

Don't be so hard on Ann Althouse, Bob.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"And, of course, Lorrie Moore clearly says exactly that in the clip you presumably just watched. So... you disagree with her... why, exactly?"

Maybe because Fora.tv wants $59.95 for me to watch her entire interview?

I mean, you can't hardly make up this kind of comical farce in a single post allegedly criticizing crass commercialism.

This whole post is a fucking advertisement.

How much did they pay you, Ann, to post this claptrap?

Christy said...

I remember a review years ago in the NYT of a new book on The Rolling Stones. The reviewer noted it brought together all the known stories but complained that there was nothing fresh in the book. Realizing it would be perfect for me, not knowing anything about the Stones except the music, I also recognized that the cognoscenti only consider a book worthy if it brings new facts and new theories to the fore. That fits with Moore's ideas.

Still, I can think of many fiction writers with an agenda, and I figure there exists many more that are too subtle for me to recognise. Wasn't Dickens advocating for the underclass of Victorian England? Didn't Conrad's Heart of Darkness outrage the good people of his time about the treatment of the natives and lead to change? Wasn't Cervantes mocking the writers of popular fictions in Don Quixote? Goodness knows the modern darling Barbara Kingsolver is all advocacy all the time.

jr565 said...

Right, The Grapes Of Wrath was not trying to say anything about The Depression. Tom Joad's speech was not selling anything:
"I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'-where - wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad - I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too."
Nope, nothing going on there.

Sixty Grit said...

Tom Joad, proto-commie, was selling us the socialism we have since purchased in bulk. I hope Steinbeck is roasting in hell.

jr565 said...

Though the character may not be selling you something, the author, by including that particular monologue as opposed to others certainly is. Perhaphs not literally a product, but certainly a viewpoint.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

@jr565
@SixtyGrit

Yeah, points taken, but I always loved Steinbeck's writing.

wv: latio-- I always fell for it.

chr1 said...

Really...more of the corporations/free market don't care about you but fiction writers will meme?

A Harold Bloom where shall wisdom be found lament? A Rortyesque slide back into excessive relativism?

Jonathan Franzen has a hipster douchbag novel out (about whose quality I'm unsure, it could be good)...and Sullivan has been pandering (with his stable) to the same crowd.

Anything but reading the classics...

chr1 said...

She's right that a good book can offer you something: knowledge of the human heart, wisdom, broadened imagination within the mind of a creative genius, a connection you wouldn't have with perhaps even many people you know...

but this is as much about the platform we view thse works as is the works themselves. Technology is probably the biggest driver.

Yet, after decades of French theory (postmodernism, deconstructionism), and politicization of departments in excessive relativism (women's studies, gay studies etc) we're also left with a problem of another centralized vision that transcends these problems.

It's possible, and anyone concerned with classical learning should make sure it doesn't fall into the hands of ideologues, political hackery, intellectual hucksterism, and the flow of current events too readily.

rcocean said...

Does anyone read fiction anymore? It seems so 20th century.

traditionalguy said...

The works of John Steinbeck are at the very highest level of fiction ever created. The Grapes of Wrath told a story of suffering that we may be facing again sooner than the we refugees from the American Century want to hear about. So skip that 1930s unpleasant events and instead read East of Eden, which I believe is one of the 10 best books ever written. Then enjoy Doc and the boys in Cannery Row. And do not over look The Voyage to the Sea of Cortez. The Monterey/Carmel area and The Salinas Valley have little life without the fiction that came from John Steinbeck's mind. The same goes for the Charleston, SC area that really needs the fiction from the mind Pat Conroy to make it come to life.

Richard Dolan said...

"The funny thing is to want to write when you don't want to sell anything -- even any ideas. ... [I]t is what we really want to read, isn't it?"

What we "want to read" is something worth reading, not junk that is a waste of time. I don't see any logical connection between an author's motive in writing, and the worth (literary, moral, philosophical, etc.) of whatever the author manages to write. Writing (regardless of genre, except possibly for a diary) is intended as conversation rather than soliloquy -- publication presumes a reading audience, and invites the reader into the author's world (literary, historical, philosophic, whatever). Why should the author's motive in writing, or the particular formal nature of the work (narrative fiction) necessarily produce the "intertwin[ing of] our minds with the mind of another human being" better than anything else -- poetry, say, or an essay?

Presumably this is an empirical claim -- authors writing for non-commercial reasons using the fictional form more often produce better stuff (however one measures 'better' on the 'intertwining minds' scale). That doesn't seem intuitively right. But perhaps it can be defended (I can't get the clip to play and so don't know if Moore does so).

The whole thing reminds me of the brouhaha about the New Criticism 50 years ago. Before the new critics (Cleanth Brooks, Maynard Mack, RP Warren, many others) came to dominate the scene, literary criticism was a form of biography. The New Critics rejected that, and just too the text as they found it. How and why the text came to be what is was may be interesting but it has nothing to do with whether the merits of the text. This concern with the author's motives is a throw-back to the pre-New Critics sort of thing -- the value of the work is a function of the purity of the author's heart.

I'm skeptical about these kinds of theories -- and it's the sort of theory that, if Ann were in a crotchety mood, she would tear to shreds.

So it must mean that this is a great day in Madison chez Meadhouse.

El Pollo Real said...

Then enjoy Doc and the boys in Cannery Row.

Damn, I can't find my copy. I'd really like to reread his trip down to La Jolla.

Almost Ali said...

Let fiction be, I say.

I remember millions of kids gathering at midnight, many dressed in character. Little witches and wizards, they were, in Hogwart robe, waving wands, breaking out a month's allowance to purchase Harry Potter.

Book after book, this scene played out over and over, the timeless march of fiction upon them. And every witch and wizard willing to pay twenty seven dollars, initiation after initiation. Each, and worth every penny.

Also to me, seeing them emerge from
the mists of midnight to enchant Barnes & Noble. From SUVs and BMWs, up from subways and crowding the sidewalks, they came. Oh, what had Rowling wrought! Fictions too long, then not long enough. And not a brew, but a Sorcerer's Stone.

Deborah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ritmo Brasileiro said...

The funny thing is to want to write when you don't want to sell anything — even any ideas. It's not always true of fiction and not only true of fiction, but it is what we really want to read, isn't it?

Don't be silly! The only sort of relationships a reactionary approves of are commercial, familial, and national.

Ritmo Brasileiro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Pollo Real said...

Don't be silly! The only sort of relationships a reactionary approves of are commercial, familial, and national.

I guess you could say that about Jack Kerouac--but that's not what he wrote about.

Synova said...

"Don't be silly! The only sort of relationships a reactionary approves of are commercial, familial, and national."

"Commercial" isn't a relationship. "Familial" and "national" are relationships.

"Fraternal" is a relationship.

What other sorts of relationships do you think their are?

If "familial" and "national" are bad ones, or at least base, what are the lofty relationships?

Please... they have to be *relationships*... care has to go both directions. So it's not possible to have a relationship with a virtue or other abstract thing.

Synova said...

"The funny thing is to want to write when you don't want to sell anything — even any ideas. It's not always true of fiction and not only true of fiction, but it is what we really want to read, isn't it?"

On reflection "what we really want to read" might work in this statement if it's actually a distinction being made between the sort of fiction that is supposed to be good for you... challenging, thought provoking, *valuable*... and the sort that is just empty fun.

But empty fun isn't really empty. It still has to engage the reader and pull them in as a participant or it's no good.

Even something as fluffy as, oh, Charlene Harris and her vampire books, has to engage. In her very first book with Suki, Suki is revealed to have a disability that makes her an outcast. Harris did a fabulous job at imagining what it would really be like to hear people's thoughts. And it makes a relatable reason that she is taken in by the vampires.

So... fluff. Certainly. Empty entertainment. I won't argue. But it's still got ideas and revelations about what it means to be human... even if only because the author demonstrates that she is able to push our buttons. She knows where those buttons are.

AST said...

Reminds me of the line that a walk through the ocean of most peoples' soul would scarcely get your feet wet.

ken in sc said...

No one but a blockhead ever wrote for ought but money. --google it--

Ritmo Brasileiro said...

"Commercial" isn't a relationship.

Only someone who has never led any kind of business venture would say this.

Also, I think that a person who never considers the ethics of the companies that produce what they buy might be given to saying such a thing.

"Familial" and "national" are relationships.

"Fraternal" is a relationship.

What other sorts of relationships do you think their are?


Well, in the context of what transpires between an author and reader - or any artist and the people they inspire, you have a very elemental exchange of emotions, ideas and perspectives.

That's a relationship and so is anything that has the potential to result in a transformational experience - no matter to what extent.

Ritmo Brasileiro said...

Any exchange between two or more people is a relationship, loosely defined.

Synova said...

I would say that what is between an author and reader is a collaboration.

But it's not a relationship. The reader doesn't have a relationship with the author, it's with the writing, and the writing can't have a relationship because it's not real, it's an artifact.

We could just as well insist that I have a relationship with the quarter inch hail that just pulverized my tomato plants.

Dark Eden said...

Um...

...

The author is trying to sell you their book!

Ritmo Brasileiro said...

The reader doesn't have a relationship with the author, it's with the writing, and the writing can't have a relationship because it's not real, it's an artifact.

This is different in degree, but not in kind, from saying that a person does not have a relationship with their spouse as a person, but only with how their spouse has expressed himself/herself and the impact that makes.

It's not real, it's an artifact.

Synova said...

It's a difference in kind.

It's not just that something has an impact on me because it intersects my life...

That word might work... intersections vs. relationship.

But there is something different *in kind* to fraternal or familial or even national relationships to the way the sun this morning lifts my mood.

People do have relationships that we call "one sided" and consider unhealthy.

bagoh20 said...

"There is something corrupt about a rich, tenured, chaired professor at a public university denigrating the life of commerce on which her ample comfort depends. "


It continues to surprise me how deep and wide the bias is against business. Commerce provides nearly everything that we have that separates us from animals. There is no other way to accomplish it, and it does it in a relatively free, expansive and powerful way, if allowed to in a free society.

Regardless, nearly everyone, at some level despises business, while freely choosing to enjoy it's benefits 24/7, and always looking for ways to get more of it.

The businessman is one of the most disliked characters on our stage, and the more successful they are the more they are despised, while at the same time being envied. It's a warped psychology, that is ingrained in the culture.

In fiction, it is nearly universal for the successful businessman to be evil, while in real life, it is no more common than any other group, and perhaps less so.

The successful business person succeeds by satisfying people's needs: customers, employees, stock holders, government, and the market. Being selfish and myopic are distinct disadvantages. In fact, it is often the need to make money that keeps many professionals, like artist from being complete narcissistic assholes. Obviously it's not 100% effective.

Everyone is a business person at some level, including authors, and all of us think it's the other guy's business that's corrupt or over-valued.

author, etc. said...

Novelists, even difficult, so-called "literary" ones, are entrepreneurial capitalists in the purest sense--they create a commodity (their book) that the consumer has neither specifically requested nor fundamentally requires but which the writer still seeks to sell. That the novel might be nobly conceived and edifying to its readers doesn't change the fact that a financial transaction is involved. And why should it? Even artists gotta eat.

As for the intimate mind-meld of a reader and a good writer, ideally it raises the experience above, say, the purchase of a cheeseburger or even a movie ticket and constitutes the one advantage of fiction and poetry over every other art form. But the reader has to hold up his end of the exchange with time and concentration, and since time and concentration are dying qualities in the modern world, good fiction and poetry are similarly on the fade.

jamboree said...

When I read the Da Vinci Code, I got the distinct impression they were hard selling me a screenplay.

amba said...

Wanting to sell something is one urge, wanting to share something is another. They get tangled and intertwined, but they are distinct, I think. Trying to sell something is about what you can get out of it. Trying to share something is about what you can show and give. Show off, too -- you might want admiration for your insight and/or verbal skill, but that's not the same as wanting money. Is it the same as wanting fame?

vw ephorp

(no connection, I just like it)

amba said...

"Commercial" isn't a relationship.

Only someone who has never led any kind of business venture would say this.

took the words right outa my mouth.

Richard said...

False.

"Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either."

This is my understanding of Cat's Cradle. That Fiction does more to shape our lives than Fact.

Anyone who truly wants to shape lives should write fiction.