GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction by Zadie Smith

“But reading seems to be easier to defend than writing. Writing is a far larger act of presumption. Sensing this, we seek to shore up the act of writing with false defenses, like the dubious idea that one could ever be absolutely “correct” when it comes to representing fictional human behavior. I understand the desire—I have it myself—but what I don’t get is how anyone can possibly hope to achieve it. What does it mean, after all, to say “A Bengali woman would never say that!” or “A gay man would never feel that!” or “A black woman would never do that!”? How can such things possibly be claimed absolutely, unless we already have some form of fixed caricature in our minds? (It is to be noted that the argument “A white man would never say that!” is rarely heard and is almost structurally unimaginable. Why? Because to be such a self is to be afforded all possible human potentialities, not only a circumscribed few.)

But perhaps I am asking the question the wrong way round. The counterargument would be that when it comes to presumption, we are in far less danger of error when writer and subject are as alike as possible. The risk of containment is the risk of false knowledge being presented as truth—it is the risk of caricature. Those who are unlike us have a long and dismal history of trying to contain us in false images. And so—the argument runs—if we are to be contained by language, let that language at least be our own.

But the question is: In what does this “like me” consist? He doesn’t look like me. We don’t share the same gods. We don’t share the same race or gender. But he is a part of my soul. And fiction is one of the few places left on this earth where a crazy sentence like that makes any sense at all. Alex-Li is not “correct.” He cannot and doesn’t aim to represent the community of half-Jewish, half-Chinese people. In the spirit of Kafka, he barely represents himself. And so it may be that by his existence he is in fact oppressive, simply because he is “taking up space” where a “real” half-Jewish, half-Chinese fictional character might be. He cannot defend himself from that accusation—and it would be out of character for him to try. All he can say is that he doesn’t mind if he is unread, unbought, unloved. But if even one person happens to come across him and find that his feelings and their own have a similar weight, then he will have completed his absurd fictional role in this world.

Has fiction, over the centuries, been the creator of compassion or a vehicle for containment? I think we can make both cases. Fiction was often interested in the other but more often than not spoke for the other instead of actually publishing them. Fiction gave us Madame Bovary but also Uncle Tom. (It’s also given us a marvelous, separate literature that has no interest in human selves of any kind—which is concerned instead with animals, trees, extraterrestrials, inanimate objects, ideas, language itself.) But whether fiction’s curiosity about the other was compassionate or containing, one thing you could always say for it was that it was interested.

By contrast, a prominent component of the new philosophy is a performative display of non-interest, a great pride in not being interested in the other, which is sometimes characterized as revenge and sometimes as an act of self-preservation. (When you feel hatred coming from the other, it’s reasonable to turn from the other completely.) The expression of this pride usually comes in some version of I’ve had enough ofI just can’t with—fill in the blank. And the strange thing is that the people we now cast into this place of non-interest were once the very people fiction was most curious about. The conflicted, the liars, the self-deceiving, the willfully blind, the abject, the unresolved, the imperfect, the evil, the unwell, the lost and divided. Those were once fiction’s people.

We behave as if don’t want to be known by one another, but we sometimes seem oblivious to the idea that we spend our days feeding ourselves into a great engine of knowing, one that believes it knows every single thing about us: our tastes, our opinions, our beliefs, what we’ll buy, who we’ll love, where we’ll go. The unseen actors who harvest this knowledge not only hope to know us perfectly but also to modify us, to their own ends. And this essay, too, will no doubt enter that same digital maw, and be transformed from ideas to data points, and responded to, perhaps, with a series of pat phrases, first spotted by the machine, then turned viral, and now returned to us as if it were our own language. “I just can’t with Zadie Smith right now,” or else “This Zadie Smith is everything,” or—well, you know the drill. We’ve gotten into the habit of not experiencing the private, risky act of reading so much as performing our response to what we read, which is then translated into data points.

Is this novel before me an attempt at compassion or an act of containment? Each reader will decide. This is the work of an individual consciousness and cannot be delegated to generalized arguments, not even the prepackaged mental container of “cultural appropriation.”

To put it another way, a book can try to modify your behavior, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free.”

[Via]

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