About once a year, I take a fiction writing workshop through Harvard University’s Extension School. This fall, I observed something I hadn’t seen in previous years: many of the writers in the class seemed not to identify much with the flawed characters we encountered in stories by writers like Junot Diaz, Mary Gaitskill, and T. C. Boyle. Some, in fact, appeared to take a peculiar pleasure in condemning characters who didn’t meet their standards for upright behavior or political awareness.
This didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time, and it doesn’t now. I’ve always seen “bad behavior” as more or less the engine of any short story. It’s what gets things moving. If everyone behaves impeccably, then there’s probably not much point in telling the story.
Reading Steve Almond’s essay today in Poets & Writer’s, I found an echo of the feelings I’d had in the workshop about readers’ uncharitable assessments of the characters in the stories we read. Commenting on reviews of Matthew Klam’s Who is Rich? (Random House, 2017), Almond finds himself frustrated with assessments that focus on the relative “likeability” of the narrator, Rich Fischer.
As I turned all this over in my mind, I began to realize why I’d found the scolding critiques of Rich Fischer so vexing. They weren’t just sanctimonious or shallow. There was something cowardly in them, a mind-set that positioned fiction as a place we go to have our virtues affirmed rather than having the confused and wounded parts of ourselves exposed.
I have to say that I’m completely in Almond’s camp here. I’m a reader and a writer that is most drawn in by stories that render the complexity, confusion—and yes, the darkness—in human beings and their relationships to one another. As Almond goes on to explain, speaking now of the captain of the Pequod:
The reason readers like me gravitate toward characters like Ahab is that, not very deep down, we know ourselves to be equally charged with wrath, besieged by private doubts and grudges, and thus enthralled by those who dare to speak truth in a world overrun by personal forms of marketing.
I believe that literary fiction ought to provide us with an alternative to the slick surface of commercial entertainment and social media self-construction, the illusory inclusion offered by the sitcom family or the Facebook like.
I think serious fiction ought to aspire to a deep devling into what Almond calls “the wounded parts of ourselves.” In doing so, it is more likely to dig up people we wouldn’t otherwise want to spend time with (Humbert Humbert, say) or old versions of ourselves that we thought were long buried.
Such fiction is bound to discomfit us. The thing is, it’s supposed to.