A recent article in the New Yorker entitled “Working Titles” by Leslie Chang sets out to describe the phenomenon of “workplace novel” in China. These novels are intended to be a guide to the newly materializing rat-race that is State Capitalist China. Complete with sub-genres like “the Financial Novel” and the “Commercial Warfare Novel” these are stories that give concrete instruction to what is often an abstract and complicated affair, social climbing. I wondered what an American iteration of the genre would look like, if we would allow ourselves a fiction that doubles as how-to. Surely, many people watched the film Wall Street as a guide instead of a morality tale. So too The Savage Detectives teaches us how a poet behaves. Fiction does have the ability to teach. No one has ever doubted that. But could we accept bald didacticism?
But then I remembered our nation’s taste for “non-fiction” and regard for “purposeful reading” and I saw how the more fictive end of the spectrum (memoir, autobiography,propagandist history, dogma) operates in much the same way as a novel. It is the object made subjective. Whereas, the novel is the subjective made objective. There are many ways to get the reader to enter into the fictional dream and purporting to tell “The truth” is the greatest hook of all. Statistics come in very handy in this capacity.
And finally, I am reminded of a passage in Operation: Shylock by Phillip Roth in which the narrator Phillip Roth speaks about his antagonist Philip Roth. It comes in the chapter entitled “The Uncontrollability of Real Things” in which the narrator draws attention to his own story making.
to intensify the being of this hollow antagonist and apprehend him imaginatively, to make the objective subjective and the subjective objective, which is, after all no more than what writers are paid to do. (246)
That curt phrase “the objective subjective and the subjective objective” is perfect and describes exactly the important role fiction plays in our lives.
I become suspicious when the crowd prefers one form of story telling over another. If you are greedy for the truth, avoid non-fiction and see to it you embrace the aesthetics of make-believe. There is more to learn from things that are admittedly false.
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