Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Chandrahas Choudhury on fiction

My apologies to those who might have read this post in the twelve hours after it was posted - there were some glaring, embarrassing typos.

I might have posted two fiction pieces this month but of all forms, I've found fiction the hardest to write. It’s the hardest, paradoxically, because it gives you more freedom than any other form. One doesn’t have to be precise about the details and can invent them howsoever one chooses so long as they are plausible - in contrast to the constraints that fact imposes on a non-fiction narrative. And yet, fiction takes enormous effort and control and there is no guarantee that the end effect is as desired – I’ve found it very exhausting, and have almost always preferred the safety of non-fiction.

In his recent review of Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Chandrahas Choudhury provides some lessons on what can go wrong in fiction. If you read Chandrahas’ reviews, you’ll find something I don’t see much – or at least not as well expressed – in other reviews: a broad, general commentary in the beginning that connects beautifully with the specific criticism of the book he is writing about. Consider the first three paragraphs in his essay on The White Tiger. There are some sparkling observations here:
When compared to the journalist or the scholar, the fiction writer seems absurdly free. He or she can construct a story in any way he chooses. His characters have freedom to say whatever they like – in fact they are most persuasive when we feel them to be “free”, and not mouthpieces for the author’s ideas. All we demand in return is not that the story be true but that it be plausible - that it not give the appearance of being contrived.

But this requirement shows us that the fiction writer’s freedom is actually a difficult freedom. Constructing a plausible story from scratch – a story in which narration, dialogue, and plot construction work together to produce the effect of lived experience – can be harder than reporting or analysing a true story. This is the reason why, when judged by the highest standards, most novels are failures, some are honourable failures, and few are successes.

Fiction writers can misuse their freedom through simple incompetence, or by manipulative plotting, or by a failure to imaginatively realise the inner lives of their characters, or by simplified and schematic thinking that waters down the complexity of the world. Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger seems especially instructive in this regard, because it seems to me to be culpable in all the ways mentioned above.
That’s about what can go wrong, but Chandrahas has an earlier essay with brilliant opening paragraphs where he talks of the strength of fiction:
Is fiction useful? Does the reading of novels or stories serve any constructive purpose other than diversion or, to use the specifically Indian word for the same experience, timepass? That it does not is the implicit argument of many readers who choose to apportion their reading time to history, biography, reportage, political analysis, books on management or (increasingly) inspirational literature—but not to fiction.

In a limited sense, this understanding is actually correct. Were the measure of a piece of writing to be its obvious utility, fiction would find it hard to defend itself in that court. After all, fiction does not offer any facts, hard empirical or statistical truths: It is by definition make-believe. It says nothing on the matter of improving relationships, establishing financial security, or controlling the breath for greater calm and energy. It seems ambiguous: it does not even deliver clear judgements on the characters it has itself presented. Fiction cannot even make up its own mind, let alone help us make up ours.

Yet, looked at from another viewpoint, the compass of fiction is precisely that which other disciplines and approaches leave out. What other schools of thought consider insignificant, or prove incapable of weighing, fiction treats with the greatest care and attention: a word, a gesture, a memory, a misunderstanding. As Milan Kundera observes, the knowledge we take away from fiction is existential knowledge. Reading the work of a skilled writer, we are at first taken by surprise, and yet we later close the book and say yes, life is like this.
The analysis is spot on. Do read Chandrahas’ blog, The Middle Stage. He’s an exceptional interpreter of books and literature, and you’ll find his blog is full of priceless essays that begin in a similarly sage way.


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