A couple of years ago, I gave a reading at a university in New York. Afterward, a distinguished English professor asked whether my novel, which is crowded with fake facts disguised as real ones, didn’t just make it harder for its readers to tell fiction from fact? We were already well into the Age of Trump, and facts had been politicized to the point where every demographic seemed to have its own; we’d been so atomized that we rarely had to test our facts against reality, whatever that was. Under the circumstances, wasn’t it risky for a right-minded novelist to make things up?
Her question wasn’t hard to answer, in the mundane sense that my novel has the word FICTION printed on its cover, next to the bar code — the one part of the book everyone has to take seriously. Caveat lector, and have fun. The anxiety that prompted the question, though, demands some consideration. Do fiction writers have a special responsibility in a time when there’s so little consensus about the facts? Does fiction have the power to make our muddle worse? Might it know a way to make things better?
The person to ask, it seems to me, is Kafka. I keep coming back to his story “A Report to an Academy,” in which an ape named Red Peter speaks about his capture by agents of the Hagenbeck circus, and how, caged on the ship that took him to Hamburg, he decided to impersonate, if that’s the word, a person, and thus escape the miserable life of a circus animal. Sadly for Red Peter, it turns out that the life of a lecturing ape isn’t much better; still, it’s a little better. “Do not tell me that it was not worth the trouble,” he tells the members of the Academy, and since the story ends there, we can only hope they didn’t.
It turns out that the life of a lecturing ape isn’t much better
Even in these miracle-minded times, I doubt anyone comes away from Kafka’s story with the idea that apes can talk. The story isn’t about factual facts, or alternate ones. It wants us to wonder about things: our own apishness, surely, but possibly also about things like the experience of Syrian refugees in Northern Europe, or enslaved Africans shipped to the New World under conditions considerably worse than those Red Peter endures, or even what it was like to be a Czech Jew in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an outsider in a peripheral nation. The story invites us to practice empathy, to feel as another person (or creature) might feel. That invitation is the heart of its power.
It is by making us feel that works of fiction make us believe. What is it like to be a bat? Thomas Nagel, the philosopher, asks in a famous essay of the same name; he concludes that we can’t know. That’s where fiction comes in, telling us what it’s like to be a bat, a refugee, a sorcerer’s apprentice, a stay-at-home dad. The tricky part is, of course, that other people’s subjectivities are unknowable — to say nothing of the subjectivities of bats, or apes — and so writers have to represent them by guesswork, and readers must take it on faith that the representation is, if not factual, then at least true: that it gets something deeply right about what it’s like to live in this other person’s head.
Whence the anxiety provoked by fictions which purport to speak as a person of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., than the author. If you haven’t been an X, how can you write about it? How can readers trust you? The grounds for suspicion grow further when you take into account the heterogeneity of Jewish experience, or gay experience, or, really, the experiences of any beings who have been assigned to the same category. If bats could tell you what it was like to be a bat, I bet they’d disagree about it. Soon you’d hear the pipistrelle saying of the flying fox, Well, but she’s not really a bat…
The unsettling truth is that fake things tug at our hearts, maybe even more than real things do
And yet. Red Peter doesn’t feel ‘right’ to us because we know what it’s like to have been an ape, or because we’re friends with some former apes. His ‘rightness’ is a product of Kafka’s genius for constructing sentences and paragraphs. Peter’s words are chosen with a care few academicians can match: consider the fine, essential distinction he makes between freedom and a way out, for example, or the chilling “insane look of the half-broken animal” which he gets from his chimpanzee mistress. His sentences dilate with outrage, and snap shut on his dry, incontrovertible judgments. Above all, Peter comes to life for us because he’s a metaphor, the tenor of which Kafka is far too wise to disclose. Does Red Peter speak to our desire to doff our evening clothes and lope naked across the savannah? Is he the voice of the subordinated person, reminding us that culture — even in Academies! — depends on violence? Does he stand for both of those things, or something else entirely? What matters is that we recognize ourselves in Peter, despite the gulfs that separate us. We feel with him not because we subordinate ourselves to his reality, but for the opposite reason: we find in his unreality a perspective from which to look back on ourselves.
The unsettling truth is that fake things tug at our hearts, maybe even more than real things do. This is the case with fake news, which rhymes with our beliefs about how the world should be, unlike real news, which is complicated and fills our minds with doubt. It’s true of fiction, too, although critics are reluctant to admit it: authenticity is a function of craft. (You could certainly argue that craft, and one’s relation to it, are a function of a person’s lived experience, and thus make literary merit once again dependent on biography — but at that point you’d be talking about a writer’s biography as a reader, as much as you would about anything else.)
So what’s a fiction writer to do? I have a few suggestions. As teachers, we can draw on our experience of constructing plausible unrealities, to show our students how the sausage is made. We can write tricky, self-defeating stories, which make readers wary of thinking that they can know other people, or allowing themselves to be persuaded by other people’s ways of seeing the world. Or — because this is the third item in my ascending tricolon of a conclusion, you can tell it’s the one I’m most hopeful about — we can write stories that ask more of the reader than identification with their protagonists, stories which remind us that empathy (unlike relatability, that stupid word) doesn’t depend on the other being’s appealing qualities. Empathy is an action, and we’re the ones who have to do it, even, or especially, when the other being makes it hard for us.
Although critics are reluctant to admit it: authenticity is a function of craft
Once again, the idea comes from Kafka. Here is his story “On Parables,” in its entirety:
Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: "Go over," he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.
Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.
The mental leaps required by the last four sentences are not inconsiderable, and I have little confidence that I make them as Kafka intended. Still, to me, “On Parables” seems to suggest that, if one trusts in stories, one can reach a place — one can go over to a place — that can’t be reached by other means. What is that place? It’s fabulous, unknown, and impossible to designate, a place where we recognize the incomprehensibility of the incomprehensible. Could that be empathy — to recognize that other people are really other, and not merely mirrors in which we can see our good sides, our ugly sides? To admit that the world doesn’t exist for us? And at the same time, to cross over into it, and allow ourselves, for a time, to be lost?