What’s So Great About Reality?

Why on earth would I want the stories I read to resemble the life I live?

Lee Rourke in The Guardian Books section praises novels that refuse tidy endings, politely oozing a little scorn for our reading tastes — “our” meaning, here, the rest of us lesser folk, who don’t “read a hell of a lot of contemporary fiction” — “something troubled me deeply about [Imogen Russell] Williams’s (and the vast reading public’s, I would argue) desire for our narratives to reach closure.”

Rourke presents the problem so:

Life isn’t like the narratives that make up the majority of novels in circulation today, or like the well-rehearsed scenes we enjoy at the theatre, or in the movies. It’s more complicated than that: steeped in confusion, dead ends, blank spaces and broken fragments. It’s baffling at times, annoying and perpetually open-ended. We have no real way of predicting our future. So why do our novels have to tie all this stuff together, into a neatly packaged bundle of ready-made answers? Something doesn’t ring true.

I’ve been circling around this issue for a while — why the truth fetish? What is so good about the ambiguity in our lives that we want to replicate it in our fiction? Why is a work of fiction reflecting an emotional truth more valuable that one that reflects a comforting fantasy? Why the hell, that is, do people insist that literature take on the role that philosophy lost to science, the role of informing our life choices.

Part of the issue, for me, is just a difference between highbrow and lowbrow culture, where inhabitants of the latter have plenty of “truth” in their lives and don’t really need to check some out of the library for a couple of weeks. But there’s more to it than that, and I’m still circling.

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