Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Understanding in Fiction and Non-Fiction

I've been wanting to write about more policing and some of the discussions surrounding the troubles in Ferguson, but I've been busy with work and with fiction writing. This got me thinking a bit.

As I said in my piece the other day, arson and looting are activities that I have a visceral reaction against. As such, a lot of the posts I've read by commentators who are intent on explaining the motivations of those rioting in Ferguson have turned me off. It's not that I doubt that people doing things I dislike have motivations which make internal sense to them; I understand that very well. However, often when someone goes to the trouble to write a piece explaining why people are doing some particular action, they do so because they have a basic sympathy with that person. The result is a piece which doesn't just explain why people act and feel the way they do, it makes excuses for them.

This isn't absolutely universal. For instance, Megan McArdle had a really good piece last week about why so many voters in Washington DC supported long time mayor Marion Barry. One of the things that I really like about McArdle as a writer is that she consistently makes an effort to understand viewpoints that aren't hers. But most authors do not have this ability or make this effort. And to be honest, most readers don't seem to appreciate the kind of "on the one hand this, on the other hand that", highly qualified discussion that results from this kind of writing. People like to read pieces which clearly advocate one viewpoint or another, and that's mostly what publication venues serve up.

Now, I have an interest (personally and as a fiction writer) in understanding why people do what they do, but when someone appears to excuse something that I strongly disagree with, I find myself wanting to argue back. At a certain level, I file away information about how that person argued and what views they held, but my reaction to the piece itself is a fight response.

Fiction, however, I react to fairly differently. Reading fiction, I expect to be put inside the heads and hearts of people that I don't agree with. If an author is getting heavily didactic, I'm likely to dislike the piece (even if I agree with the point.) However, if the author is doing a good job simply of portraying how different people in different settings think and feel about the things they experience and do, I consider that an attraction, not a turn off.

You can write compelling fiction about someone doing something that you strongly disapprove of at a moral level without having to include all of the "but of course, I'm not saying" verbiage that would be necessary in an opinion or analysis piece. I think that this is because fiction is generally focused on description rather than advocacy. Through fiction (and good non-fiction, though it's rare) authors can express and readers can understand how other people think and feel. And because of the distance that fiction as a medium gives us from ourselves (instead of reading what we should think, we are reading what someone else thought) we're allowed to express and come to that understanding is a way that seems less morally fraught.

1 comment:

Foxfier said...

Well, that's timely... have you seen this bit of fiction? (Story at the end of the post)

While I'd have been happy if he'd been a bit more explicit about how a protest at someone's home is an implicit threat of violence, I thought he did a really good job doing the "explain stuff in fiction" thing.