No, this isn’t about writing dishonestly. Quite the contrary.
I’m returning to a topic I’ve touched on before, but with a different slant this time around. Please bear with me.
We live in an era of such extreme social and political division that if often seems tensions cannot resolve without matters coming to blows—or blood. The increasing number of mass shootings underscores this point, as does online acrimony and the testimony of virtually every retiring senator, regardless of party, that something is broken in our current political culture.
Writers are not in the division biz. We’re in the understanding biz. Every book in some sense attempts to address a truth that the writer felt was previously overlooked, undervalued, or misunderstood.
Truth, though, is a tricky critter. It conjures analogies to greased pigs and invisible songbirds.
Let me lay my cards on the table: I do not believe truth exists objectively, like this desk in front of me or the moon. I’m schooled in this position by a long line of American Pragmatists, most notably William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty.
James famously said, “What’s true is what works,” and earned the eternal scorn of European philosophers whose belief in truth was very much grounded in Platonic and Kantian idealism and mathematical certainty.
But James’s point was really quite profound. He was implicitly asking: How do we know something is true? And his response was: When we use it, we tend to be more successful than not.
So when I say a book—and for our purposes here, I mean a work of fiction—attempts to address a truth previously overlooked, undervalued, or misunderstood, what I mean is that the writer, in posing the crucial story question, What if…? in some way hopes to show that certain ways of acting in the world—whether believed to be conventionally “right” or “wrong”— achieve their desired ends or don’t.
Does courage always win the day? Honesty? Love? Faith? Family? Or are we better off embracing skepticism, enlightened (or naked) self-interest, moral flexibility, violence, power? Is there a middle ground? If so, who does it favor? Do we, as novelists, even have to decide? Or is our job to show how all of these inclinations collide and interact and contaminate each other in the endless scrum known as human life?
Milan Kundera, in The Art of the Novel, refers to “the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood…the wisdom of the novel.”
Fair enough. But how do I honestly go about creating and portraying characters whose beliefs are not just different from mine, but utterly repellent to me?