Hiding in Fiction

People have a habit of identifying the author with the narrator, and you can’t, obviously, be all of the narrators in all of your books, or else you’d be a very strange person indeed. – Margaret Atwood

We live in a world where poets and novelists are jailed, lashed, or killed for the words they write, where the slightest whiff of the subversive is swiftly and brutally snuffed out. In a world where the pen, though it may not be mightier, has become more cause for alarm than the sword, are writers then forced to swaddle their beliefs in fiction?

Poetry speaks to truth, and poets have long been persecuted for the realities they present within the mirror of the world they construct. There’s something about the form and function of poetry that throws its writers, and their convictions, into sharp relief. It is with a certain confidence that we can point at poets and say, ‘You think this. Your poems say so.’ Novelists, on the other hand, manage to draw moderately less attention, provided they aren’t also political activists of some sort or another. There are persecutions though, of course; the most famous arise from cases where blasphemy is in question, such as the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie in the wake of The Satanic Verses. In late 1991, Egyptian courts sentenced novelist Alaa Hamed to eight years in prison for his book which has its character go through dream sequences in which he converses with prophets of various religions. In 1996, Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab writer to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, was stabbed in the neck by Islamic extremists outside his Cairo home. The 82-year-old writer survived, but was left with permanent damage to his right arm, leaving him unable to write for more than a few minutes at a time.

Does the nature of fiction allow for some wiggle room, some deniability as to what the writer feels? How much of the writer can readers assume is hidden there, in the thoughts and words of his characters?

It takes us to the idea of the very nature of fiction. Stephen King calls it, ‘the truth within the lie,’ but where does the writer end and the character begin? If—instead of penning politically or religiously charged columns in newspapers—the writer places the ideas in the mouth and head of a character, does that make him less accountable for it? Is he a coward if the only way he can say anything is to put it in the dialogue and/or navel-gazing reflections of a protagonist? The writer can remove himself from his characters. He can say, ‘My character is a separate entity. He doesn’t think what I think. It’s make-believe.’ In this way he can distance himself from the potentially inflammatory things he may say.

Nevertheless, readers and even critics are quick to search for traces of the author within his narrator. Any panel at any book festival invariably has someone asking the writer whether any of the work is autobiographical. I suppose it gives readers a sense of comfort in cases where the writer replies in the affirmative; perhaps they feel it lends the narrator more credibility, more in the way of authorial control. Of course, even when the answer is ‘no’, it still holds within it plenty of ‘yes’.

While I would agree with Atwood that you can’t be all of your narrators, I think there is a bit of you in each of them. Even if, maybe especially if, it’s a bit you don’t want to own up to publicly.

There are pieces of the writer in everything he writes, little truths embedded in the fiction. Sometimes I find myself writing entire short stories around one line that’s absolutely, gut-wrenchingly true, and which I absolutely have to get out. I pluck kernels of myself, little drops of truth, and spin lies around them. Cotton-candy fluff of fabrication until it’s so coated that even I have trouble finding them.

That’s a lie. I can always tell. And when I come across those lines, the truth—what I think and feel—pricks my skin like static electricity, and I can only hope that no one sees the sparks.

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