A couple years ago, I began to notice a change in myself that disturbed me exceedingly: I'd go into my favorite bookstore, or any bookstore, and I would look around at all the shelves and instead of breathing a deep happy sigh and getting to work browsing and eventually buying, I would roll my eyes and breathe a heavy, unsatisfied sigh and walk out again empty-handed. Maybe I would poke around in the fiction section for awhile, picking up a book here and there, looking at the cover wearily and then sliding it back without bothering even to leaf through the pages.
What had happened to me? What was wrong?!
Well, kudos to The Daily Pepper
for an excellent and hilarious article attempting to answer the question I was secretly asking myself, hardly daring to utter aloud for fear my whole identity would come crashing down around me. The title of the post is:
"The Goat in the Hot Tub; or, Why Fiction Is So Boring These Days."
Pepper's writing is witty and insightful, and I think everyone should give the article a read--I promise you'll be entertained. However, I did have to disagree with Pepper's ultimate conclusion, which is that class conflict is the real driving force behind fiction, and where class conflict is absent, then the fiction will be boring.
I think fiction in general has become boring because, philosophically speaking, our modern, or post-modern, or post-de-constructionist-anti-modern-nihilistic-existentialism (whatever you want to call it) society has deemed absolutes as out of style, and has instead opted to decorate in any amount of shades of gray. Where there are no absolutes, it really is difficult to find a logical, rational basis for the existence of truth. And where truth does not exist, any struggle between good and evil becomes academic, arbitrary, and not a little pointless. We are left with what I'll call (if Pepper doesn't mind) the Genevieve effect, described by Pepper as follows: "There's way too much stuff like this out there: 'Genevieve wished she could say something to Martha, but Martha always seemed so absent ... Genevieve fumbled with her teacup, sensing an ocean of distance between herself and her mother.' Add a few more pages of Genevieve searching for answers inside her teacup, and you've got what's hot in fiction today."
I am reminded of a scene from The Empire Strikes Back
, where the wise old Jedi Obi-Wan (well, actually his ghost, because he was dead at that point...or maybe he wasn't dead, but ANYWAY, he was transparent)--anyway, Obi-Wan tells Luke that one of these days he's gonna have to wake up and realize that truth "depends largely on one's point of view."
And there it is. The answer to the problem of what's inside Genevieve's teacup--nothing at all. It's empty, and so is the story. That's because there are no absolutes, there is no truth, to give meaning to anything anymore. They aren't there, because everyone has a different point of view. Where knowledge is only
experiential, it's difficult to know anything, because everyone will always know something different! How can we function?
Well, the fact is, we can't, and it's interesting to look at the Star Wars story again and see that neither Obi-Wan nor Luke actually lived and acted according to their philosophy. Because if truth really does depend on point of view, who is to say that Darth Vader was actually wrong? Perhaps he was operating according to the truth that he
perceived, and just because it differed from Luke's or anyone else's did not mean it wasn't truth. So the battle against the Empire--and Luke's continued assertion to Vader that he "feels the good" in him--was simply nothing more than a "my ideology is better than your ideology" sandbox rumble without any well-constructed, rational basis for either side.
And yet, countless fans cheer them on in the struggle. Why? Because it's compelling fiction
. And what makes it compelling is not that there is a difference in Luke's and Vader's class status; it's the fact that, regardless of what they may say out loud, both Obi-Wan and Luke and all their friends obviously believe very much in the existence of good, and the existence of evil, and that good is worth fighting for simply because it is good
. And the audience believes it too!
I mean, let's try to imagine the Star Wars story if it were written in our Genevieve model, abbreviated:
Obi-Wan: "Luke, truth doesn't really exist. It's all about how you feel on any given day. It's all about point of view."
Luke (pulls out his light saber and stares at it gloomily): "Then why did you give me this? What is my purpose in life?"
Obi-Wan: "I don't think anyone really has any, son. Sorry to break it to you."
[A moment of silence, punctuated only by the sound of water dripping in the rain forest and Luke's whimpering. Obi-Wan looks at his watch and yawns. Finally Luke speaks what is on his mind.]
Luke (whining petulantly): "Maybe I should just kill myself!"
Obi-Wan: "Well, I thought it might be a good idea to kill Vader instead."
Obi-Wan (shrugging): "No reason really. Something to pass the time though. Have you got any tea?"
Now there's a box office smash.
Look, the audience gets drawn in because in our collective consciousness (wherever that may be), the audience knows that Obi-Wan is way off the mark this time. They know that truth is out there, because Fox Mulder believes in it and he is, after all, way cuter than Obi-Wan.
(Sorry, couldn't resist!)
So, fiction needs truth if it is going to survive, and that means it needs absolutes, and that means that we need them too. I think fiction will help us find truth if it will get back to the job of actually looking for it. Hey, it beats navel-gazing, eh, Pepper? Not to mention countless cups of tea.