The Fiction Dream

Quite possibly the hardest part of writing the novel, for me at least, was the creation of what John Gardner (in The Art of Fiction) refers to as the “fiction dream.”  What is the “fiction dream?”  I haven’t the foggiest idea…

Okay, well that’s not entirely true; I know what it means in the context of Gardner’s definition, but I have no idea how to create it… at least not well enough to describe it… but I’m going to try.  Fair warning: this is probably going to be a clumsy attempt (for the real deal, check out Gardner’s book), but it ought to be just a little fun.

The “fiction dream” is the author’s principal tool; the means by which the author immerses the reader in the story, and by which the author creates the illusion of identification between the reader and the story.  Through the “fiction dream” the author steers the reader through the quasi-reality s/he created, and directs the way the reader perceives the fictional world.  By using the “fiction dream” to its greatest potential the author is able to give the reader an experience which may well mark them for the rest of his/her life – think of the novels you have read that affected you in some way, that made you think differently or see the world differently.  It’s not necessary for the novel in question to be a work of “great literature,” because the entire thing is completely subjective… one person’s trash is another person’s treasure… and I read a lot of what most people consider trash, and yet I have found a great degree of things that appeal to me (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t read it).

Fiction is art; rather let me say it this way: the act of creating fiction is the same as the act of creating art.  You can teach an ape to sling a paint brush, and what the ape creates can be called “art,” (depending on your aesthetic, but it’s not really art because art attempts to communicate an idea) but only human beings can create fiction, by virtue of our dependence on language as a means of communication.  Human beings are natural storytellers: we’re all capable of it (again by virtue of our dependence on language as a means of communication), but like all forms of communication there are varying degrees of proficiency.  Fiction must be honest; at least that’s what I’ve read in a multitude of books on the theory of writing fiction – the level of truth in fiction, in my understanding, must be ultimate.  Fear is what keeps the overwhelming majority of people from creating any kind of art, including fiction… especially fiction: you cannot create the “fiction dream” if you fear telling the truth, exposing the truth, or otherwise dealing with the truth.  Genre doesn’t matter; all it does is supply stylistic conventions that guide the author and the reader to identify the writing as a particular type of fiction.

Perhaps “Truth” (yes, with a capital “T”) is the first building block of the “fiction dream.”  In Gardner’s fiction theory, he says something to the effect of: if the reader picks up on the fact that the author has not been entirely sincere (honest) then the reader will feel deceived and the fiction dream will collapse leaving the reader unsatisfied and possibly even angry at the author… feeling cheated that is.

“Truth,” according to Gardner (at least the way I interpret it) is especially important in the fictional portrayal of emotion.  As I see it emotion is the best way to connect the reader and the novel; if the reader is not connecting to the emotions the author is representing in his/her characters, then the reader is not participating in the “fiction dream,” and thus not connected to the novel.  Emotion that lacks genuine representation, or which is allowed to become melodramatic is coursing in to dangerous turf – it’s an easy way to insert too much of the author (think Toto pulling away the curtain to reveal the true “Wizard of Oz”), and thus render the “fiction dream” inert.

This whole mess is a gigantic balancing act.  Creating the “fiction dream” means adding all of the ingredients in such a way that everything simply works together harmoniously, and that’s no easy feat.  I can say that I do not believe that I accomplished this with the manuscript I just wrote – not in the least; however, it’s difficult to measure it because it’s a raw document, and no piece of writing ever comes into the world perfect from inception.  The end product, what we read off the library or bookstore shelves, is the result of a lot of work – very hard work which requires the author to know his or herself and his or her habits intimately.  In order to create the “fiction dream” and make it work, the author must know the craft like a second nature… and it’s not going to happen on the first go – not for any author no matter how canonized or celebrated he or she is; no matter how aloof the author is; no matter how close to godliness the author believes he or she is.

Language, properly employed, is an amazing and versatile tool; and, when combined with imagination, allows a writer to fabricate the bridge between the reader and the “fiction dream”… but it’s a lot like working with volatile materials: one wrong move and BOOM, it all goes up in a ball of fire and smoke.

I think I may be getting just a little too theoretical and that’s the territory where I think Gardner flew into and where he lost me the first time I read his Art of Fiction book; after all, some of the greatest fiction in the world was written, like graffiti, with a spray can on a wall (metaphorically, of course) or on beverage napkins with a found ballpoint pen.  Call it what you will, the creation of the “fiction dream” is what all fiction writers are after, and we’ll continue searching for it after a decent night’s sleep.



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