Serious Fiction’s Purpose

‘DFW: I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.’

From the Dalkey Archive interview with David Foster Wallace.

It is worth reading the whole interview for DFW’s trenchant diagnosis not only of his own weaknesses as a writer, but those at the centre of American, and to a lesser extent English language culture, that its lack of seriousness stems from a need to be liked: “like me because I’m clever” or the lesser (very English) “like me because I’m funny”.

‘I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.’

‘For our generation, the entire world seems to present itself as “familiar,” but since that’s of course an illusion in terms of anything really important about people, maybe any “realistic” fiction’s job is opposite what it used to be—no longer making the strange familiar but making the familiar strange again. It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most “familiarity” is meditated and delusive.’

There’s so much good in this interview. I might have to explore DFW’s work again, to look beyond the irritating humour. The essays, maybe, or that last unfinished work?

‘DFW: Well, but metafiction is more valuable than that. It helps reveal fiction as a meditated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. ‘

2 thoughts on “Serious Fiction’s Purpose

  1. ‘Metafiction’ and ‘meditated experience’ remind me of Gerald Murnane’s books, especially his “One Million Windows”.

    Liked by 1 person

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