Fiction isn’t a very good tool for shedding light on how things work

Source: National Geographic
Source: National Geographic

I used to think that the purpose of fiction was to make sense of the world. Fiction was a hypothesis about how certain people would act under certain situations. That’s why I was drawn to science fiction. By creating more outré and stylized situations, it was possible to make bolder statements about human behavior.

The problem with this conception of fiction, though, is that fiction is written by individual human beings. And, with a few exceptions, it’s written primarily through the exercise of a person’s intuition and personal observations of the world. And intuition and personal observation even when they’re being exercised by a literate and highly intelligent person, aren’t very good at figuring stuff out about the world. If they were, then Aristotle would’ve sorted everything out 2500 years ago, and we all could’ve relaxed.

When people want to figure something out about the world, they use a little thing called science. And while the raw material of science is informed intuition (you can’t generate a hypothesis without some creative spark), the end result of the scientific process is that most of those intuitions  are discarded.*

Art’s not like that. If art is about figuring things out, then it’s all hypothesis and no confirmation.

However, that’s not really a problem, because I’ve come to think that the purpose of (most) art isn’t really to figure things out. Instead, I’d say that (one of) the purposes of art is to get away from that whole scientific mindset and to situate us more firmly within our own experience of the world

Because figuring things out is great and all, but scientific truth is reductive. You see all this stuff around you? This physical matter that comes in so many shapes and colors and textures and tastes? Well, all that stuff is really just made of 100+ basic elements. And those elements are just combinations of three basic particles. And those particles are just…etc, etc.

Science makes the world smaller. It turns everything into a subset of something else

And nowhere is this more apparent than in the science of human behavior..

For instance, one of the hot things in human behavior is happiness research. And most happiness research operates off of this happiness survey that they give to people. A survey that, in essence, asks people to rate their own happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Now, this is a pretty controversial tool, since who knows what the survey is actually measuring? However, as I understand it, there is some data (some of it based on brain scans) to suggest that peoples’ answers on this survey are correlated with what they’d call their subjective feeling of happiness. And, using this survey, it’s possible to draw some broad conclusions about what kinds of things make people happy and what kinds of things don’t make them happy (earning more than $75,000 a year doesn’t make you happy, but getting married does, for instance).

However, when you really start to think about it, this paints a pretty bleak view of human existence. That’s because the broad range of human experience and behavior has been turned into a math problem. What thoughts and stimuli will make this number higher? And what will make it lower?

Now, it’s certainly possible to create fiction that’s based on the struggle to solve this math problem. And I think that plenty of very good fiction has been written about that (most of Emile Zola’s work, for instance; and the work of both Thomas Mann and Fyodor Dostoyevsky contains very good analyses of various political, social , philosophical, and psychological attempts to either deal with or dispense with math problem).

But I think it’s possible to get way too locked into the math problem and to start seeing one’s own life in those very reductive terms. It’s too easy, in this world, to spend every minute of every day thinking stuff like, “Am I happy? Is this making me happy? How can I get happier?”

And one function of art, for me, is to rescue us from that thought process.

Because life is not naturally a math problem. Life is naturally a really complicated and multi-faceted thing. And people do things for lots of reasons. And there are lots of strange things in it. For instance, I read an article in Slate the other day about tornado chasers. That was nuts! I couldn’t believe that this was an actual somewhat-organized hobby. I’d just assumed that most tornado videos were happenstance things.

It’s possible to view tornado-chasing in happiness-optimization terms: the people are seeking the euphoria that arises as a biological response to facing danger; and they’re also seeking the social status that comes with being seen as bold people.

But that also ignores the reality that these people CHASE TORNADOES. They listen on the radio and on Twitter and when they hear a report, they grab their cameras and hop in their SUVs and drive towards a whirling funnel of hundred mile an hour wind!

Now why do they do that? All that stuff about happiness is true. But why do they chase tornadoes instead of playing Russian Roulette with each other (although I’m sure there’s a group of people who do that, too)?

And the answer is…I have no idea. And the purpose of art isn’t to provide answers to that question. Nor is the purpose of art to raise that question and say, “Oh, science should really have a look at why people do that.”

Instead, I think the purpose of art is to strip away the question and allow us to look at the thing in itself. Art allows us to situate ourselves within the human experience and just remember, “Oh yeah, this is what being alive is like. This is what stuff looks like. This existence. This—motion, language, sound, color—is the medium through which I live my life.”

*I’m speaking to an idealized version of science here. In practice, things are more complicated. But at least science, unlike art, has ability to measure whether a statement is empirically true.

The nature of beauty is still a complete mystery to me


I’m a working artist, with a graduate education in the arts, and I feel completely at sea regarding all issues of aesthetics. Whenever I read nineteenth century writers, I’m struck by how sure they seemed to be about, you know, concepts! They knew things! And thought about things! And had theories about things!

Their theories usually seem intuitively ridiculous to me, but at least those theories had some sort of explanatory power. They might not have been able to explain all the beauty in the world, but they could at least explain some of it. For instance, Edmund Burke understood beauty as a certain pleasingness of proportion–often characterized by a smallness, a delicacy, etc–that had the effect of calming the nerves. Beauty was a downer; a narcotic. Whereas he defined the sublime as things that excited the passions: stuff that was really vast and titanic.

Science fiction, for instance, is often not very beautiful, because the sentences aren’t so well-written and it’s clunky in various ways. But good SF almost always has some quality of the sublime. For instance, in When Androids Dream of Electric Sheep when Decker is in the police station and he suddenly has the (false) revelation that everyone in the station is a replicant? That’s a pretty sublime moment in a book that’s not terribly well-written.

I don’t know, though. I can’t buy into those notions. Somehow the systematizing instinct is lost to me. I think that’s true of most modern artists. We’ve seen too much fragmentation. Too many different things have been held up as exemplars. There’s no aesthetic theory that can account for David Markson, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Tolstoy, and David Foster Wallace.

I think the problem is that we either see ourselves as craftsmen who’re trying to add incrementally to a long tradition, or as renegades who’re trying to blaze some new trail. And neither way of thinking particularly rewards the systematizing impulse.

If you’re a craftsman, then you don’t need a theory of aesthetics. You just need rules. Show, don’t tell. Have sympathetic main characters. Don’t use adverbs. Write in the active voice. Don’t use two words where one will do. Don’t use too many semicolons or exclamation points. Don’t use any speech tags other than ‘said.’ Don’t have long sections of exposition. Don’t write a magic system that contradicts itself. Don’t have a magic system that doesn’t cost the character anything.

Sure, maybe after you work for long enough, you start to get a sense of some of the beauty that these rules are trying to nudge you towards. But there’s no need to put that sense into words. The rules provide the constraint that you need to stay within your tradition. And your own intuitions provide that little extra thing that makes your work worth reading.

And if you’re trying to do something really new, then, by definition, theories don’t help. Theories only explain what you can already see. They don’t tell you anything about the things that no one has yet seen. If you’re trying to do something really new, then you need to slowly start abandoning constraints and listen, very very carefully, to your intuitions.

But I want a theory. I want something more. I want to feel like I know something about the written word. Because I know that I can’t just do whatever you want. I know that there’s good and that there’s bad. And I know that I am, in some way, trying to do something to other people.

It’s a cop-out, to me, to say that I just want people to be strongly affected by my work. That’s the same as people who say, “Oh, the meaning of life is whatever you want it to be?” Well, yeah, no shit. We know that there are no real norms and real standards; there are only the delusional norms and standards we invent and irrationally cling to.

I want to know the answer to the next question. What do I want them to feel? What am I trying to do? What is worth trying to do? What can art do, and what can’t it do?

I think I am going to start developing some answers to these questions.