Not ten minutes ago I was watching a biography of J.D. Salinger. The latter part of what I watched talked a lot about whether Salinger was a recluse, and the various people who would take the journey to meet him to ask for answers they thought he had. One such individual expressed his disappointment in Salinger’s answer that he was just a fiction writer. HIs job, Salinger said, was to pose questions, not to answer them. This got me thinking:
1. Why do people assume Writers have all the answers
One must wonder if part of the problem lies in education. While creative writing was a part of the curriculum all though my public education, it took a distant back seat to essay writing. To be sure, essay writing is a valid technical writing skill to learn, especially if someone is moving on to post-secondary education, or graduate work. I think that it might come at the expense of the creative process, however. Because of the formula of an essay: present thesis, body of evidence, conclusion, has our society com to expect that the same formula applies to fiction?
To be fair, fiction does deal with questions. It could be a simple what if question, or a more philosophical question. A merger of the two is best. Thinking of Jose Saramago’s nobel prize winning novel Blindness. Stripping away any deeper questions, or symbolism, it is basically a question of what would happen to society if suddenly everyone (or almost everyone) lost their sight. Do we expect larger philosophical questions to be answered in the novel? Not always. Sometimes the strongest writing is that which is left ambiguous. This technique of fiction (or literature if you prefer) has existed for centuries, but it seems a much more recent thing that we as a society seem to take issue with it. Could this be a failing of education because we no longer teach philosophy before post-secondary level? So as not to end with another question, I say yes, it is.
2. I understand the deep connection that can come from a well-written character, but why can some people not divorce fiction and reality?
J.R.R. Tolkien was apparently dismayed, or at least bewildered by the fact that people became so engrossed in the world of Middle Earth that they were marrying in ceremonies that mimicked customs of Hobbits or Elves (or both, I truly cannot remember which). And Salinger, himself, apparently told people that his writing was fiction.
Of late, I think that some of the connection people feel with a world (say, my beloved Harry Potter) has to do with marketing. There is so much cross promotion and merchandising that it gives people a sense that they can be a part of a world they love. I recently read an article about a man who had over 3,000 pieces of Harry Potter merchandise. I lobe Harry Potter, am obsessed with the story, and will admit to having a few bits and bobs, but nowhere near that much. Even George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is in the mix. A cookbook of recipes from Westeros was published within the last year. And as much as I joke about how Harry Potter is real and how much I would love to be a part of the world, I do know it is not. It is precisely the fact that the Potterverse is not real, that Middle Earth is not real, that makes them so impressive.
The Catcher in the Rye notwithstanding, it seems that a lot of the true obsessions have to do with fantasy series: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars. Many of these stories have commonalities in that they take us back to a simpler time. Even though Star Wars takes place in space (as does Star Trek) some of these series borrow from medieval romances like the King Arthur legends. Holden Caulfield as a romantic hero allows The Catcher in the Rye to be included in this list as well.
Literature can make us think and is definitely a form of escapism, but for some it can be taken too far. Why this happens will remain as mysterious as ever.