I once wrote a poem that was more or less symbolic or allegorical, about flying serpents invading a holy place that represents a woman’s innocence. In the throes of composition, I wrote that the serpents, even after they died, still twitched or loosed a howl.
Later on, I came under the impression that I had done something improper, and that the imagery of the poem had been ruined by attributing “howling” – something done by wolves – to serpents, which basically make no sound. I tried to rewrite the line, which led to other lines being rewritten. Eventually, the entire poem was in shards, and then it ceased to exist.
Now I look back on my concerns at the time and laugh. No, serpents don’t howl. Or fly. And no, modern people do not generally call them serpents – poetic diction alert!
But imagine if a serpent did howl. Imagine if one flew. Imagine if some holy place of repose were to be invaded by flying, howling serpents, besetting a woman who had come there alone in her security. What kind of aesthetic effect would that create?
Isn’t it a strange feeling? Doesn’t it inform something deep within you that wants to know what if? And doesn’t knowing “what if” make reality itself more dimensional? Doesn’t it tell you something about the inner nature of a woman’s innocence, and the feeling of devastation experienced when it is forced open?
What if ideas are real, and actuality simply can’t contain physical iterations of all of them? What if they are available for us to discover?
And if that aesthetic effect, brought on by the discovery of the idea “howling, flying serpents,” works that way then why in Heaven’s name can’t I create precisely that aesthetic effect if I please?
I believe that it is important for writers to know whether or not they are essaying to make inventive literature, nonfiction, or that hybrid known as the realistic novel.
In the realistic novel, all the characters and events are completely invented. However, they are required to be as plausible as a story in a newspaper. The writer of realistic fiction, in other words, is something very much like a good liar.
A good liar who is actually a liar and not a fiction writer, to be clear, is intent on making his inventions as unlike inventions as possible because he has an ulterior motive for his lies. A liar who lies for the joy of it lets his audience in on the secret so they can all enjoy it together.
I think the lying sort of fiction is especially suitable for the purposes of writers who want their readers to be convinced of something completely unrelated to literary concerns – something political, theological, social – something meant to be truth. This really raises the question of whether non-literary considerations are being allowed to alter literature, and whether, therefore, such literature is really literature any more.
While ultimately, in theory, I don’t object to writers who write realistic fiction and readers or critics who prefer it (I suspect this is governed primarily by personality and temperament) I do object to them trying to impose their standards of plausibility on writers of purely inventive fiction. That is when I get really suspicious. The longing to read about improbable events, people, species, and situations is specifically an aesthetic longing. You can’t tell an aesthetic longing not to exist.
I suppose you can insult it by calling it infantile. But gosh, that’s pretty presumptive. I mean, what if all the people for whom ‘infantile’ is a pejorative are people who left something essential in their past and don’t want to remember? I mean really, what if?
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