Alexander Chee on why fiction matters
There is an exercise I have my students do, one I invented. Think of a story your family tells about you to any newcomer, usually from your early childhood. If you don’t have one, think of a story your best friend tells to any new friend you introduce to them. Write it down.
Think of the memory you have of it. Is that memory in the third person?
It always is.
This memory, I say to them, is not a memory. It’s a fiction you made, to have a relationship to something you don’t remember but that is supposedly you.
That’s your first fiction, I tell them. Everyone does it. I do this because sometimes my students have doubts about what it is we are doing there. What I try to explain is that we do what everyone does. We just take it a lot further, and we write it down.
The first story I ever invented for public consumption was in a book report back in grade school. I had made a vow to read every book in my grade school library, and at some point, as I made my way through them, I remember very clearly understanding that there was simply no way my teacher would know about every book ever published—this was before the Internet—and so I decided I would make one up and see if she noticed.
She did not.
This little counterfeit was, in a sense, my first story. It seems fitting to me, given how morally questionable it was, that I don’t remember the invented story per se. But the victory was so thrilling, I would say it required more. I think of it now as the seed for all that came after. And it is why, if I was asked why I write fiction, I would say I write fiction because I have always enjoyed lying to people.
No one ever says that, I think. It seems if not implausible, at least offensive. I’m known for being a very truthful person, and I am. But if I am, it is because I learned to get out all my love for lying in fiction—to lie here, on the page.
For years after that book report, I was not a fiction writer. I was a child, and something of a liar in the way many are. You lie to test your power, I think. You also do it to make room for what is a secret in yourself that you are unsure about—you don’t know if there is room for it yet. Or at least, that was why I did it then. I worked hard to be the good boy, who mostly got good grades and was never in trouble. Or mostly not in trouble. I used that ideal of myself as something of a shield whenever I did get caught. Hey, I am not a bad boy, right? This was a fluke. But to a large extent, reading got me into trouble, or taught me trouble, before it taught me how to get out of trouble.
I was so obsessed with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House novels, for example, I would read them in my lap below my desk in the 5th grade, certain I looked like I was looking at my notebook. My teacher in that grade had a temper, and threw chalkboard erasers at you if you weren’t paying attention. One came at me, and I simply raised the book, deflecting it, causing the class to burst into laughter as a chalk dust cloud rose around me.
The teacher also laughed but clearly resented me more than ever.
I was in the grip of a spell by then, a spell cast by fiction. I taught myself to walk and read so I wouldn’t miss out. I stayed up late with lights hidden under my covers, I would hide in the closet with a flashlight so I wouldn’t be found. I was busy, following a rope through a blizzard outside of a settler’s house, or walking Mars, or sledding my way out of Nazi-occupied Norway, flying on the backs of dragons, following the magical light of a glowing orb through dangerous caves and tunnels.
I found my love for telling stories through Dungeons and Dragons, though. I was a Dungeon Master early, at age 13. There I developed a love for people hanging on my every word, being surprised with either good news or bad news. Yes, dice rolls determined outcomes, but narration made it interesting, and there are few lessons in narrative—and the way ability and chance meet each other—quite like the way a sheet of character attributes and a dice roll meet up inside of a story.
In high school I tried my hand at being a columnist—I was a suburban Michael Musto, up in southern Maine, telling my classmates to burn their parachute pants in a column called “What’s New” that was about fashion trends at the high school. I quickly developed enemies among my fellow students and fans among my teachers. It was around this time everyone began to say to me, “You should be a writer.”
And I would go off to college and try, after first trying for a few years to not be a writer—to be a visual artist instead. But then I was barred from the art major by a studio art professor who didn’t want me in the major, and after a summer spent feeling like I was up against the wall—that wall that allows you no other choice in life—the way forward appeared when a friend from school called up and asked if he could borrow my typewriter. He needed to type up a story for a fiction writing class he was applying to.
Sure, I said.
Before he arrived, I sat down, composed a story at the typewriter, and after he left, put it in the mail to apply for the class also. That first story, I remember: a young man is haunted by a bicycle accident that has taken the use of his legs, and he dreams of it again and again. He’s visited by a priest who is afraid he’ll lose his faith, and he ultimately rejects the priest’s efforts.
I got into the class—Phyllis Rose’s class at Wesleyan.
My efforts at art the years previous were not in vain. In the drawing class that had ultimately barred me from the major there was an exercise we did, where we had to combine three of our figure drawings into a single landscape to create an original, imagined composition. Mine was okay but I was better at life drawing. But that is essentially what I did to make my story—I had spent the summer relentlessly cycling. I was still grieving my father, who had died four years earlier from complications after a car accident that had left him paralyzed down the left side of his body, and dreaming constantly, at night, of the accident. A priest really had visited me to speak to me about my faith after my father died, more or less turning me against organized Christianity forever. Somehow, as I sat and typed, I had done this without really questioning what I was doing, turning it all into something about someone like me but not me, in situations I knew, all from something like direct experience. I had often watched my father sleep, lost in his nightmares, wishing I could help him the way I once had when he was in a coma in the first months after his accident. The doctors had told us to read to him and speak to him. “He can follow your voice back to consciousness,” they said. But waking him from his nightmare wasn’t going to help him—with his brain damage, it would only have needlessly frightened him. And I suspect, even in the nightmare, at least in the first part of it, he had a memory of himself before his trauma that was perhaps the slightest consolation, though I’ll never know.
I felt obscurely better though after writing the story. Imagination and empathy as well as intentional invention—also catharsis. That’s what fiction is, or, if it is not, those are the walls to what is inside it.
In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health and obliged her often to withdraw in misery to her home, but his Majesty, who could less and less do without her, ignored his critics until his behavior seemed bound to be the talk of all.
—Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji
As I thought about why we write fiction, I became curious. What was the first novel? And why—what would make you make something that had never existed before? The world’s first novel is thought to be The Tale of Genji, written in 11th Century Japan by a woman known to us only as Murasaki Shikibu. The short biography of her that accompanies the novel’s Modern Penguin edition translation says, “After the death of her husband, she cloistered herself to study Buddhism, raise her daughter, and write the world’s first novel, Genji Monogatari, the tale of the shining Prince Genji.”
What do we know of this woman who wrote the first novel? We know her only as Murasaki Shikibu, Shikibu translating as “Bureau of the Ceremonial,” and Murasaki, the name of a plant, the source of purple dye. This name she gave to her heroine. She was recently widowed and had been married only two years when her husband died. She was a talented poet and kept diaries also. And from her diaries we know she was a woman who taught herself Chinese by listening outside the door as her father taught her brother. She was married long enough to have borne a child, a daughter who would go on to become a great poet. If she had not written the first novel, and at such length, I might even be tempted to write a novel about her.
The Tale of Genji, at six volumes, is a behemoth. Beyond its enduring value as a novel—the prose is still as alive as ever—it also offers some of the closest observation historians have to this day of court life during this era. The power of fiction as a social document remains that it provides contexts historians might not otherwise have access to. Context may seem abstract or flimsy, but it remains the way we are able to understand what is of value and what is not in our culture or any other. And this is also said of the West’s first modern novel, La Princesse de Clèves, published in 1678, by Madame de Lafayette in France.
But that is not of course why Shikibu wrote Genji—she did not think, ‘Years from now, perhaps historians will value this.’ Why do it? Why do something no one has ever done before?
The Tale of Genji’s first line, that brief parenthetical—(whose can it have been?)—charms. A sly wink as the author proceeds into her novel of court jealousies and intrigues. Whose reign can it have been? Yes, who indeed? It is a shield thrown up against consequences, the consequences one imagines she knew might result from what she wrote. We can only wonder what she hoped for, as she wrote it.
Royall Tyler, the British poet and translator to the Penguin edition, described the legend surrounding the writing of it in an essay for Harvard Magazine: “A book-length, fourteenth-century commentary on the tale relates that a certain princess once asked the empress whether she had any new stories. Having none to offer, the empress asked Murasaki Shikibu to write one. The lady therefore went on pilgrimage to Ishiyama-dera, a temple near the southern end of Lake Biwa, a day’s journey by ox carriage east of Kyoto, in search of inspiration. According to legend, Murasaki had been close since childhood to a gifted courtier unjustly exiled to Kyushu. That night at the temple, the full moon of the eighth lunar month shone up from the lake’s waters, and while she lost herself in its beauty a vision of the tale rose before her. She saw her hero, Genji, languishing in unjust exile on the shore of a moonlit sea, and the image was so compelling that, lest she forget it, she immediately wrote down what became chapters 11 and 12. After that, the legend says, she simply added the others until she had 54 in all.”
I find myself equal parts credulous and skeptical, reading this. That the first pages became chapters 11 and 12 is part of what convinces me this could be true—I know from experience that the first chapter you write is not necessarily the first chapter of the final version of the novel. What rings false is the part about the childhood friend. If true, though, she meant to dramatize the injustice done to him without also naming him.
Novelists are people who, in my experience, hang on, well past when others would keep hanging on. A dogged pursuit of sentences and story usually indicates other tenacities. I can admire a six volume pursuit of justice for a childhood friend. But if I did write a novel about her, I would probably have her tell someone this, to cover the role her grief might have played. In my imagination, she loved her husband, and he loved her, and it is easier to imagine the poet summoned back from her mourning to write a story for the court, writing Genji as a way to spend time with the man she’d lost, away from the court intrigues around her, which would be perhaps unendurable for a new widow. I could imagine the novel as something like a grave for him, and a monument to her love of him. But then I am probably more of a romantic than she was. What I do know, from remembering my own first short story, is that what I did helped me grieve—that afterward, I felt like I knew myself better and my father also. I experienced this as a gift—I didn’t expect it to happen—a gift that came out of what I was driven to do. I wonder if she did too. If that happens to us all—if that is even why we do it. A way of learning who we are by inventing the lives of others.
I also know that novelists are lightning rods, too—and that our ideas find us this way, sometimes, coming to us, all in a single vision, without explanation. Moonstruck but all of it falling on a page.
If this hasn’t yet happened to you, just wait.
My first novel was something I discovered I was writing, catching myself in the act.
For years friends would say of my stories, “These feel like they want to be novels,” and this was frustrating, as if I were some sort of neglectful father who wasn’t listening to them closely enough.
This could also be true.
In the summer of 1994, under the guidance of such comments, I tried to assemble most of my MFA thesis into a single novel. The result, The Descendants of a Movie-Going Republic, was the attempt to tell the stories of two AIDS activist couples, on the East and West coast, during the beginning of the AIDS crisis. A section I sent to a friend at The New Yorker was not quite enough to get me published there but she was impressed enough to pass it along to a friend of hers at William Morrow, and that in turn got me an agent. William Morrow passed on the novel, deciding it would be too massive—600 pages or more—and the agent said, “Write it and it will be as long as it is.”
I went home and sat down with my pages, and frustrated, I turned to unpacking—I had just moved to New York from Iowa—and discovered a folder of work I had created in Iowa, partials all, but that felt somehow related to one another. “When we get to New York, tell me what you are,” I had said over the folder as I’d packed up. Here we were.
We’re a novel, was that eventual reply.
As I read through the sections again I could feel what was missing, a shadowy sense of what else was there. It was as if they were made by a visitor who had hidden them variously in front of me as a prose poem, a partial draft of an essay, and sections from an earlier abandoned novel, written before graduate school. And now I knew what they were.
I called the agent. “I’m not going to write that other book,” I said. “I’ve decided I’m going to write a loosely autobiographical first novel just like everyone else.” I said it like I’d chosen it, but it had come for me.
Six years later, in 2000, when I had finished that novel, Edinburgh, what I had was a story based on my own experiences, invented to fit the shape of what I knew was true about something I had seen firsthand. They were figures from different landscapes combined into a fictional tableau, much like that first short story. The plot was that of a contemporary Greek tragedy, structured according to Aristotle’s rules for tragedy in the Poetics, and together it reinvents a myth about the Japanese fox demon.
My second novel, The Queen of the Night, was no fugitive. It woke me up instead, a few days after sending the first one. A woman’s voice, speaking to me as I lay partly asleep in bed. I got up, put coffee on and threw my computer open, and began writing what she said to me.
Why fiction? Maybe the question is the problem. Why do we ask the question? What I know: I make it up but it feels like truth. I don’t feel like it belongs to me and yet I know it does. Novels come for you in the dark or the light, in the sea by moonlight, or in your half-unpacked apartment. They may or may not involve grief, love, or the pursuit of justice. They are to me more like visitors, and the sentences of the novel are something built to speak with them. And we do this because to not do it feels like death.
People often say a favorite novel haunts them—I’ve always found that sweet but maybe inexact, a way of saying something else. Are novels like ghosts afterward? Or are they like those invented memories? That word, "haunt," seems a way to say you don’t forget them. The novels I love stay with me. The novels you love leave something with you that becomes a part of you, like a memory but not a memory, and a way to know the world and yourself at the same time. Let me tell you what I know in a way like no other, Murasaki Shikibu might have said, as she invented the novel. Let me show you yourself and others in a way you won’t ever forget.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February of 2016. He is a recipient of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose, a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri, and Amtrak. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPR and Out, among others. He has taught writing at Wesleyan University, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, Amherst College and the University of Texas – Austin. He lives in New York City.
|Photo Credit: M. Sharkey|
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