Why fiction matters

 

What Was It You Wanted?

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 Tom Piazza on why fiction matters

 


 

<FADE IN: A doctor’s examination room, pulsating with flashing lights and deafening noise. Every wall, every surface, is covered with television monitors, computer screens, ringing cell phones. Flashing images, lights, ring tones, music, noise; on the screens, hands gesture, faces contort, buildings explode… Tom Piazza sits on an examination table in the middle of the room, straining to hear a question he has been asked by a man in a doctor’s smock, wearing a strapped-on head mirror that obscures most of his face. Call him The Examiner.>


 

TOM PIAZZA: What? I can’t hear you…..

 

 

EXAMINER: <louder> DOES FICTION MATTER?

 

 

PIAZZA: <with a pained look> Fiction? What fiction?

 

 

EXAMINER: You know: fiction. Haruki Murakami, Elmore Leonard, Sheila Heti, Ralph Ellison, Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Karen Russell, Anthony Trollope, Ben Marcus, Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, Roberto Bolaño, Mark Twain, Lydia Davis….

 

 

PIAZZA: Stop… please… stop….

 

 

EXAMINER: Are you sick?

 

 

PIAZZA: Just a little dizzy.

 

 

<The Examiner stands with his arms crossed as Piazza steadies himself on the exam table>

 

 

PIAZZA: Who are you? Why was I brought here?

 

 

EXAMINER:  I’ll ask the questions around here. Answer me: Does fiction matter?

 

 

PIAZZA: To me, you mean?

 

 

EXAMINER: All right. Start there.

 

 

PIAZZA: Some of it does.

 

 

EXAMINER: How does it matter to you?

 

 

PIAZZA: I like it. I like spending time with the writers I like. I don’t like reading authors I don’t like.

 

 

EXAMINER: <looking at a clipboard> Do you feel that fiction is important to the world at large?

 

 

PIAZZA: How would I know? What is this, anyway?

 

 

EXAMINER: <sternly> Don’t you believe that fiction teaches empathy? Doesn’t it make us more tolerant? Provide moral instruction? Remind us of our responsibilities to society?

 

 

PIAZZA: No.

 

 

EXAMINER: Does it perform any useful function?

 

 

PIAZZA: Well… everything has a function. Often several functions.

 

 

EXAMINER: You’re not taking this question seriously.

 

 

PIAZZA: I don’t know that it’s a serious question. Can you take that mirror off your forehead?

 

 

EXAMINER: No.

 

 

<They stop talking for a while. The noise in the room is oceanic. From the screens flash car chases, cartoons, robots, food being prepared, exercise classes, fellatio, earnest faces addressing the viewer. Cell phones ring, buzz, chirp, and honk.>

 

 

 

 

EXAMINER: Listen. We don’t want to have unpleasantness with you. We’re your friends. Don’t you think we need fiction in a world full of all these images and distractions, to center ourselves, to escape the din? Doesn’t it serve that purpose?

 

 

PIAZZA: It does for some people. But, you know… you can meditate, exercise… hike, travel, go to museums…. 

 

 

EXAMINER: <frowning> This is not a joke. We need a statement from you. Fiction is endangered. We live in a world of violence, intolerance, and brutality. Constant argument, the erosion of civility. Journalism threatens it on one side, film and television on the other….

 

 

PIAZZA: People have been saying that for decades….

 

 

EXAMINER: <unstoppable> …The still, small voice is under threat, about to be swamped by the endless glut of images that bombard us constantly. Look at where we’re forced to have this conversation! Some days I feel as if I’m losing my mind, stuck in this room. Political dialogue has become poisoned, human rights are endangered…. Fiction is the opposite of prejudice, hatred, intolerance, violence… it makes us human. The stories we tell give us meaning….

 

 

<On a huge monitor behind the Examiner, a man in an orange robe, kneeling under a blazing desert sun, staring at the ground; next to him stands a man robed in black, face hidden, brandishing a knife and addressing the camera. On an adjacent screen, a pair of earrings shine in closeup, with a price and a phone number on the screen beneath them.>

 

 

PIAZZA: <shuts eyes; lowers head> Yeah?

 

 

EXAMINER: Nobody who has read To Kill A Mockingbird, or Beloved, or Atonement could become a mass murderer.

 

 

PIAZZA: Is that so?

 

 

EXAMINER: A nation’s literature is a nation’s strength.

 

 

PIAZZA: Thomas Mann didn’t save Germany from Hitler, Tolstoy didn’t save Russia from the Gulag. Toni Morrison didn’t save us from the Tea Party, either. Is that why you think people write fiction?

 

 

EXAMINER: Why do you think they write?

 

 

PIAZZA: I ask myself that every time I look through The Writer’s Chronicle. I counted ads for thirty different MFA programs in the last issue.

 

 

EXAMINER: That’s marvelous!

 

 

PIAZZA: That’s nothing! Poets & Writers compiles an annual list of the top fifty MFA programs! Their data base lists 216 different MFA programs.

 

 

EXAMINER: That’s wonderful! All those writers writing, dreaming, sharing secrets, telling their stories…. It gives hope.

 

 

PIAZZA: Maybe. You’d need to have a lot of hope, and faith, and be the beneficiary of considerable charity.

 

 

EXAMINER: What is that supposed to mean?

 

 

PIAZZA: Let’s say out of those 216, a hundred and fifty of the programs have a fiction component. I’m sure it’s more, but let’s be conservative. And let’s say that on average each one graduates three Fiction Writers every year. That’s 450 Masters Of Fiction hitting the street every year. The actual number is, of course, much bigger. And all of them want to be on the cover of Poets & Writers, they all want their books published, and they all want jobs.

 

 

EXAMINER: You went to an MFA program, didn’t you? Those numbers didn’t scare you off.

 

 

PIAZZA: If you’re going to be scared off by numbers, the profession probably isn’t for you.

 

 

EXAMINER: <frowning> So what’s your point?

 

 

PIAZZA: I guess it’s this: Between the glut of images and information bombarding us constantly via electronic media, and the endless procession of freshly minted Masters emerging out of the Fiction Industrial Complex, it is getting harder to know what fiction is, why people write it, what they expect to gain or contribute by doing it. Why it matters, and to whom. You can make grand pronouncements about the ennobling qualities of literature, or write a long Marcusite or Franzenoid diatribe about why the kind of literature one writes, oneself, is the True Way…. You can proclaim that fiction is good for you, or essential for your humanity, like a vitamin, or like part of one of those diet pyramids – two cups of whole grains, two portions of fruits and vegetables, and a serving of fiction… please! Either you dig it or you don’t. Anyway, there is so much of it out there, I don’t think it really needs a defense.

 

 

EXAMINER: Well, you sound like a cynic. You almost sound as if you are saying that fiction is superfluous.

 

 

PIAZZA: Maybe it is. I wrestle with that question all the time. I fight it off with one hand while I write novels with the other. You know, Bob Dylan once said something to the effect that the world didn’t need more songs. There were already enough songs.

 

 

EXAMINER: Well, and then he went and wrote a lot more songs, didn’t he?

 

 

PIAZZA: Exactly. You don’t do it because the world needs it, or because it “matters.” You do it because you like doing it and are good at it. And for whatever other reasons you don’t know about. Maybe you even have something to say that hasn’t been said a million times already. The odds are against it, but it might be worth a shot….

 

 

EXAMINER: But what about all this? <gestures around the room> We are in danger… we’re drowning…. You said this yourself, in one of your books… “The written word is not simply a less efficient delivery system for information or opinion. In the private space shared by the writer and the reader, one individual soul encounters another and a spell is cast, created by both of them.”

 

 

PIAZZA: I wrote that? I agree with it! Look at it this way: Reading fiction is the only way you can encounter Dostoyevsky. Or maybe it’s more correct to say that it’s the only way you can experience Dostoyevsky's fiction. You can’t get it any other way. Same thing with Joan Didion’s, or George Saunders’ or anybody else’s. If you find something of value for yourself in that activity, of experiencing fiction, then it matters to you. You can’t have that peculiar experience any other way. If you want to experience The Brothers Karamazov, or Mansfield Park, or The Great Gatsby, you have to read them. Watching the movie or the five-part miniseries is a whole different thing. Reading is a collaboration. The brain gets extended beyond itself. You have to complete what the writer gives you. Every reader has a different experience. It forces you to use your own imagination, and not just passively receive sensory input.

 

 

EXAMINER: So fiction can improve the world!

 

 

PIAZZA: If fiction could improve the world it would have done so already. Every once in a while maybe the experience of reading a given work of fiction improves the life or the perceptions of an individual. I don’t want to feel that I’m doing Something That Matters every time I want to hang out with Captain Ahab or Elizabeth Bennet for a while….

 

 


 

EXAMINER: But people are losing the ability to do that! Even educated people don’t read as much as they used to! They’re on their iPhones all the time… kids walk down the street texting… the world could be falling apart around them.

 

 

PIAZZA: Uh… well… it probably is. But you can always turn off the iPhone, can’t you? Unplug the TV, shut down the computer? Who’s stopping you?

 

 

EXAMINER: <anxiously> But then we wouldn’t know what was happening!

 

 

PIAZZA: Yeah… maybe not. <shrugs, yawns, looks around> You got anything to read around here?

 

 

 

 

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Tom Piazza’s novel A Free State was published by HarperCollins in September. His other books include the novel City Of Refuge, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and Devil Sent The Rain, a collection of his essays and journalism. He was a principal writer for the innovative HBO drama series TREME, and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.

 


Photo Credit: Mary Howell