Monday, July 21, 2008

The Point of Fiction

The story I wrote for TECHNOLOGY REVIEW, the magazine published by M.I.T. which has only recently started to run by-invitation fiction, has been tentatively accepted. The editor wanted some revisions, which I made, and I'm now waiting to hear if she likes them. Meanwhile, the revisions got me to thinking about the point of fiction, why we write it at all. Quite apart from questions of how our brains are wired (the evolutionary advantages of imagination, the storing of data in "scripts," etc.), I think the point of fiction is actually not that different from the point of either philosophy or theology. It is: to decide what matters.

Fiction explores this point through all sorts of subsidiary questions: What is worth expending effort on, struggling to obtain, sacrificing other things for, maybe even dying for? In writing classes, this question usually gets lumped under "character motivation": What does the protagonist want, and why? But the question goes deeper than characterization. It informs the story as a whole, by indicating whether the goal was worth it or not. The protagonist who dies to save his family: worth it, the story implies. The protagonist who dies trying to become a tyrant over the Empire: not worth it. In this way, stories affirm or attack human values.

Cynical stories turn the process upside down. Either the protag, a good guy, dies for his family and it's not worth it because they're a bunch of creeps, or the protag, a bad guy, doesn't die and flourishes happily, getting what he wants. In this sense, my story for TECH REVIEW is a cynical story. That apparently is no bar to the magazine; all the requested editorial changes concerned details, not values.

Certainly there is a literary place for the unhopeful view of life. I, however, usually prefer to end a story on a mixed note: some gains, some losses. Not this time. The bad guy wins. We'll see how the story is received.


Erin Underwood said...

Congratulations, Nancy! Tech Review is a great magazine.

I work for the MIT Alumni Association and I am very familiar with the magazine. However, I didn't realize that we're now adding fiction to the mix. That's fabulous! Plus, I am so happy that they chose one of your stories.

Yeah you!


Unknown said...

Interesting post, Nancy. I have a take that is parallel, but not perfectly so. Evolutionarily speaking, there is a great advantage for those who can learn vicariously through the experiences of others. The urge to gossip, to tell stories, is not just one of keeping up on the social status of tribe members, but to learn what's worked or didn't work from friends and strangers alike. People not interested in listening to stories would be at a big disadvantage.

At least this is the evolutionary just-so story I'm telling myself about stories at the moment.

Nancy Kress said...

I think you're right about gossip, Mike. It IS how sub-cultures define to themselves what is acceptable, what is borderline, what is not acceptable. And the poor people who miss those social cues are at an evolutionary disadvantage, in all types of competition.