Approaching Fiction

January 25, 2011

Our topic today is a little more serious… but it’s one about which I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few days.

How do you approach fiction, both the reading and writing of it?

Is fiction the vehicle for deep profundity, with plot and characters an incidental formal requirement, or are the plot, characters, and theme intertwined with each other to such an extent that figuring out where one ends and the next begins is nigh impossible? How do you view the novel? As first and foremost a work of art and craft, or as a medium for conveying a specific message/ideology? Or both?

I’m specifically reminded of the time I studied The Great Gatsby. Since it’s a relatively well-known work, I’m using that as an example. The prof was particularly fixated on the passage in which Nick Carraway meets a man in Gatsby’s library who is stunned by the fact that Gatsby’s books are real, but that he “Knew when to stop, too- didn’t cut the pages” (46). (Books used to come with their pages stuck together; to read it, you had to cut/split them open.)

Apparently, this demonstrates a corruption of Benjamin Franklin’s “republic of letters,”  a glimpse of a decaying America in which the self-made man turns from the very knowledge and skills that make him self-made. It can be read this way. It may even be true. But when I saw that Gatsby had a huge library of books that he’d never read, I immediately thought: Okay, so he’s got money, and is more interested in the image the books project than he is in actually reading them. Who’s he trying to impress?

And of course, the careful cultivation of an inherently false image turns out to be rather important in the end. So does the person Gatsby is striving to impress. But note: the only thing that alerted me to any of this was Fitzgerald’s subtle characterization. It is Gatsby’s character, and the choices Gatsby makes that inform the theme of the novel, not tenuous connections and leaps of logic.

Good books have to say something. That something, that reason why they matter enough to be written and read, is usually referred to as “theme.” But the theme is not separate from the book, not something to be teased out and laid bare on the examination table. You can’t separate theme from story any more than you can excise soul from flesh. Novels, after all, are their own unique art form. They are not essays. Fiction succeeds when it brings us to that very point at which it fails. But to be taken to that point requires some work on the part of the reader. Not the work of dissecting quotations and chasing after allusions, but the work of having faith in the story itself, in the characters and plot that make it a story in the first place.

I’ve used the term “artistic integrity” before. To me, practicing artistic integrity means staying true to the story. Not letting characters off easy because it’s convenient. Not using the novel as a thinly-disguised sermon. Essentially, respecting both your readers, and your characters.

And yet it seems that there are some books that are more concerned with “meaning” something than with plot/characters/theme. (I intentionally separate theme and meaning here: everyone will get a different meaning from a book; the overarching principle that governs the story is the theme.) Ironically, I still say that anything worth getting from a story can only be got through the complex plot/theme/character interaction. If you ignore that, you may have a book, but you certainly don’t have a story. Not a real one, anyway.

The ending of The Great Gatsby is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning-

 So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

This is what I mean by fiction succeeding by failing. At that point Fitzgerald breaks off, we have seen Gatsby’s pathos and failure, the tenacity with which he clung to his dream, unrecognizing of the fact that it had all been for naught, that it had always been for naught. The dream was over before it began, and Gatsby never knew. That is the beauty and pain and wonder of this novel. That is why it matters, and it would not matter if we had not had the experiences of Nick, and Gatsby, and Tom, and Daisy, and Jordan; if we had not cared about them as characters, or been invested in the choices they made, choices which create the plot.

I believe that good writers have a lot happening under the surface of their words. And I believe that to truly appreciate a novel, you do need to carefully consider and, yes, analyze it.

But the novel must be accepted organically, on its own terms. Otherwise, as Wordsworth so rightly puts it, “We murder to dissect.”




  1. Beautiful post, Arvik

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Great Gatsby ~ too long to be able to comment on that aspect of your thesis. 🙂

    But the rest seems right. And good.

  2. For me it’s all about the characters. I strive to give each one an arc, even the walk-ons (if they last till the end). As they progress through the three acts of my novel, the characters pull the theme along like a kite that gains altitude as they run into the wind.

    I suppose this speaks to my style of creation; I’m an outliner. I’ve tried free writing in the past, but those efforts came off flat in character and theme, and just about everything else. Now that I have accepted my outlining nature, I find that I can plan out my character arcs from beginning to end, teasing out the over-arcing theme before I write word one. It seems to be working so far 😉

    — david j.

  3. Each book has to be its own creature. Sometimes a book can be about putting for a message effectively with plot, characters, and theme all intertwined around that central message (I’m think of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein in particular).

    Ultimately, however, a novel must have a story that speaks to the readers. Unlike an essay, or a textbook, where the message is the entirety of the book, a novel is supported by its story. That story is contained within the characters, settings, and themes present within the novel and their interactions. So in general I agree.


  4. My goal in writing fiction is to take the reader on a journey. They start in one place and finish in another, hopefully changed in some way along with the characters they have followed. Am I good at it yet? We’ll have to see about that!

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