Fiction’s Ethos


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

Related Post Roulette

36 Responses

  1. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    I think the idea of Hanson talking about “mastery” in any form is laughable except perhaps in the area of self-parody. Perhaps he reads a lot of satire, which might explain how he’s mastered how to so thoroughly make a mockery himself when putting pen to paper these days?

    On the actual subject, I think Myers is on the right track, but I wonder if it kind of reverses cause and effect. By this I mean I think the fact that humanity is capable of writing fiction, of imagining themselves in situations that are outside of our own experience, of communicating those ideas and creating subjective, empathy that gives us the ability to even be social animals.

    Art and literature are not simply goods in themselves, but rather foundations of what allow us to be ethical. When those two get flipped, you end up with tragically close-minded people like Orson Scott Card, who has a masterful grasp of storytelling, yet is unable to grasp what that gift actually means in actually understanding humanity and ethics.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      I think you’re onto something with that reversal of cause and effect.  It’s closer to where I stand on the issue, I think — and, at the very least, it puts much more distance between art and utility than the above.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        I always feel a bit uneasy when people try to make utilitarian arguments for art. In general it makes me question the values of a society that views humans as a sum of value that can be broken down and monetized (not literally sometimes, but at least in a figurative utility sense) rather than just a collection of unique parts.

        There’s value in being able to quantitize somethings, but I think that in the end also loses sight of the fact that most of those measures are also human inventions like art itself. Economics and social sciences are more an art form, too than a science. They’re intrinsic to people, and I get worried when people like Hanson goes around talking about self-mastery.

        (Granted, I loathe VDH almost as much as Niall Ferguson so perhaps it colors my perspective)Report

        • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

          Every so often I try to read something VDH has written … and I always end by wondering why I tried again.  I keep holding out hope that he’ll point me toward an interesting discussion of Classical history, but that really hasn’t happened since sometime in late January, 2009.Report

          • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to J.L. Wall says:

            You know, the sad thing is that I used to enjoy some of his books as a teenager, particularly in classicism, but now when I go back and read them I actually start looking for subtexts related to his recent spate of hateful rants and can’t stop finding connections. It’s really quite tragic, but in a way it kind of opened my eyes to the limitations of his scholarship as much as his flaws as a person.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

              VDH gives the study of classics a bad name.   Everyone ought to start learning Latin with Ovid.   The Romans read him, every literate man of the time did.   Shakespeare loved Ovid.   Ovid’s been translated dozens of times.  Without Ovid, you can’t understand the Renaissance and about three quarters of the artwork produced in those times.

              VDH is a product of the old school, starting with Caesar.   As such, all he could ever see was the battles.   Perhaps it’s just a personal bias but I do not trust military historians who’ve never shouldered arms.   They just don’t get it.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I think there’s a place for military historians who haven’t shouldered arms, but in a way that’s distinctly different from those who have. Hagiographic accounts like VDH’s fetishization of the “western way of war” not withstanding, I think the entire school of “war and society” military history is actually very valuable. I credit Geoff Best and his crew for making it more accessible but it’s true there’s a fundamental disconnect between the military historians who use it as a way to do their vicarious masculine chest-thumping and those who do it in a way to understand society.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                Point taken, Nob.  For me, the famous battles are rather like train wrecks or car crashes.   The interesting parts, the useful bits from which we can learn anything, happen before and after.

                I’m particularly offended by VDH’s take on the Tet Offensive.

                VDH wants to turn war reporting into a tedious sermon.   The best sermons are expository:  they don’t draw larger lessons than the one being taught in the material.  If larger lessons are to be drawn, let the hearer draw them.


              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I’ll raise a glass to that, even if I’m a confirmed teatottler these days.Report

              • BP, in ten years of Latin, I’d actually never read Ovid; but I’ve read both of Caesar’s wars plus his speeches in Cicero and Sallust, and I don’t think I’m any the worse off for it.Report

  2. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Can I just say what a bizarre question I find this?

    And while I like the high-minded answer of “self-mastery,” Myers I think misses one of the greatest gifts that fiction and literature can impart: the gift of empathy.Report

    • Avatar Ryan Bonneville in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Complete and total agreement.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Oh, it’s something that those in the field of professional book-reading worry about quite a bit.

      As for empathy — I think that Myers is, in fact, on that track: “we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are” etc.Report

      • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        To finish my thought (I hit “Submit” on these things too soon far too often) — I think Myers is on that track, but his focus on the term “self-mastery” diverts it somewhat.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        There’s such a thing as a professional book reader?

        Are they taking applications?Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          I imagine it’s a bit like being a male porn star. Might sound like a dream job, but it’s actually tedious and terrible, dealing with books that look much better on the bookstand than once you’ve torn off the dust jacket, and trouble often keeping your eyes on the page after a ten hour session.Report

          • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

            Could I then just be a part time professional book reader and a part time male porn star?Report

            • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Tod Kelly says:

              Depends on how much you value the following:
              1. Rent money
              2. Food money
              3. Actually liking books and women.

              On the other hand, I’m a grad student, don’t take my advice about career choices, it’s like asking a blind man to coordinate your wedding spread.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                I wonder if this is true for every profession?  We have really great friends who are each priests that are married to one another (one Episcopal, one Lutheran) and every now because of their careers over dinner the subject of theology comes up.  And I always wonder if inside their heads they aren’t saying to themselves “If I have to hear the name God one more time today I am going to drive this butter knife into my skull!”Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                I imagine there’s always some level of detachment you need from your job at some point, even if you love it with every fibre of your being.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                I grew up in a home where the contents of the offering plate bought the food in the fridge.   Genteel poverty is how I’d describe it.  Both my parents went off to different careers but both kept a dap hand in the ministry.

                The only parallel I can draw is to the life of a musician.   It’s a calling, as we’d say in Christian circles, but the word for a career in German is Beruf, from anrufen, to call.   If you’re any good at what you do, people are calling you to do it for them.  Just make sure you’re getting paid for it.

                It’s sorta like that Dilbert cartoon where his co-worker asks him to stop by after work to fix his computer.   Dilbert responds:  “Sure, and while I’m there, you can go over to my house cleaning the grout in my shower.”   Offended, his co-worker says “That’s crazy talk.”   To which Dilbert responds: “Hey, I’m not the guy who majored in Comparative Literature.”

                The pastor doesn’t mind hearing the name of God.  Tell you what does bother him, the frantic calls in the middle of the night from parishioners looking for free psychological help.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          ya. read a book, write a review for Analog. voila! “professional” (not that you’ll probably make a living, but…)Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The hot sun shone through the shanasheel latticework from high above, casting intricate shadows on the marble floors of the throne room.  Upon his throne sat the Shahanshah, bored and sullen, shifting his buttocks about upon the cushions.  Beside the throne, the Kirghiz slave boy waved his ostrich feather fan a little faster.

    “Bring me the storyteller” the Shahanshah roared to the pikemen guarding the doorway to the throne room.

    A murmur went through the palace as the guards marched through the hallways.   Soon enough, the guards reappeared, each carrying a wicker basket full of scrolls, a wizened man in a brown robe between them, carrying a folding stool.   He knelt and prostrated himself before the Shahanshah, his arms before him, reciting the obsequies of loyalty and his fervent wish that His Majesty might live forever.

    Impassively, the Shahanshah waved his arm.  “Never mind all that!   Pick up where you were yesterday!”

    The storyteller rose awkwardly, unfolded his stool and sat upon it.   Fishing around in his baskets, he picked up a scroll, unrolled it and cleared his throat.

    “I soon lost in the pleasures of life the remembrance of the perils I had encountered in my two former voyages; and being in the flower of my age, I grew weary of living without business, and hardening myself against the thought of any danger I might incur, went from Bagdad to Basra with the richest commodities of the country. There I embarked again with some merchants. We made a long voyage, and touched at several ports, where we carried on a considerable trade. One day, being out in the main ocean, we were overtaken by a dreadful tempest, which drove us from our course. The tempest continued several days, and brought us before the port of an island, which the captain was very unwilling to enter; but we were obliged to cast anchor. When we had furled our sails, the captain told us, that this, and some other neighbouring islands, were inhabited by hairy savages, who would speedily attack us; and. though they were but dwarfs, yet our misfortune was such, that we must make no resistance, for they were more in number than the locusts; and if we happened to kill one of them, they would all fall upon us and destroy us.”

    The court of the Shahanshah fell silent as the storyteller told the tale of Sinbad’s Third Voyage.  The women of the harem leaned over the balcony above the throne room.   Cooks and cleaners listened from doorways.   The shadows slowly moved across that marble floor as the Shahanshah’s head leaned upon the fist of his left hand, his eyes distant as he smiled.


    We who read fiction are the Shahanshah.   For a few dollars, often less, we are transported into the story.    Annoying pedants such as VDH be damned, we are the stuff that dreams are made of.Report

  4. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    If we did an empirical test and found that fiction didn’t help with self-mastery, would we abandon it?

    What if we found that fiction readers had less self-mastery?

    I ask these questions because in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the conventional wisdom held that fiction impaired self-mastery rather than enhancing it.  One finds that claim everywhere, and above all in fiction itself.  It often happened that the tragic heroine of a novel took her first steps toward downfall by… reading a novel.


  5. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    I don’t think that the type of self-mastery Myers is talking about could be subjected to an empirical test.  VDH refers to something that might be called “Aristotelian” with that term (which could, I suppose, be subjected to a study of some sort), but Myers shifts the definition toward the empathetic/sympathetic.  Self-mastery through the recognition of the humanity and difference of others; that fiction forces us to relate or actively not relate to other subjects.  Perhaps that oughtn’t be called “self-mastery” — it is, after all, proposed as an alternative to VDH’s.Report

  6. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    The problem with essays like this one is that when the essayist says “fiction”, I always get the sense that they’re thinking more about Don DeLillo and less about Dan Brown, yet the latter is far more likely to be read than the former.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to DensityDuck says:

      people love pulpReport

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I don’t know how Myers feels about Dan Brown, but he has been a strong apologist for “middlebrow” and genre fiction against a “literary elite.”  I’m putting words in his mouth here, but I suspect he’d think that Harry Potter accomplishes what he describes better than Pynchon.

      And, of course, if we’re talking about Getting Something From Reading, then different people are going to have success with different books.  (Or, maybe I should say, different books are going to have success with different people.)  I find that Louis Zukofsky’s poetry accomplishes “ghostly proximity to other human souls”; most people would probably tell me I’m crazy after trying to find that — and I worry, sometimes, that they may be right.

      I don’t know that this pushes for a Literature vs. Pulp division so much as a Character vs. Lack Thereof division.  You can write a good book without writing a Great Novel or a Classic of Our Civilization, or even something that you think the New Yorker or New York Times Book Review might want to review.

      (Do I know you can get something from Dan Brown in particular… eh.  But once upon a time, I found Tom Clancy fascinating for — wait for it — what he said about people within those really complicated plotlines.)Report

  7. Avatar Will Truman says:

    This sort of touches on a hobby-horse of mine, which is “cultural perfectionism.” Namely, the assertion by some bibliophiles that reading is always and ever-better than watching a movie or a TV show. That the latter may be interesting and informative, but never as much so as reading the same thing. TV is wasted time compared to reading.

    One of my responses is to actually make a sort of argument discussed here. Which is that objectively, non-fiction is better than fiction and so that in every case you ought to be reading non-fiction because it will inform you more than actual fiction. Which is, by my lights, an absurd argument.

    Different media, and different forms of storytelling, tickle our brains in different ways. A complex thriller, a video game, audio-visual stimulation, music, and so on can all lead to positive development. And for some people, one medium works better than another (I can always remember what I see and hear better than what I read, so watching a documentary is more helpful than reading a book – my wife is the other way around). This isn’t meant as an excuse to read nothing but fluff or watch According To Jim all day long. But it gives me a certain impatience for the notion that A is inherently (ever and always) better than B.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

      John Fowles discusses the conversion of his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman to film in his book of essays Wormholes.  Fowles realized he was best served to stay on the periphery of the process, letting the professionals do their job.   Some things which take ten paragraphs to cover in a novel can be accomplished in ten seconds of good camera work.   The film makers were creating something of their own.

      God save us from reading nothing but the 100 Best Books.  All storytelling, in any form, be it in books or film or video games any other medium, uses the tools at its disposal.   It’s no accident video games are now bigger than Hollywood.


    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Will Truman says:

      “Isn’t it wonderful that all these kids are reading?”

      “Yeah, they’re reading Harry Potter; it’s like you just said it’s so wonderful that they’re all eating Big Macs.”Report