It has been said that the novel is the perfect form to reflect the modern individual’s experience of the world. His take on the interior social, psychological world. In other words, the quality of a novel correlates with the ability of the story, characters, and plot to hold a mirror to the world of full emotional and intellectual experience. If the mirror distorts or warps the experience, the reader may be confused, angry or bored.
At any time there is so much going on in life. The daily information dumps overload our five senses with inputs that we just have the chance to digest before a new batch has our neurons firing like a random madman with an automatic weapon.
One goal of the novelist is to give form, shape and design to the cascade of daily life experiences. 24/7 life is unedited, raw footage. As a reality show, most people’s life (including that of authors) isn’t worth the time and effort to watch. In Thailand, we have something called PandaLive TV (Channel 16). The camera has two shots. One shot is shows the inside the cage; the second shot is an exterior shot, looking through the bars, which makes the cage look like a high security prison. Both shot focus on a couple of pandas. A mother and daughter who most of the time are playing, sleeping, chewing on bamboo, rolling or walking around the cement floored cage. There is no story. No plot. Viewers watch a mother and daughter panda making their way without any plot, development, meaning or purpose through yet another day.
Most human daily lives are only marginally more interesting than PandaLive TV, and that only because people aren’t, for the most part, living inside a cage. Nonetheless, that is a detail. The day-to-day totality of human life is an unorganized mess with a bubble of laughter now and then rising like a belch from a glass of ale to the surface. What makes a novel worth reading is the promise of taking this totality, and showing the bits where the character develops, learns, reflects and pulls the reader into the psychological life of the character. We know what we see but how do we really process our feeling about what happens around us?
When I see soldiers in full combat gear armed with M16s and shotguns on the pedestrian bridge to the Skytrain, like most people, I observe others watching the soldiers. I ask myself what is their experience? What emotions arise from this scene? No doubt people witnessing the same scene experience a wide range of emotions. That’s to be expected. The writer can charge straight ahead with the conviction that his or her emotion is the proper guide. That is usually a mistake. It is sloppy thinking and writing for two reasons.
The first reason can be found in Orwell’s 1984, where Winston Smith, finds an old man in a bar and convinces himself that the old man can explain what life was like before the revolution. To his disappointment, all Winston receives from the old man are endless pointless details that add up to nothing—a rubbish heap of personal details that buries the larger past. Winston is looking for perspective and context and instead finds himself blinded by a hailstorm of meaningless detail. For Orwell, and most writers, the goal is to place the conflicting emotions of the people on that footbridge into a larger context that reveals something deeper about the scene. In other words no one person’s details will explain the larger world anymore than PandaLive Channel can explain the life of pandas. The details of the author’s experience aren’t necessarily a reliable guide as to the experience of others.
The second reason is it takes away the freedom of the reader to draw his or her own conclusion. Books that stack the deck so only one judgment can be drawn are polemical. The best fiction takes the readers in the uncomfortable gray zone where they look out at the black and white adjacent zones, and begin to understand the complexity of problems. It takes time and courage to draw readers with strong emotions into a clearing where they acknowledge the need for mutuality and co-operation. Of course writers can be and often are advocates for one side in a social or political debate. And, of course, readers looking for confirmation of what they already think wish to plug into a book that makes them feel comfortable and smug in their belief. It is unsettling to read something that challenges how you see the world and how you feel about what you see.
If wisdom means anything, it is connected to the ability to remain open-minded. The more open people are to the full range of possible reactions and consequences, the more willing they are to accept the world is filled with differing experiences and points of view. That’s a hard lesson because partisanship is so much easier. But the downside is that unexamined emotions don’t make for better outcomes—in fiction, in marriages, or in political conflict. Instead the unexamined life leads to exploitation, misery, unhappiness and anger. The role of a novelist is to examine closely the totality of experience and bring breath meaning into the rubbish heap of details.