This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
By Dale Short One morning back in 1991, I woke up and turned on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and learned that the Soviet Union had just been dissolved. Ordinarily, this would be really good news. The only problem was, at that point I had been getting up long before daylight every morning for almost five years, to work on the manuscript of a novel before I had to be at my office job. It was a long fantasy novel, about a group of Tibetan monks with psychic powers who had been entrusted with staving off the coming Apocalypse. And of course the Apocalypse, as we all knew back then, would come in the form of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. But on that day in 1991, after five years of hard work, I found out that the Apocalypse had been canceled. Talk about mixed emotions. So the very next morning, I went back to the drawing board...rewriting the book from scratch. I can testify that spending cold winter mornings before daylight trying to imagine a different way for the world to end is not exactly a prescription for good mental health. It would be almost four more years before the new version of the novel was finished and on the bookshelf.
So imagine my dismay recently, while my new book of fiction was on the publisher’s printing press, when I opened up the New York Times Book Review and saw an article saying that fiction is dead. It was an interview with author V.S. Naipaul, and here’s what he said, exactly, about fiction: “That business of making up narratives, making up stories, has done its work. It was very dominant in the 19th century, in France and England and in Russia. And then there was nothing more for that form to do. Forms have to change.” What that form should change to, Naipaul says, is NONfiction. In other words, if we want to be taken seriously, we should instead be writing only real facts, about the real world. Now…understand that every few years, at least during my lifetime, somebody comes out and pronounces that the novel is dead. Or the short-story is dead. Or even, that READING is dead, what with video games or DVDs or whatever the high-tech buzz of the day is about. Naipaul, though, is a lot harder to ignore. Not only is he a Nobel Prize winner, he’s also written more than a dozen novels of his own, before he apparently broke the habit. And to be honest, I sort of know where he’s coming from, on this. If the barbarians are marching toward your city, and you have the choice of buying either a newspaper or a good novel, any sane person will buy the newspaper. The news will tell you who, what, when, and where the barbarians are. What the news only pretends to do, though, is tell you why. Why do they want to kill us? What on earth are they thinking? What are they feeling? How are they like us, and how are
they different? For those answers, you have to look to a different type of story. As another Nobel Prize winner, William Faulkner, said in his Nobel acceptance speech: “There is only one kind of story worth telling, and that is the story of the human heart in conflict with itself.” What Faulkner realized is that the barbarians are always marching toward your city…every city, everywhere…and they always will be. Especially in election season. Only their names change. Ironic as it is, the larger truth of any breaking news is only accessible to us through an act of imagination. An act of art...by people who are willing to take that horrible journey into an imagined stranger’s heart. If Naipaul was right, I should have called my publisher and told them to stop the presses. I should have taken 25 years worth of short fiction and rewritten it as a book of short facts…adding footnotes about the global economy and Middle East politics and the price of heating oil. But every fiction writer around the globe who will sit down tomorrow morning to a blank page and try to imagine a world is literally betting his or her life that Naipaul is mistaken. One of those writers is a novelist from New York named Francine Prose, who wrote this in a letter to the Times about Naipaul’s comments: “Few people, I assume, read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for its insights into Veronese culture, or ‘Oedipus Rex’ for its grasp of Greek
politics,” she writes. “Rather, in every era, in every place, men and women continue to be born, grow up, fall in love, marry or not, live in families or alone, bear children or not, grow old and die. And strangely, regardless of whether or not we approve, people stubbornly insist in finding these events as important as the clash between belief and unbelief in post-colonial societies. “What fiction continues to offer,” she concludes, “is profound and detailed information about what it is like…any time, anywhere… to be a human being.” I doubt that even William Faulkner could have said it better. # # #
(Dale Short is a native of Walker County. You can find more of his writing on his Facebook page, or you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new short-story collection, “Turbo's Very Life,” and all his other books are available online at carrolldaleshort.com. For more information about his new informal spiritual fellowship, go to churchof11or1.com, or send an e-mail to email@example.com)