A Note On The Month-Long Absence

I think I owe everyone both an explanation and an apology at the month-long absence I took in-between the last two posts. I was working, for starters, and I had only nights to come back home and go online and do proper, web-fiction related work. But the real reason for not blogging at Novelr was because I was struggling with a couple of things that I’d like to share with you today, for luck. The short of it was that I was sick and tired of writing, and for awhile I was adrift in the sea of ideas that Novelr comes across for a day-to-day basis. But consider, for a moment, the fact that I think of myself as a fiction writer, and consider too the immutable reality that Novelr (and all of blogging) is an inherently non-fiction job. This might not seem like a major problem, not at first glance, but think awhile and you’ll realize that non-fiction is not the other side of the writing coin; it is a very attractive escape, especially for the fiction writer suffering from major writer’s block.

When I first started writing, I reasoned that the blank page was a beautiful thing; an invention that gave the outside world the inner workings of my head. I could give a gift of imagination – my imagination – to others; to allow them a smell of the flowers planted outside the palace of Samarkand, to give them a taste of stolen cloud, taken from underneath a flying monkey God. And indeed that was the ideal that I strove for, that little imagined place where both writer and reader could meet; not over ideas, but over stories and shared experiences.

But then take non-fiction, where you’re still writing, and you’re still using the same tools of the craft, but you’re not actually telling any story. I find that non-fiction is often a weaker substitute for fiction, in the same way some people may chew gum to make up for an addiction to nicotene; or watch porn to make up for a lack of human love. Writing essays and blog posts are easier; they’re instant gratification to the slow-release pleasure of writing a novel; they make you feel as if you’re still engaged in the act of writing, with one crucial difference: you’re not actually doing any storytelling. And we all know how much harder storytelling really is, compared to the direct, non-fiction electricity of ideas from head to hand. This could be one reason why so many novelists turn to essays in their downtime, between books. It could also be one reason why I’d been writing so little fiction over the past 6 months. And it was true, and it was painful – the crux of the matter was that between Novelr and my blog I didn’t feel any need to ease myself into the hard grind of crafting and telling a good story. And that was sad indeed.

I wonder now if writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin write non-fiction because they believe in this lie. Or if they’d examined themselves as fiction writers, found themselves wanting, and settled for the still-respectable, instantly-gratifying joy of non-fiction. Because to me it suddenly seemed that if you were not writing fiction you weren’t partaking of the most powerful thing writing had on offer: the ability to take yourself out of time, to live beyond your years in the curls of your letters and the ozone of your paragraphs. I believe now that stories last forever; that only ideas grow old and die. And what I was doing, I found, was that I was writing so much non-fiction that I was putting aside almost nothing of myself for the timeless craft of the fiction writer.

So what made me come back? Two things, I suppose. The first was a 43 folders podcast, How To (…) Turbocharge your blog with Credibility!, a punchy, inspiring chat between two old-time bloggers that reminded me of everything I had started out to do when I first launched Novelr. But that’s personal, and you aren’t likely to identify with me on my reasons. It’s the solution to my second problem that I find worthy of sharing: I decided that no matter how much work I was going to do on Novelr, or how many essays I wrote for myself, I would always, always set aside some time for wrtiting fiction.

And the thought of this – the very idea of it – made me instantly happier. I’m sorry for the hiatus. But I’m back now, and writing again. Thank you for sticking with me.

N.B.: Have any of you struggled with this? Or has fiction/non-fiction been your one and only calling? I’m interested to know if anyone’s had similar doubts, and similar blocks. Drop me a line in the comments section; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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Category: Learning To Write · Meta
  • http://srsuleski.com/ srsuleski

    Even when I have writer’s block (which, unfortunately, is more often than not) I can still find myself writing long LiveJournal entries about my personal life. I’m still writing, and I’m still sort of telling a story. But it’s not a story that I have to make up, it’s just the story of my life, right now. It’s not as satisfying as sharing a story that I crafted, and have control over. But I feel like it helps me from going insane for lack of writing.

    I’ve never attempted a journalistic blog, or essay, however.

  • http://clarekrmiller.digitalnovelists.com Clare K. R. Miller

    I have to admit being really startled at your assertion: “And we all know how much harder storytelling really is, compared to the direct, non-fiction electricity of ideas from head to hand.” I certainly don’t know that! In fact, I’d describe fiction writing, at least at times, as “direct electricity of ideas from head to hand.” Nonfiction is much more a struggle for me. I’ve never written long blog entries–that’s why I like Twitter! I mostly only write about myself in forum discussions when I already have a prompt. When I thought about it, I also realized that writing academic papers for school was always easy for me, but that was usually taking research and re-assembling it into something new and different, rather than just writing something.

    I guess I’m good at nonfiction writing (at least I got lots of As in college), but the ideas don’t come. Fiction is different. I can barely keep up with the ideas for fiction; I have to dig around for ideas for nonfiction.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @srsuleski: EXACTLY. I’ve no idea why it’s so easy to write about your own life, or why I can still post in my personal blog (and it is, essentially, storytelling) whenever I’m facing a huge block in my fiction writing. I’ve a feeling it’s the make-up bit that’s hard, not the writing bit: with your life everything’s happened and all you’ve got to do is to put it on the page … whereas with the fiction thing you’ve to make it up first, before writing it down.

    @Clare: But it is! non-fiction’s a lot easier because often,. you know what you want to say, and the challenge is just how to say it – how to write it in such a way as to have a logical progression of ideas. Sometimes, in fiction writing, when you want to express an idea, you’ve to be very careful in how you express it, because you can’t go right out and say (for example) smoking sucks. Addiction can ruin your life. No you can’t, you’ve to show it. And there’s also the problem with plot – sometimes the best story idea can be completely screwed up after, say, 500 pages of hard work. And BANG you don’t know what to do. With non-fiction it’s easier – often the ideas are all right, and that 500 pages of hard work can be reused, though you may need to rearrange major portions of it for clarity …

    See where I’m getting with this?

  • http://escapeintolife.com Chris or Lethe


    This is your first autobiographical post that I’ve read. There may have been others, but I’ve noticed in the past that you like to leave yourself and your feelings out. Perhaps that’s why you think non-fiction does not directly involve storytelling.

    It totally does! And I know that you’ve read my lengthy essays and meditations on my Blog of Innocence. So just think of my own work as an example.

    I think you are a marvelous writer; one of the best blog writers I’ve read. I read your posts because they are typically well-crafted and they contain interesting ideas.

    Can I relate to you in this post? Of course. I am an exceptional non-fiction writer. I don’t say that to brag; I say it because it’s true. I’ve been writing essays for as long as I can remember. And telling my autobiographical day-to-day experience comes more easily to me than another other skill I happen to have (which is not much else!).

    In fiction, I am mediocre at best. And not only that but fiction, is, like you said, a grueling process for me. It’s not effortless by any stretch of the imagination. It’s often painful and sometimes I think I do it just to prove to myself I can.

    Like yourself, I’ve taken a hiatus from my Novel of Life. Even when I was writing, I never felt as though my practice was enough to increase my skill.

    This is a hard question and I would like to talk about it because it is pertinent to writers. Do we write what comes naturally to us or do we write what challenges us–often to a high degree?

    I’ve been writing regularly for about ten years. I’ve written non-fiction, fiction, poetry, even plays. What I’ve learned is that there is some writing that is easier for me and there is some writing that is difficult. Patience and time turn the mulberry-leaf into silk. For the first time in my life, I am writing poetry that is coming out of me without the painstaking, over-analyzed, meticulously written verse that came before. These poems speak to people.

    My fiction continues to be difficult. However my fluency in non fiction is helping to bridge the gap. If I can tell a story in my real life, why wouldn’t I be able to tell one in my fake life? I am realizing that, with time and patience, my fiction too will come out of me as effortlessly as these poems do now.

    Is my non-fiction and poetry completely effortless? No. In fact, I’m very aware of the time I spend on it and whether it’s hard or easy, etc. The non-fiction is still work, although my skills are sharper, the knife cuts better. I still have to exert effort. But i tend to fall into that wonderful zone which psychologists call “flow”.

    Flow is an interesting concept. It is a state of effortless, involuntary, gratifying (sometimes euphoric) concentration. Work is being done but it is not seen as work.

    How does flow come about? It comes about when the task at hand poses just the right amount of challenge for the person doing it. If the task were too easy, the person would become bored. If it were too hard (as in my fiction), the task would feel like work and the person wouldn’t be able to enter the flow state.

    You’ll notice that I’ve written a long blog comment. I apologize. But writing it has sparked just the right amount of challenge/attention for me. Is is thus effortless and pleasing to do.

    I realize that fiction can be like this for me. Poetry used to hard for me; now it’s easy. Part of the trick is to be intuitive about when is the time to write. The poem comes out like a baby. With fiction, we tend to think in terms of daily practice, writing in the cold, etc. But with practice, and time and patience, writing can be enjoyable and effortless too.

    Am I rushing back to my fiction? No. Why? I’m doing what I want to do. That’s the best way (for me) to be in line with my stream of creativity.

    And what if I never return to fiction again? (I will.) But if I didn’t, so what? What’s wrong with writing essays?

    One thing I noticed in this beautiful post of yours Eli is that you compared fiction to non-fiction as better/worse. One is not better than the other, my friend. They’re just different. As one of the earlier commenters noted, some people actually find non-fiction more difficult!

    Should we spend our life trying to do something that is too difficult for us? That is a matter of a person’s temperament.

    I’ve thought about these questions many, many times Eli! And you know what? Fiction, non-fiction, cooking, farming, symphony, rap. It’s not the thing that makes the artist; it’s the artist that makes the thing.

    Your friend,

    And sorry about the dreadfully long post.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    I’m going to respectfully disagree with something Chris just said, as much as I get what he’s saying about artists and their flow — each person finds their own groove, and does their thing. Symphonies, gourmet food, novels — they each have their own unique merits, and their fans, and they take talent.

    But Eli said that stories last forever while ideas don’t. And he’s right. The philosophies of the past adapt and change and are erased all-together, in the face of new academics. What scientists were “sure” of 100 years ago is gone, replaced by quantum probabilities and mystery. Everything changes.

    History is constantly rewritten, re-examined, and is also ultimately unknowable. But stories, stories last. People still read the Odyssey. A lot of C.S. Lewis’ stuff is considered out-dated or racist, and so is Mark Twain (for different reasons) but people still read them regularly. Tolkien is bigger now than when he was alive, and so is Shakespeare. Stories, because they live in universal themes and dreams, express part of the human condition regardless of the ideas in them, because they’re by people about people. They’re not just about events or ideas, they’re about sharing feeling, and evoking emotion.

    Aristotle, known for his philosopher mind, claimed that tragedy was the greatest of all human arts, and he meant art in the classical sense: the things we make ourselves that do not come from nature on their own. Trees are nature. Paper is art. Rocks are nature. Buildings are art. And he felt tragedy was the greatest of human achievements, the drama of showing events and human feelings yes, but also of creating catharsis in the audience. Getting them to feel what was shown, and walk away better for it.

    Non-fiction writing, even when it is skillful, is about real life. The details already existed, and any narrative in the “story” of a life is imposed structure. Because real life is messy. Fiction, however, is constructed from the ground up, and goes beyond the personal details of real life. I think it is more important and more beautiful and better than any other form of art. Gourmet food doesn’t last, and symphonies may evoke emotion and even inspire our imagination, but it only hints at a story. When one creates fiction, they create an entire world for readers to inhabit, not just for a moment, but for the eternity of that world.

    The only “non-fiction” I would suggest that might be able to last as well is religious writing (and that’s a debate for a different day, between a priest, a philosopher, an atheist and a jester). Because religious writing tells a story, and builds a world, and also hints at the eternity of the creation.

  • http://escapeintolife.com Chris or Lethe


    To respectfully refute your last comment, “ideas don’t last, but stories do,” note how in your response you’re referring to Aristotle’s idea about Tragedy.

    Also, if you think non-fiction doesn’t last, pick up Montaigne, essays written in 1580 that are still read today and have a remarkable contemporary flavor to them.

    I’m telling you guys, it has nothing to do with the thing itself. Every tradition has its greats. Virginia Woolf is known for her fiction, but in essayist circles, she’s also greatly revered for her essays.

    Lastly, every discipline believes they’re the most important art. Visual artists think visual art is the highest art. Classical musicians think theirs is the highest art. Poets think theirs is. Novelists think “storytelling” is. Dramatist . . . and so on.

    I find it funny though that you bring up an “idea” from Aristotle to defend why fiction is a higher art than non-fiction. Ideas last my friend. Have the Buddha’s four noble truths changed?

    Your friend,

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin


    First, I didn’t say, “ideas don’t last, but stories do,” Eli did. I was just backing him up. And I referred to Aristotle not because he had an idea, but because one of the best idea-men in history decided stories were more important than ideas. If Tolstoy or Stephen King defended novels, we could all say “yeah, but that’s what you do for a living.” If Einstein said “science is the best, man!” we’d know it’s because he’s a scientist.

    Aristotle was a philosopher, considered the highest form of human achievement by most academics until Science took over recently, and philosophy profs still claim it. That’s the point. He didn’t say philosophy, he picked something he wasn’t invested in.

    I didn’t say non-fiction was all bad, because clearly I read Aristotle and others. I’m just saying it’s not as good as stories. By an objective measure: non-fiction writers already have the pieces, they just have to put them together somehow. Fiction writers invent the pieces themselves.

    Here’s another reason: stories are universal and necessarily shared. History, science, painting, sculpture, symphonies, gourmet food – until modernity, they belonged to the middle and upper class. But every human being alive is a storyteller, the moment they start telling someone what they did yesterday. Stories require an audience, whereas other arts can conceivably just belong to the artist. You have to have someone to tell the story to. Further, other arts are receptive arts — you look at paintings, you eat food, you listen to music, etc. Stories require effort from the teller and the listener, to imagine the world of the story.

    I find it interesting you defend your case with the Buddha, because without someone’s word on the subject, you wouldn’t know he existed. History and religion are stories too — there’s no video, recordings or photographs to back it up. And he and Jesus both knew to use stories for teaching, through parables. Or at least, so the stories go.

    Saying “it has nothing to do with the thing itself” is very Buddhist — at the heart of those ideas is the belief that reality is an illusion. In that sense, it wouldn’t matter what people created. But even there story-telling has an edge, because it means illusions are creating further illusions out of nothing.

  • http://escapeintolife.com Chris or Lethe


    I wish more people would add their thoughts on this topic. What I love about Novelr is that it provokes these issues and oftentimes a small group of us find ourselves in heated debate.


    You’re a fiction purist, Gavin. You say, “By an objective measure: non-fiction writers already have the pieces, they just have to put them together somehow. Fiction writers invent the pieces themselves.”

    This is not an objective measure! First of all, the lines have always been blurred between fiction and non-fiction. I was just trying to find a quote by Heindrich Heine (which I can’t seem to find) about how autobiography and fiction are interminably woven into each other.

    For conventional purposes, we place one object in one category and another object in another category. Fiction writers don’t only invent, they re-use, re-cycle, and imitate. Perhaps the greatest tragedian of all time, didn’t invent a single thing; he was a genius at taking from others.

    Fiction writers have always used their own experience, their own stories, as the basis for their fiction.

    Your claim that storytelling is a universal and shared phenomenon, I wholeheartedly agree with. However, it is not exclusive to fiction. Music tells a story. Drama tells a story. And so does good journalism!

    Ideas, such as the great ideas of Freud, Jesus, Confucious, and Marx have always been swaddled in stories. But nothing that Jesus said was artwork and it was not fiction either.

    You’ve stepped into a categorical error with your pretensions to raising fiction above all the other arts. And if Tragedy is what Aristotle says is the highest art; what did he mean by tragedy? I doubt Aristotle’s definition is exactly the same as yours. And how does that carry over to contemporary fiction and storytelling?

    This argument between us, I hope, is in good fun. I’m an intellectual. You are an intellectual. I wish you would come over to the Blog of Innocence and debate some of my theories on social technology.

    What I love about the Internet is precisely this. That it allows us to have discourse and at times joyful disagreement.


  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin


    You’re absolutely right on two things — it would be nice to hear from other people, and I’m a fiction purist. I absolutely think fiction is better than any other form of art. Because if we define art as all the constructs of humanity, like Aristotle and his contemporaries, then art is all the things made by people. All humanities’ creations are rooted in the reality they are made from. Buildings are made of rocks. Paper is made of trees.

    Fiction is a place where things can be imagined instead of real. Are they shaped by the creators’ experiences and life? Absolutely — nothing takes place in vacuum. But fiction is still attempting to create what NEVER was instead of what ALREADY is.

    So, if we take “storytelling” as the broad topic, as the greatest thing humans can do — then yes, fiction is better than non-fiction as an act of creation. As the construction of artifice. In essence, a non-fiction writer is talking about something that someone else could witness. Either one of them could relate the events. A fiction writer relates something that no one has ever seen.

    Because music does not tell a story. There are no people, places, things, or events. Narratives are imposed upon music by writers and audience, in their imagination — so they are telling a story, with music as its inspiration.

    You were also right when you said “Fiction writers don’t only invent, they re-use, re-cycle, and imitate. Perhaps the greatest tragedian of all time, didn’t invent a single thing; he was a genius at taking from others.” They “Don’t Only.” You admit they invent. But that they also “reuse, recycle, and imitate.” They do all the things human beings do, because none of us exist in a vacuum. But they DO invent on top of the structure of what already exists.

    It is the act of fabrication, of invention, of creation that I’m talking about that makes storytelling the greatest. Something from nothing and that something is a whole world, featuring people and places and events no one else has ever seen.

    Journalism and drama are both forms of story-telling — I didn’t exclude them from the spectrum of “story” — however, on the spectrum of “story-telling,” drama can be a fiction and journalism is a form of non-fiction. I don’t remember saying books were better than films or plays. (that’s a different argument) I have been saying that fiction is better than non-fiction, because no one else could see it. The non-fiction writer doesn’t create the world they write about, they relate their perspective on what actually happened. Non-fiction writers play historian, fiction writers play God.

    Jesus told fictional stories — if you take Him as a historical figure and not a great story Himself (The Greatest Story Ever Told ;) — because His parables are all fictitious, told to illustrate a point, yet never actually taking place.

    Aristotle wasn’t brought up to make my point for me, because I can make it a million different ways. His definition doesn’t matter — what mattered was that a person not invested in fiction said it was better than his greatest achievements. And he’s still regarded as one of the best thinkers of human history. It was a fun way for me to spin off what Eli said about stories and ideas — one of the great “idea-men” liked stories better.

    But I can do more — if Human beings necessarily create Art, artificial constructions out of nature, fiction IS objectively our highest art because it’s the one furthest removed from actual nature. Imagining something that doesn’t actually exist. And I CAN actually say “book” fiction is better than movie or drama fiction, because it’s the one that makes the audience imagine WITH the creator, instead of merely an audience to the creation. The book helps readers play God with the writer, sharing in the divine act of creation.

    Want more? It’s the closest to actual experience also. Human life has a beginning, middle and end, where we remember our past, live through the present, and imagine the future. Only stories reflect that reality and move through time in a similar fashion. A story, no matter it’s chronology (involving flashbacks etc) is reflective of the human mind worrying about memories, speculating, imagining and learning. A painting is a moment of time, not progression through it. Music might begin, have a middle and end, but it has no memory, no thoughts, no message, that we don’t impose on it through our own narratives.
    Gourmet food lasts until tomorrow, and we only have the person who ate it’s word for it (a story!) that it was the best food ever. The tallest building in the world can fall down while never teaching anyone anything they couldn’t learn from physics, but a novelist could turn that fall into a comedy or a tragedy that makes the entire audience laugh and cry.

    If the thing itself does not matter, than there’s no reason to have the debate — it just means I’ve clearly found my thing. If one was a Buddhist, however, and believed it was all an illusion, (so nothing matters) well, for one, the debate isn’t really taking place. And more, an illusion creating a new illusion is kind of an amazing thing — so I would still say that the art of fiction does trump all other art. A meta-illusion.

    For an artist, it doesn’t matter — in this you would be right. What matters to connect us to the universe is the act of creation, whether the person finds their flow creating an essay, a cake, or a particle accelerator. They are creating something from nothing, too. But a story-teller doesn’t just find their own flow — they try to share it with their audience by getting them to create a world in their mind’s eye. To connect the audience with a new universe only the teller can see.

    Making a universe is objectively better than making a painting, a symphony or a gourmet meal or a building. Because universes incorporate such things. A creative person finds a universe of experience in the act of creation — but only a story opens it up to others.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    @Chris: Exactly!

    @Eli, I think my comments to Gavin are a fair response to your essay as well.

    @Gavin: I think what you’re doing is confusing “fiction” with “narrative.” What we as people do is tell stories – but most of them are non-fiction!

    About fiction writers you say “They do all the things human beings do, because none of us exist in a vacuum. But they DO invent on top of the structure of what already exists.”

    I’ve been working on a history thesis (http://josephswetnam.wordpress.com/), and one of the things that I have really learned about the field of history is that historians can be well described by a slight misreading of what you wrote… a misreading that I fell to on my first read-through:
    “But they DO invent the structure on top of what already exists.”

    The structure isn’t there. The framework isn’t extant. We make it. A historian says “this is what happened because of this and it is important because of the other.” If it’s true, it’s only true because it resonates with other people. It’s not objectively true – the non-fiction writer takes the same set of observable data as the fiction writer, and just the same, must invent a structure that makes sense of it.

    And just like fiction, when non-fiction accomplishes this extremely well, we call it truth. With one key difference. most of us don’t see non-fiction as the same kind of metaphorical truth as fiction – we see it as the cold hard, literal facts. Which can make it more powerful… and more difficult.

    You say “Narratives are imposed upon music by writers and audience, in their imagination — so they are telling a story, with music as its inspiration.”

    By writers do you mean the authors of the music? Talk with someone who composes, and ask them if there is a narrative. Talk with a lover of classical music, and ask them if there is a narrative.

    Anthony Burgess used the narrative form of a symphony as the basis of his book, “A Clockwork Orange.” Many people don’t know this, and yet it is a fantastically popular novel, despite the fact that the same ideas have been explored more thoroughly and with more vigor (and to much acclaim). I would contend that it is largely the narrative of Burgess’ novel that resonates with us, and that narrative is admittedly based on musical structure.

    What I am getting at is that the best of any art that moves through time (i.e. not a painting) is always narrative, and that narrative is truly what deserves your praise, and not fiction itself.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    @Sebatinsky: I’m not confused at all. I may have confused others by not clarifying my argument (as I’ve been thinking on the fly). What’s happening is that I have not one thesis, but three.

    First: I agree with Eli that “stories” are more important than “ideas.” Putting ideas in a narrative form resonates with people and lasts, even when the ideas are disproved or outdated. What Eli wrote resonated with me. History, journalism, autobiography, essays, scientific writing, fiction and lyrical music all are forms of what you called “narrative” and I was simply calling “story-telling.” I like your word too ;).

    Second: Everything humanity creates is technically art (based on artifice) and the greatest of the human arts is narrative. It’s universal (every human being tells stories about themselves, their beliefs, their history) and it incorporates the audience as a co-creator, for they have to imagine the story in their mind as well.

    Third: On the spectrum of narrative, fiction is more artistic than non-ficton. Because, by it’s nature, it creates more. Non-fiction imposes a structure (as you were saying) on organize pre-existent facts. Fiction creates things that never existed. If “art” is creation of things not found in nature, then the creation of things that do not exist (existing only in the imagination) ie. “fiction”, then by the definition, fiction is the greatest form of art.

    (sidenote) Painters and sculptors can certainly create objects that never existed — but paintings and sculptures don’t move through time like a narrative, and don’t cause the audience to actively engage their imagination in picturing the non-existent object. Painters and others can make imaginary art, but they don’t draft the audience in co-creation the way fiction does.

    About music: let me slightly rephrase my sentence. Narratives are imposed upon music by COMPOSERS and audience, in their imagination — so they are telling a story, with music as its inspiration. I meant writers as the “writers of music” but composers is the more appropriate word.

    Of course the audience and creators of music create a narrative in their minds about the story the music tells — that’s my point. They impose one. The music itself doesn’t tell anyone an actual story, it doesn’t contain events, characters or ideas. Anyone who sees a narrative in the music is imposing it from their own imagination. But that narrative is entirely personal and unique, and cannot be shared with others unless someone tells someone else what they pictured. Then, it becomes a traditional linguistic narrative, which is why I think linguistic narrative, story-telling, is more important than music. It allows more communication, on a universal level. Every human tells stories — not all of us can compose symphonies.

    It’s interesting to know that Burgess wrote to the inspiration of music. George Lucas did the same thing for Star Wars. I’m not attempting to say music doesn’t matter, or resonate with people. It is almost as universal as narrative — all cultures have music. It affects emotions with immediacy. And it works well in structuring narrative, or adding to it — there’s a reason movies have soundtracks to highlight the emotion of a scene.

    Narrative is largely what I’ve been talking about all along — I just included the further argument that fiction is the most artistic form. I’m sorry I didn’t clarify to make that obvious.

    So, in summation: If art is that which humanity creates and is not found in nature, narrative is our greatest art because it exists furthest from nature itself. Architecture, paintings, food, music — these are transitory sensory experiences using real-world objects. Narrative takes place in the mind, and is shared through the artificial construct called language. That sharing elevates audience to the level of co-creator, because they must process and picture the narrative for themselves in their imagination.

    If narrative is our greatest artifice, then fiction is the greatest form of narrative, because it exists further from nature itself, resting solely in the imagination. Non-fiction creates a narrative of real-world objects, while fiction creates an artificial story-world.

    But let me be clear: I’m not saying fiction is more enjoyable for all people, I’m not saying people should stop being gourmet chefs, or that all other human activity is crap. I’m just saying, by definition, if human creations are artifice (the classical Greek definition) and we shortened that to simply “art” in modernity, then the most artificial, the highest art, is fiction. That doesn’t make fiction more important to progress than science. It doesn’t make fiction more relevant to politics than history. It doesn’t feed the hungry the way cooking does. It’s just higher art, not necessarily more useful. Just more artistic.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I think this is one of the rare times that I curse my (admittedly part-time) job. I have been reading this comment thread for ages now, and slowly thinking about what all of you have been saying in it, but I’ve either had no time to reply, or found myself too tired to frame a coherent response.

    First of all, Chris: I owe you a big thank you. It’s a relief to find out that I’m not the only person suffering from this divide between non-fiction and fiction … and I’m beginning to think now that the fiction writer who doesn’t turn his/her considerable talents to non-fiction is a blessed writer indeed.

    Gavin, I’m afraid I can’t respond to everything you’ve said (mostly because I’ve come late to this comment thread, and won’t want to bring up ideas and arguments that have already been resolved. I do like to append one, though: I think we have to agree with Chris when he says that some ideas live on forever, even longer than stories. But the key word here is some – I think you either have to be a genius or a really great thinker to come up with an idea worth sticking with for a couple of centuries. Stories, on the other hand, have it easy – it’s good, it touches on universal elements of the human condition … it sticks around.

    Sebastinsky: I have to agree with Gavin here, there’s an added skill involved in fiction that doesn’t exist in history writing or non-fiction. Some call this plot, some call this story, one of my best friends call this ‘pulling your imagination out of your head and letting … (it) coil itself onto the page’. My fear is that when I write non-fiction, I practice the skills required of all writers, but leave out the skill that only fiction writers use – that making-up/storytelling ability. I fear that I will write beautifully but will find myself without anything to say. I fear that sooner or later, if I keep writing non-fiction, and non-fiction alone, I’ll end up a hack.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    @Gavin, Eli,

    I think you guys have a passion for fiction, and I think that’s admirable. But I also think it’s preventing you from being as objective as you might think.

    Visual art has just as long and dignified a history as fiction, and I could make similarly convincing arguments for why it is the highest and most human of arts. I’m not going to, however, because I think these different creative avenues all offer something different to us as people, and are valued at different levels by different folks.

    I feel like this whole discussion has been an exercise in oversimplification, and I don’t think it does any favors to your favored field.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    One last time:

    Ideas are great. People have ideas all the time. But I think the argument can still be made that stories are a more effective vehicle for ideas than just stating them philosophically. “Love thy neighbour” is a great idea, but the story of the Good Samaritan that illustrates it, by caring for an injured man and attending to his needs, shows that idea in action and makes it personal and emotive. Buddha’s noble truths are interesting, but more interesting is the story of his life wherein he traveled and lived as an ascetic until he experienced demonic illusions and conquered them through his insight.

    Stories reach people in a way that other discourse does not – at a universal level. Robert Heinlein once wrote that people don’t particularly like to be taught or preached at, so much as they like to be entertained. So a better way to reach people with ideas was to conceal them within the structure of a story – then, instead of avoiding you for trying to teach them, they pay you to do it. ;)

    Stories show ideas in action, as the possible impacts they would make on individuals and society. People can debate the use of genetics or eugenics, and the ethics of science. But Gattica, Brave New World and Jurassic Park put those ideas into a world with consequences in their stories. People talk about socialism and totalitarianism, but Orwell illustrated them in Animal Farm and 1984.

    Allow me to illustrate this subject in another manner. Imagine that we are debating drinking beverages. One person might think Coca-Cola is the greatest drink. Someone else might prefer Gatorade. There are those who might think absinthe is particularly unique. Now, I come along and define “drink” as a liquid beverage that can a) provide a transitory, sensory taste experience, b) hydrate the body, c) improve health, d) quench thirst. Then, I go a further step and claim water as the “greatest drink” because it achieves all these qualities of a beverage. Coke might taste better to the individual, but it is not as healthy nor does it hydrate. Gatorade might hydrate better, but the taste is good to some and not to others. And it is only available to those with money, while water is free from nature.

    Then I go a further step, and claim that, since all beverages rely on water for their existence, as a primary component, that regardless of individual taste or preference, it objectively stands up as the “greatest drink” because of its universal and essential quality.

    At this point, Chris and Sebatinsky have claimed that “well, different drinks are different things to different people.” There is no rebuttal of the essential point, which is not simple, but I believe complex, thorough and irrefutable. So, if anything, such a stand is less helpful to the discussion, in that it doesn’t teach anyone anything new nor open people with a prior opinion to an alternate possibility.

    I’m not trying to do favours to a field. I originally set out to say “Hey, what Eli said about stories resonates with me.” Then I ended up trying to define what stories mean to me, in the face of an interesting discussion. I did this for my own edification and to hopefully get other people thinking. I don’t expect people to think the same as me. But saying “it’s different to everyone and that’s that” is to end the discussion without actually making a valid, logical argument or rebuttal. I don’t find that helpful or a favour to the field, either. It certainly doesn’t encourage me to think differently.

    Art can convey emotion. It can also be informative and educational, incorporating ideas, beliefs and imagination. However, music and visual art are primarily emotive, and don’t communicate ideas or beliefs as effectively as narrative in language. People impose meaning upon these emotive arts, incorporating them into their personal narrative, their life story. But narrative is universal and goes beyond class – it is the water of our arts. So I go a step further and claim fiction as the most artistic form of narrative, because it has a component non-fiction lacks – it is rooted in the imagination, thus entire universes are created independent of sensory experience.

    I can point further to narrative’s importance in human lives with another illustration. People’s lives are affected negatively if someone is tone deaf, or blind. They can no longer enjoy music or look at a painting. But their lives go on. People who have no narrative or the ability to communicate, are devastated within their own lives but also have an impact on their families. Whether through brain injuries, viral fevers, insanity or severe autism or disability – these people lose the ability to communicate their life story to others, or understand the narratives of the people around them. They are separated from common human experience by the fact that they lose hold of the narrative of their lives. People can live without paintings or music, they can’t live without water or their own life story.

    (On an interesting side note: Biblically speaking, God created the world through words, ie. “Let there be light.” The world’s history is recorded in the Book of Life, and Jesus was called the Word of God, and also the source of Living Water, which would end thirst. Interesting parallel?)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Seb: Note that I’ve not partaken of the fiction vs other-forms-of-art comparison … I, like you, don’t think that’s wise. It’s like comparing apples with oranges; or chicken with duck, or lasagna with ravioli (and everyone knows that lasagna’s way better =])

    @Gavin: I do agree with you that stories are an easier medium through which ideas can be expressed. But frankly I don’t feel the need to expound on this fact, or to argue that fiction is better/worse than other art forms. Your water analogy doesn’t exactly apply to this situation for three main reasons: 1, your definition of ‘beverage’ is just that – yours, and I can well redefine it to mean different things to myself. 2, Your argument assumes that the best beverage is one that adheres to your definition, whereas ‘best’ could well include a fifth variable, one that you have not mentioned: e) personal preference. 3, Water is a basic human need – we can well live without coke, but we can’t live without water … however arguing that people cannot live without stories places upon yourself a huge burden of proof, one that would require at least a book to present. (during the writing of which you would probably stop writing fiction heh /cheeky grin)

    And seriously, Gavin. I love stories. I think the world of them. But I think it’s alright for other people to think the world of music and visual arts (even if I, like you, think they’re nuts) … but here I think I shall abstain. This is essentially an apple vs orange argument and I’ve a feeling you’re losing us mere mortals in the intricate downward spiral of thought you’ve started on. /gulps

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    Sorry about the spiral, Eli, sometimes my thoughts run away with me. :)

  • http://escapeintolife.com Chris or Lethe

    It’s an essentialist argument that Gavin is making and I don’t believe in essential truths.

    We make up morality. We make up our beliefs. There is no truth “out there”. No higher art. No higher law.

    There is also no way to privilege one’s beliefs and principles over others.

    “The smartest people are therefore “ironists.” The ironist believes that we know nothing except our own vocabularies, that “nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence,” that concepts like “just” and “rational” are simply “the language games of one’s time.” An ironist may worry “that she has been . . . taught the wrong language game,” but “she cannot give a criterion of wrongness.” The cultural assumptions we share with Plato and Kant are less likely to be “a tip-off to the way the world is” than just a “mark of the discourse of people inhabiting a certain chunk of space-time.” Schools of philosophy or science are just different vocabularies. When an ironist works on developing her vocabulary, she is constructing her self, not getting in closer touch with some underlying reality — for if there is one, it isn’t knowable.”

    This snippet is taken from a book review in the NYTimes.