Fiction as Truthful Essences

In The Sciensmall gentiantific Renaissance 1450-­1630, Marie Boas Hall discusses the case of Leonhard Fuchs and his 1542 guidebook De Historia Stirpum (History of Plants.) In his preface, Fuchs writes that “there is no one who does not know that there is nothing in this life pleasanter and more delightful than to wonder over woods, mountains, plains, garlanded and adorned with little flowers and plants of various and elegant sorts, gazing intently upon them.” Presumably, Fuchs thus saw dozens, if not hundreds, of instantiations of the same kind of plant. When he and other botanists of the time hired artists to illustrate their “herbals” or “gardens of health,” however, the artist drew from but a single plant. Any defect of the individual became a misrepresentation of the type. Not until botany opted for the ideal specimen rather than an actual specimen did the guidebooks better aid identification and classification. In short, botany turned to fiction to find a clearer truth.

For a culture that seems obsessed enough with the “fun fact” and truth as “exactly what happened,” we ought to keep in mind Fuchs and his artists. Literature, especially the novel, has been a guidebook to life for so many readers because it renders not the never-to-be-repeated particular but rather the essence of people and experience, a sort of History of Humans to aid analysis and classification. Literature is designed not to call up an individual blue gentian wilting slowly on some table in the autumn of 1541, though it must alssmall sky mtno do that if it would entertain, but it enables us to name a blue gentian next time we see it and consider what makes it what it is. Fiction can organize experience in a way actual life cannot. Being someone who doesn’t scorn the didactic possibility of art, I add that organized information is easier to understand than disorganized information. Thus we have historians and physicists even if we all experience history and physics every day. We also have Fuchs, luckily for us, because his walks are probably no longer our own.

Research: An Evaporating Puddle

Pravda articleI have taught many college composition courses that stress using research to garner evidence and to identify interesting problems, which the essay then addresses. Aside from getting students to stop using phrases such as “Back in the day” or to recognize “defiant” is not “definite” even if both survive spellcheck, I also have to assess how well students used research, which means the research has to be obvious. In fiction, however, the opposite often holds true: the research should all but disappear. The research is like a puddle in which the author may have played, but the water evaporates leaving only the essential deposits behind in the story.

Why? Because The reader of fiction fills in the details much more than the reader of non-fiction ought. In academic persuasion, the ideas, whether facts or interpretations, are the story, but in fiction, these ideas serve to create an experience. That experience, meanwhile, often occurs, at least for me, in a mystical space where a line drawn from the spine of the book intersects with a line drawn from the crown of my skull. To experience fiction is to move through time and space with another human being, or as another human being, but always a particular one, even in a cast of dozens.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, for instance, tells us American history by telling us about Robert Grainier. We learn of logging and trains and the commingling of people and their prejudices because these elements serve to create Grainier, a man of endurance, loss, simple convictions, and stubborn insight. I could not, however, set out to survive in the West based on whatever facts I acquired from Johnson.

I and a few other writers will be discussing research in creative writing at a panel at Virginia Commonwealth University January 29 at 4:30 in the Forum Room of the Commons. Stop by for whatever essential deposits we can leave behind in your thoughts.

Mark Meier’s most recent book, Wisecrack, is available now.Meier - Wisecrack cover small