I 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.