The struggle to write (good) fiction continues, and it occurred to me today that there is a paradox inherent in the desire to create a world, or characters, or situations that are on the one hand fictional, and on the other hand deeply meaningful and therefore worth writing.
What is paradoxical about profoundly meaningful fiction? For me, all meaning must ultimately be real meaning; yet fiction is by definition unreal. We’ve discussed already how the unreality and freedom of fiction can make it more potent than non-fiction; but now that potency itself raises the paradox. If I can create a supremely potent and meaningful fiction, wouldn’t that fiction either approximate or take the place of my own real ideals and perspective of reality?
If you were going to build yourself a house, you would want it to be the ideal house because it will take a lot of effort to build and you’re going to be living in it for a very long time. A novel also takes a lot of effort and time to construct, but you don’t have to live in it when it’s done. In fact you live in it until it is done. Nonetheless, because of the effort involved you want it to be as good as it possibly can. You want it to meet your ideals.
The problem then is that to meet my ideals the fiction must be so meaningful that it ceases to be ‘fiction’ and instead becomes somehow a reality. This is not so much an expected outcome as a pressure and it explains some of the difficulties I’ve been having: I feel pressed to make my fiction so meaningful that all seemingly conventional fictional efforts immediately fall short and are discarded. I can’t invent a character unless he is the most appropriate and meaningful character – but what if that character ends up being me? I can’t invent a goal unless it is the most meaningful and significant goal – but such a goal must transcend the boundaries of fiction.
Tolkien may have avoided this problem by regarding his efforts as the creation of a myth for his people. In other words, all his work on Middle-Earth could be justified under the auspices of mythology – a context that lent it gravitas and significance beyond mere fiction. In this sense, his work broke the boundary between fiction and reality. Myth is, after all, neither truly fiction nor fact but sits in its own strange landscape where history and ideas can coexist. Tolkien’s exorbitant efforts make sense because the meaning he created was not just for himself nor for the sake of writing fiction but for a whole people, for posterity; nor simply for entertainment but for all the vital significance of mythology.*
None of this is to imply that all the good fiction out there is somehow insignificant or inferior. This is a personal creative challenge, not a generic critique, and it likely strikes only a small subset of those who turn their hand to fiction.
How I see the paradox unfolding is that my continued efforts to write fiction must somehow satisfy my desire for it to be supremely meaningful – a work of fiction that transcends the banality of everyday life. If it succeeds in this, it will then somehow encapsulate the meaning in this life also. In other words, it will have to be more than fiction. It will have to be real, and that is both a frightening and an exhilarating prospect.
*People often describe Tolkien as having created his own world, but the implicit solipsism doesn’t ring true. It seems more like Tolkien was reshaping the world, or at least his corner of it, enriching his world through the domain of myth. Perhaps that is why Tolkien didn’t like Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: as allegories, analogies, or on the level of conceit, their significance cannot translate into the real world in the same way that the mythology of Middle-Earth can. Many authors create a few words of a foreign language for the sake of their stories; Tolkien still stands out for having created actual, workable languages. His fictional languages became real things, just as his stories became real as myth.