Fiction & the illusion of a self

In his recent article ‘ Do We Need Stories?’ author Tim Parks writes:

We would like the self to exist perhaps, but does it really? What is it? The need to surround it with a lexical clutter of reinforcing terms—identity, character, personality, soul—all with equally dubious referents suggests our anxiety.

When Parks refers to such referents as ‘invented’, it’s clear what he means. But humans also invented sliced bread and TV; and, irrespective of their quality, those things are real. Parks then goes on to argue that the novel – flower of Western individualism that it is – has served to intensify the idea of a self, and asks whether we actually need that. It’s a fair question from an author of at least 14 novels, and at a time when the novel-as-cultural-form appears to be in decline. But is ‘intensification of self’ what novels do the best job of providing? Isn’t that at least as much the role of the memoir, a genre that’s never been more popular? Quoting Jonathan Franzen, Parks evokes character-driven realism. Personally, though, I’m partial to fictions that challenge accepted notions of self; the sort dismissed as ‘literary’ by those who profit from popular fiction. If the novel can aid this process of self-creation, it can as soon undermine it. But how many such narratives are published and read widely? Because, as Parks also says: ‘People tend to use stories of whatever kind to bolster their beliefs, not to question them.’

After 15+ years of writing novels that don’t bolster the beliefs (or prejudices) held by most agents and editors, I agree. And the stories these gatekeepers take a punt on so often fail to touch my soul that I can see why others might doubt the existence of their own. (Which reminds me of Parks’ related article, ‘ Why Finish Books?’)

In one core subject – Theory – of a creative-writing MA course I took, multi-layered experiments were encouraged. Exploring links between postmodernism and schizophrenia, I juxtaposed third-person present-tense fiction with first-person past-tense nonfiction. This hybrid was approved of in the rarefied air of uni. But such self-indulgence wouldn’t fly in the wider world of, say, an online writers’ site.

For one thing, many readers (despite also being wannabe writers) don’t seem to register shifts of tense. It’s as if, for them, the distinction between past and present is irrelevant; as if history doesn’t exist, so these lost souls (that term with a dubious referent) hang out in an eternal now, retaining less than goldfish. Such readers hate having to reread a text due to its depth or complexity. Yet, give them formulaic genre tales that tick the familiar boxes, and they’ll reread what amounts to the same old plot again and again. The same old plot will of course uphold what Parks calls the ‘illusion of selfhood’; the irony being that this kind of reader would seem to lack individuality, hence their complacent acceptance of stereotypical characters (which presumably mirror their own unexamined values).

Is the above diss of my fellows politically incorrect? Maybe. It’s akin to how some men refer to women in general (or vice versa) – as if they’re all the same – or how some folk view those from other races or cultures, or how most humans view animals (except for four-legged extensions of themselves, i.e., their pets). In fact, this kind of generalising negates the selfhood of its subject, sometimes to the extent of excusing exploitation, abuse and destruction.

There’s no risk of me exploiting said readers; that’s the job of the marketing machine. If I could avoid them, I would. Always too vague, their pooh-poohing never tells me anything new. Yet their numbers appear to be on the rise – which tells us about the state of publishing. Let’s say publishing is the chicken and readers are the egg (nothing comes first in a vicious circle), because a battery-hen analogy seems to fit the mode of production, from conception through to premature consumption.

If such mass-produced novels fuel what Parks calls ‘intensification of self’, the selves thus intensified must have been diluted indeed. As for whether we need this intensification, Parks says: ‘a Buddhist priest … would probably tell us that it is precisely this illusion of selfhood that makes so many in the West unhappy.’

Hence our society’s highest ever levels of depression? And adult unhappiness is inherited by the young. Meanwhile, young adult novels have never sold more copies. In an article on teen writers and readers, Lili Wilkinson explains ‘why novels like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are so popular with teens – both books follow the journey of a disempowered protagonist, who seizes control from an oppressive adultcentric regime.’ Might that also explain why Harry Potter enthrals so many adults?* It aptly demonstrates what Parks calls ‘this ingenious invention … this sovereign self whose essential identity remains unchanged by all vicissitudes.’ (Unlike Parks, I eventually finish most of the novels I begin; the cringe-worthy Harry Potter and…? was a rare exception. But the only YA novels I loved as a teen featured horses, not people – though of course they were anthropomorphised.)

I wonder what Parks would make of Wilkinson’s argument that ‘Kids today … are using books to save the world’? Her line of reasoning runs from YA books to related activities that involve charities and activism. But the line starts to blur when she segues from real-world online campaigning to gaming, i.e., playing MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). ‘The problem is,’ she discerns, ‘people feel like they’re not as good in the real world.’ Sure, that’s one problem. Another is when the distinction between real and virtual is lost. As Douglas Rushkoff (Program or Be Programmed, 2010) says, ‘A Stanford scientist testing kids’ memories of virtual reality experiences has found that at least half of children cannot distinguish between what they really did and what they did in the computer simulation.’ So, while Wilkinson’s optimism is enviable, the generation on which she pins such hope of salvation will have to contend with more than just an illusory self.

* As for that staple YA trope, ‘an oppressive adultcentric regime’, religion once filled this real-life role in the West, but science has progressively displaced it. If you exhibited signs of self-empowerment in Europe four or so centuries ago – psychic or healing tendencies, say – you could be burned at the stake. The repressive Church took any threat to its monopoly on spirit quite seriously. But Science has a different parenting style: it’s the indulgent grown-up who laughs off so-called childish beliefs (‘Invisible friends? That’s nice, dear. Did you remember to wash behind your ears?’), yet spoils their brats with too many toys, ensuring they remain distracted. Toys that usurp our own mental functions, performing old tasks so much faster and better, we’re rapidly losing skills and faculties most of us once had. (Long division, anyone? And telepathy’s just a fantasy, isn’t it?) The idea of a self needs to be discouraged not least because you might plumb it too deeply and stumble upon liberating secrets.

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