Morten Høi Jensen wrote a great essay today that was touched off in part by a reporter’s now-deleted tweet questioning how anyone could read fiction during Times Like These.
I wanted to chime in on this not just to point you to Jensen’s excellent article, but also to riff on one of the undercurrents of the tweet and the article.
Namely: We always live in Times Like These. So you might as well read and write fiction if you want to.
We live in precedented times
One of the most disorienting aspects of modern life is that the internet has given us the ability to witness a real time firehose of the worst of whatever is going on in the world on any given day. That really is unprecedented.
But at the risk of being pedantic (and to be clear I’m not trying to minimize any horrific tragedy), there’s very little of the past few years that hasn’t happened many times in the past, and often even the recent past. Pandemics? Check. Wars? Obviously. Catastrophic climate change? Allow me to point you to the Late Pleistocine.
We should do everything we can to try to stop all of these horrible things from happening again, but I don’t think falling into a paralyzed stupor every time there’s something bad going on in the world (which is all the time if you’re willing to look) helps anyone.
If anything, another thing that’s actually-unprecedented about Times Like These is the extreme comfort you are likely experiencing if you have the time, education, and technological device necessary to read these words. It’s that immense gulf between our world historical beating comfort and the horrible things going on elsewhere in the world that, I think, creates a sense of guilt that paralyzes people into thinking something like fiction is frivolous.
Writing is Doing Something
One of the most quietly challenging things about writing a novel is giving yourself permission to spend an immense amount of time on something that can feel frivolous and self-indulgent.
But think about the world we would live in without our favorite stories. Think of the way some novels have bent the course of history. If no one gave themselves permission to write, the world would be a much worse place.
And even if you don’t write the next Uncle Tom’s Cabin and no one reads your book outside of your immediate circle, I still think writing is valuable because of the effect it has on authors. Writing is an act of empathy and, as Jensen says, fiction “satisfies, intermittently and imperfectly, a metaphysical longing, a desire to extend life beyond its arbitrary limits.” It still matters.
Like everyone else, I have spent some of the last few weeks casting about for ways to Do Something. But we’re all limited to our spheres, means, and abilities. I’ve donated to the causes I care about and will vote with my interests and try to make choices consistent with my values. But I’m not running for political office and won’t be in charge of a military any time soon. I can’t stop the latest horrible thing going on in the world.
I’m a writer, so I write.
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Art: Archduke Leopold Wilhelm and the artist in the archducal picture gallery in Brussels by David Teniers the Younger
So much this. Shalom Auslander wrote an excellent piece about this exact theme: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/auslander-ostrich-media-covid
Neil Larkins says
I think you’ll like this, Nathan: Because of you, I belong to Heifer International. The other day I received a fund raising call from them. After making my donation, I had a delightful talk with the solicitor. She had the freedom to spend some time with Heifer’s clients and we discovered how much we had in common. One example, my last name is Larkins, hers is Harkins. Both those names are Scots-Irish. I then had to mention how I came to be associated with them, and mentioned you. I’m grateful for that “something” you do in addition to writing, Nathan.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Amen, Nathan! We have ALWAYS lived in “times like these”. And flourished despite it all.
Sally M. Chetwynd says
You are spot on about this, Nathan. If your work never gets beyond your desk, the act of writing it helps you establish order in those things you can control. If your work does get broad attention, the problems that your characters solve, the way they address their dilemmas often speaks to the reader and gives hope or encouragement or comfort. It’s communication, and we’re more desperate for that than ever in Times Like These.
A lot of us write because we must. The story tells us to, and it’s like a terrier: it will NOT be ignored. The characters grab us by the throat and demand that we write their stories. And so we do. Who are we to argue with the muse? There’s got to be a reason for it, a reason greater than ourselves.
Sally M. Chetwynd says
Another consideration for spending time with anything other than the Crisis of the Week (or Month, or Year) is that – especially in these electronic times – we all need respite from the 24/7 onslaught of disaster coverage. Those who deny themselves some R&R from it are asking to blow a gasket.
I’m wondering if some of the guilt that you and Jensen refer to is responsible for the obsession that so many have to live and talk and write Covid incessantly, for one example. It’s a form of virtue-signalling, which I despise. A friend was collecting Covid stories from her friends and relations to publish in a book. She asked for permission to include an essay I wrote about it. But after she asked for this revision and that edit and another deletion, in an effort to sanitize my story so as not to offend other readers, I decided to withdraw it. I hadn’t originally written it for distribution, only to vent my frustrations. I wasn’t interested in publication because I didn’t want to give the damned virus any more attention than that which it has already received non-stop for the past two years. Only three months into the lockdowns and I found the public gluttony for more Covid stats obscene.
Well, that’s my take on public obsession over Whatever Disaster Has The Biggest Press Agent Today. As you say, support the causes of your choice and stand up for your values and integrity.