Thursday, 15 March 2012

On fiction

Tom Wolfe said, “The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction”.

Undeniably true, but easier said than done, as I realized when I recently tried my hand at fiction. After years of expressing my opinions (sometimes too strongly, I’m told) – verbally, on social networking websites, and now on my blog – I decided to experiment. And it was so hard!

I had the basic plot outline, I had the characters, I even had the structure in place before I put finger to keyboard. Then why was it so difficult? The answer, I realized, was in the voice. Whenever I’ve critically analyzed a book (which means whenever I’ve read a book), I’ve always asked myself: Is there even one character in this book whom I love and root for? If not, the book has failed. This question is so much a part of my book-reading that I’m surprised that as a writer, it took me such a long while to realize it.

Writing an article, an opinion piece, or a blog post is so much easier, in some ways, because you’re writing as yourself, so you’re free to just write what you think. You don’t have to worry that you’re imposing your own views on your characters, because the only narrative voice that counts is your own. You’re not worried that you won’t sound authentic – there’s no way you can’t.

The other thing about writing fiction is that you’re always worried someone else got there before you, and your idea that sounded so cool and interesting when you first came up with it suddenly sounds banal and clichéd. I had to constantly remind myself that no story is entirely original now, in this age of instant communication and sharing of ideas. Everything has been written about in some way, everything is based on something that someone has read, seen, or heard. Every story spawns a million more, each with their own twists and takes, but with the same genesis – human nature. That is the great mother of all stories and everything else comes from it.

This brings me to another question – what is the point of fiction, if every story has been told in some form or another? Of late, I’ve had conversations with so many people who claim that they’re done with fiction. They’ve read their fill, they enjoyed it when they were younger, and now have nothing left to gain from it, so now they will only read non-fiction or, at most, historical fiction. As a nut for good fiction of almost any genre, I find this view hard to understand. How can anyone possibly say they’ve learnt whatever there is to learn from other people’s stories? That’s as good as saying they don’t want to meet anyone new or hear anything about anyone they don’t already know about! It’s a narrow, almost arrogant view – to think you’ve read enough. No one can ever have read enough, and this is one of the best and worst things about life.

Fiction is about more than just the plot. It is beyond someone’s telling of someone else’s story. It’s about imagination, the creation of a brand new world, the ability to get into the skin of characters who don’t exist, and to do it so convincingly that the reader believes these places and people and events to be real, even if just for a few hours. It’s about using these worlds and people and events to illustrate a larger point about the world we actually do inhabit and the lives we actually do live. It’s about creating these parallels and ideas for yourself even if the writer hasn’t illustrated them, because when you read fiction, it becomes your own. It’s about the beauty of a well-crafted sentence or passage, the sudden jolt you feel when one stunningly spare bit of prose leaps out at you and you realize this is exactly how you feel and you thought no one got it. These things – imagination, literary craft, beauty, talent, emotional connection – are limitless. And so, therefore, is fiction.


  1. Well said!

    Despite my Eng Lit education, I still find it hard to deconstruct and I read purely for a good story, and characters I can relate to, love, or even hate.

    This will most probably not include the "right" stuff (which I'm shamefully behind on, but a book that leaves me indifferent to the contents or the characters fails for me.

  2. PK - thanks! I think the beauty of all literature, but especially fiction, is that each reader responds to it in a different way, and for different reasons. For me, the enjoyment comes from deconstruction and analysis, and I find I can't read a book or watch a movie without doing it. And I don't think there's any such thing as the "right" stuff, though there is much that is unbearable! I'm so glad you like the post.