Fiction Again

by Glenn Conjurske

Seven years have swiftly flown since I published my article against fiction, an article which was highly praised at the time by friend and foe alike. My indictment against fiction in that article was that it draws too bright a picture of life, gives too much hope, conducts us as it were to a fantasy-land, in which everything is as we wish it, and so makes reality unbearably dull and boring. Leading us to expect more of life than it ordinarily has to offer, it conducts us at last to disillusionment and unbelief.

I find my judgement exactly confirmed by Lorenzo Dow, who says of “romantic novels”—-”Observe, they exhibit characters which no where in real life exist, and yet young minds are too frequently captivated, and thereby form an idea—-—-—-—-—-—-—-–; and must of course be disappointed, and consequently made unhappy, perhaps for life. This is one of the many evils of novels to society!”

But my readers must understand that my opinion is that of a man who for many years has not read fiction—-and Lorenzo probably read as little of it as I do. But I have recently found abundant confirmation of my position from a man who obviously read a great deal of it, a century and a half ago. He appears to know the whole field—-all the popular books and authors of his time—-and in reviewing a number of popular novels he says, “…all exciting fiction works upon the nerves, and Shakspeare can make ‘every particular hair to stand on end’ with anybody. We suppose that the true sensation novel feels the popular pulse with this view alone—-considers any close fidelity to nature a slavish subservience injurious to effect, and willingly and designedly draws a picture of life which shall make reality insipid and the routine of ordinary existence intolerable to the imagination.” It “draws a wholly false picture of life,” and of course a very pleasing picture, such as must naturally make us weary of life as it is.

This man writes, it is true, of what was then called the “sensation novel,” but adds also, “Of course no fiction can be absolutely commonplace and natural in all its scenes and incidents; some extraordinary conditions seem unavoidable in its machinery.” We quite agree. If fiction were commonplace, no one would read it. It is precisely the unnatural and the extraordinary—-precisely the picture which is brighter or more exciting than reality—-which gives it all its appeal. This is one of its greatest evils, and this, we suppose, is common even to the most innocent of fiction.

But little fiction is quite innocent. The necessary excitement, we suppose, must usually be attained by means of something which is morally tainted. Our reviewer quotes another to the effect that it is the way of these novels to be “destroying conventional moralities, and generally unfitting the public for the prosaic avocations of life,” and adds himself, “And sensationalism does this by drugging thought and reason, and stimulating the attention through the lower and more animal instincts, rather than by a lively and quickened imagination; and especially by tampering with things evil, and infringing more or less on the confines of wrong.”

Excitement is indispensable to fiction, and this is hardly to be attained by a rehearsal of the commonplaces of life. No, it requires freedom from the restraints of the routine and the ordinary. We suppose this freedom from ordinary restraints a simple necessity to fiction. “Thus,” writes our reviewer, “story-writers of every age and style seem, by one consent, to ignore for their heroines the most universal and inevitable of all relationships. The heroines of fiction have no mothers.” Though granting that there are occasional exceptions to this, he continues, “The mere novelist finds the mother a dull and unmanageable feature.” She in fact stands in the way of that freedom from restraint which makes fiction exciting. We know that there are thousands of girls who have never found any warmth or sweetness in the word “mother.” Their mothers are selfish and cold, or sharp-tongued and wrathy. They elicit neither respect nor love. Yet the worst of mothers are a great restraint against evil. Of the fallen girls in the brothels we are told, “a girl who has been trapped into this kind of a life never wants to reveal her real name, because of the sorrow and shame it would bring to her parents. … In nearly all cases, the chief concern is that their parents—-and in particular, their mothers—-might discover that they are in lives of shame.” Their mothers are the greatest deterrent to evil which they have known. We would not pretend that their mothers’ influence was all that it should have been. It failed to save them from a life of shame. But still it was the greatest deterrent to evil which they had known.

We doubt that the writers of fiction purposely or consciously omit mothers from their productions, much less that they do so for any sinister purpose. But their thoughts and aims run in another channel, a channel which is little likely to lead them to a mother. They are no more likely to think of a mother than a paratrooper or scuba diver does of a bicycle. All their aims lie in another direction. “This exceptional condition of early life—-freedom from restraint, and untimely liberty of choice and action—-then, belongs to the youth of all fiction.” And what sort of example can such characters set?

Fiction’s freedom from restraint is no mere pleasing dream, but a corrupting moral evil. “There is nothing more violently opposed to our moral sense, in all the contradictions to custom which [these novels] present to us, than the utter unrestraint in which the heroines of this order are allowed to expatiate and develop their impulsive, stormy, passionate characters. We believe, it is one chief among their many dangers to youthful readers that they open out a picture of life free from all the perhaps irksome checks that confine their own existence, and treat all such checks as real hindrances, solid impediments, to the development of power, feeling, and the whole array of fascinating and attractive qualities.”

And the evil certainly goes yet deeper. To draw an ideal character who is without the ordinary external restraints of life is certainly a great evil, but fiction can hardly stop here. The most exciting fictional characters will always be those who are likewise short of internal restraints. “The heroine of this class of novel is charming because she is undisciplined, and the victim of impulse; because she has never known restraint or has cast it aside, because in all these respects she is below the thoroughly trained and tried woman.”

Unerring instinct, unrestrained emotion, uninhibited action, irresistible temptation—-and the reviewer cites numerous examples of these from the novels of which he writes—-such things as these must be the staple of any fiction which is not too dull to read. The characters are swept on, by internal or external forces beyond their control, to scenes of pleasure and intrigue. All this is a great moral evil, tending to divorce the reader as much from principle and morals as it does from reality.

But I turn to another facet of the theme. It is really a great mystery to me how anyone professing godliness can have any interest in fiction. Human nature is my constant study, but it is truth I want, not fiction. I want reality, not imagination. All this was impressed most powerfully upon my mind in the recent reading of the account of a murder trial which took place in Scotland in 1856. A beautiful young woman was accused of poisoning her former lover. She had loved him passionately, sacrificed her chastity to him, and written of this repeatedly in the letters which she sent him. Her feelings for him having grown cold, however, she was engaged to another lover, but continued her contacts with the first, and her professions of love for him also, making every possible endeavor to get her letters back from him. He would not yield them, and died from arsenic immediately after a supposed (but unproved) contact with her. She had openly bought arsenic on several occasions, claiming that she used it for cosmetic purposes. Throughout her trial, which was for her life—-for murderers were hanged in those days—-she remained calm, self-possessed, and even buoyant, intently observing everything and everybody in the packed court room. She showed a little uneasiness when her letters mentioning her immorality were read, but otherwise no emotion at all, except one deep sigh when the verdict of “not proven” was read. At that point the crowd burst into wild cheering, though strictly forbidden by the judge to express any response to the jury’s judgement.

I have condensed to a single paragraph the main elements of this affair, the details of which occupied a number of large pages of fine print in the Guardian, where I read it. My only reason for mentioning it here is to state that though I believe it the most intriguing thing I have read in my life, I was conscious throughout that if this had been fiction—-though identical in every word to the truth—-the whole thing would have been the most intolerable emptiness. All the intrigue, all the interest, would have been utterly gone, if I had but suspected that what I was reading had never happened. I can scarcely conceive of anything more unprofitable than to imagine such things—-unless it be to read them. It is perfectly plain to me that, as we must lose our taste for reality in just the proportion that we relish fiction, so those who are devoted to truth must lose their taste for fiction.

Glenn Conjurske