From a provocative piece by Roxana Robinson in The New York Times’ Sunday Review (June 29) on a subject that has haunted me since I became a self-published novelist:
“Fiction writers aren’t in this for the money, since most of us don’t make any,” she writes. “So what are we doing, messing about in other people’s lives?”
What indeed? Robinson’s novel “Sparta” is about a young male Marine – and while most of the vets she’s heard from have been supportive, one reminded her that she’s never been in combat and knows nothing about it. Just as a few readers have asked me, Whatever would possess you to write from a gay man’s viewpoint in “Water Music”?
Robinson has my stock comeback, Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” only she goes me one better, pointing out that Tolstoy drew on a real-life tragedy (a jilted young woman throwing herself under a train) and a personal one (the adultery and abandonment of his married sister, who was left with an out-of-wedlock child).
His response – “Anna Karenina” – “was not, ‘I can use this,’ but ‘I can’t bear this,’” Robinson observes. “Writing was a way to relieve his own pain. This was a deeply compassionate response.”
While I agree in part, I think that’s a bit disingenuous, don’t you? As Nora Ephron famously remarked, “Everything is copy.” Of course, the writer is saying, “I gotta use this.” And, anyway, a deeply compassionate response would’ve been to pay the young woman’s funeral expenses or to have the sister come stay with you and listen to her grief. Compassion is a bowl of soup, a hand on the shoulder or the loan of a car, a guest room, a heart – with no strings attached. Compassion is immediate. Fiction takes too long for that.
But Robinson’s right when she writes, “Writers are trying to reach some understanding of the world, and we do this by setting down stories.”
We explain the world to ourselves and more than that, ourselves to the world.
Until we arrive at last at the moment when we explain ourselves to ourselves.