On Fiction: Toward a Theory of Creation (Part I: Foundations)

The current project is to try to codify, to some extent, a theory on the creation of fiction.   Here I’m concerned with the foundations underlying the creative process.  By “foundations,” I do not mean “style.”  Sartre says, of style, that  “[e]veryone invents his own, and one judges it afterward.  It is true that subjects suggest the style, but they do not order it.  There are no styles ranged a priori outside of the literary art” (Sartre 323); and I am inclined to agree with him.  (The issue of style, like most things, shouldn’t go unquestioned — but we can can come back to this later.)  What I’m concerned with now is authenticity.

I’ll start by laying bare my presupposition which is that there is in fact a telos to the creative process.  There is an end to be achieved here; there is a reason why we write fiction.  The telos is something I’ll have to leave somewhat vague for now (though we will come back to it in part two of this essay series).  I do want to say something about telos now, however briefly.  Sartre claims that “the function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it’s all about” (ibid. 321).  Sartre here seems to be implying that there is some sort of truth which the author has access to which is conveyed to a reader through the medium of fiction.  We can agree with this, provisionally.  The question of which particular truth, if any, an author is supposed to reveal will have to wait until part two (there we might also encounter the question of whether “truth” has any value at all).  With such questions, we’ll find ourselves in the most interesting of company…For now, we can content ourselves with telos broadly conceived as “truth.”  So the current topic of discussion, then, is how one ought to go about conveying truth.

Sartre makes a distinction between two different ways of artistically portraying objects: (1) as signs (that is, as representations of ideas) and (2) as things (where we focus on the thing being portrayed as opposed to what that thing symbolizes).  Take, for example, a flower.  One may either consider a white rose as a sign of fidelity (to pick out one signification), or conversely, one can consider the rose as a thing in itself (in which case one becomes lost in the texture and shape and sensation of perceiving the rose).   Good painters, Sartre says, are concerned with representing things, not things as signs (ibid. 305); “on the other hand, the writer deals with significations…The empire of signs is prose…” (ibid. 307).  I interpret this as meaning that the good writer is not concerned with portraying mere objects, but, instead, objects as signs; if all prose is to keep this strict relationship between objects and significations, then all prose must be metphorical and/or allegorical.  Is this the conclusion Sartre wants to be locked into?

“Prose,” Sartre says, “is, in essence, utilitarian” (ibid. 316).  Prose is meant to get things done; writing it is meant to be an action in itself but it is also meant to be a catalyst for further action (ibid. 320).  Prose is meant to be persuasive; and beauty, when presented in prose, “hides itself; it acts by persuasion like the charm of a voice or a face.  It does not coerce; it inclines a person without his suspecting it, and he thinks that he is yielding to arguments when he is really being solicited by a charm that he does not see” (ibid. 322).  In other words, one writes beautifully of objects such that the significations can be all the more persuasive: “the writer can guide you and, if he describes a hovel, make it seem the symbol of social injustice and provoke your indignation” (ibid. 306); this indignation, in turn, prompts you to act.  Such is the purpose of prose writing, according to Sartre.

Surely there are shortcomings in the means advocated by Sartre.  If prose is always to be a philosophy veiled behind rendered objects (albeit beautifully rendered objects — and of course we acknowledge that something wretched can be rendered beautifully), then we can certainly accuse such prose of being inauthentic.  I’m suggesting that fiction needs to make it seem as if you are in the same arena as the objects it presents, touching them, tasting them, breathing them in; realizing that they are what they are independent of any particular signification whilst never forgetting that the multitude of significations — as there is surely a multitude of significations, in the real world, for any given object — is there.  Presenting the objects qua objects is like allowing the reader into the afore mentioned arena to explore for himself, to come to his own decisions about what has been presented to him; it’s not to put an object behind glass with a codified sign behind it which alerts the reader to the one meaning which corresponds to the object.  So, in short: we have a distinction here between two modes of presentation: (1) objects qua objects and (2) objects qua significations; I suggest that the former is authentic (for it presents a world as primarily a world) and the latter is inauthentic (for it presents us with a dead, deterministic world, one which is primarily a facade where the characters and objects are transparent, predictable and robotic); the latter philosophy is one which will leave us forever watchful and distrustful, afraid that we’re being manipulated by someone we ought to be able to trust (i.e. the author).

Striking a chord resonant with Sartre, Camus claims that “a novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images” (Camus 199).  Still, Camus says, in a good novel, the philosophy has disappeared into the images.  But, “the philosophy need only spill over into the characters and action for…the plot to lose its authenticity, and the novel its life” (ibid. 199).  Of Nausea, Camus says, “the book itself seems less a novel than a monologue” (ibid. 200).  And this is the point; how often are we lectured?  And how often do we ignore the lecture so that we might learn lessons for ourselves?  There is something abstract, alien, and offputting about being talked at about the complexities of life or about the truth of existence.  Do we want to be told how things are?  Do we want lectures?  Or do we want to experience something first hand so that we might draw our own conclusions?

I posit that we do not, and ought not, want a piece of art that is DOA; rather we want — and need — a work that is alive and breathing and most importantly, authentic.  Only then can we truly, not just understand, but feel truth.  And that is when we apprehend it most perfectly.

(Of course Camus heaps praise onto Sartre for “Nausea” in this article, just as he goes on to critique the novel for other reasons.  Here, however, I’m concerned primarily with the opposition to inauthenticity and to the propagandistic, manipulative purposes prose can be made to serve.)

I suppose what this may all boil down to, in the end, however, is trust.  The author will have to have faith in his audience; he will have to trust that his audience will be able to mine for the truth hidden deep within the authentic protrayals of life; the truth will often be complex and contradictory and murky, as real life is — nevertheless, truth will be there waiting for he who seeks.

As Merleau-Ponty wrote,

“The novelist’s task is not to expound ideas or even analyse characters, but to depict an interhuman event, ripening and bursting it upon us with no idealogical commentary…Their meaning [is] accessible only through direct contact…It is a nexus of living meanings, not the law for a certain number of covariant terms” (MP 175).

There are certain things that have been taken for granted in the context of this essay; and these are things that we can presuppose no more.  We know of what value authenticity is…But the questions remain: is there a “truth” to be conveyed?  What is it and of what value is it?

  • Camus, Albert.  “On Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausee“in Lyrical and Critical Essays.  Vintage Books (1970).
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice.  Phenomenology of Perception.  Routledge (2002).
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul.  “What is writing?” in Essays in Existentialism.  Citadel Press (1993).

All original content copyright 2009 by Lon K. Montag: Excerpt freely, but please acknowledge the source.

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