Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Fiction is better, Part III

Kate Fridkis describes a situation at the crux of all kinds of hot-button issues: she's an upper-middle-class writer, a woman who lives in Brooklyn ("Girls" yoga organic parenting CSAs beards flannel coffee artisanal! Brooklyn!), and she married at 24 and got pregnant intentionally at 26. In other words, she dared violate the laws of the window of opportunity by not waiting until her set entered into full-on panic about marriage-and-kids, and did things according to a timeline that worked for her. Is hers a story about the latest updates from Turkey? No. But she has an interesting perspective, conveys it well, and doesn't pretend to be talking about a larger pool of people than she is. She writes about herself without dragging anyone else down in the process. A personal-essay triumph!

The commenters, though, did not see it this way. It's a veritable festival of YPIS getting hurled at the author. Fridkis, the commenters believe, thinks she's all that because she did this utterly normal thing: married and had a kid. (Did they not notice how the piece was about how this utterly normal thing has become, in her world, outrageous?) She is, the commenters will helpfully point out, privileged, and needs to get out of her bubble. Meanwhile, the point of the essay was very much self-awareness about said bubble, but why should that stop anyone?

Some commenters - and there are over a thousand comments, not all of which (shocking, I realize) I have read or will read - are really miffed that Fridkis didn't get into her husband's stance on all this. When it's like, maybe she's prepared to share about herself, but not other people? Still others fault the author for caring what her friends think. When it's like, we all care what our friends think. Less as we get older, sure, but it's far easier to claim indifference to this than to achieve it, and at any rate, it's kind of a good thing to have people you're close to, whose opinions you respect.

And then there's the contingent annoyed at the New York-centrism of all of this. When... just change the ages of marriage and first pregnancy, and the same hoopla would happen in a different milieu. There's quite often going to be an age that's not really too young to settle down, but it's younger than what your friends are doing, and it's therefore scandalous. That's the window-of-opportunity problem, and the reaction to the piece I wrote about it suggests it's not only an issue in New York. But yes, New York, so tragically overrepresented. I mean, I was slightly bitter - where I live now, there don't appear to be any wine-fueled non-fiction writing circles, waa! - but the broader point holds even for those of us who need to drive to run errands.

The reaction, then, points us back to the whole fiction-is-better issue. The only reason readers reacted as they did was the dynamic created by the author being a real person. The story gets classified as a news article in readers' brains, and readers understandably compare it, at least implicitly, to hard-news, breaking news, things of that nature. Which, alas, even the best-written personal essay about being 26 and having a baby with one's spouse is never going to be. This is not the first time such a thing has happened, to say the least. One commenter calls it a "narcissistic humble brag," which... no. There is a real problem, but it's not a Real Problem. Fiction allows for presentation of real problems that aren't Real Problems, whereas the personal essay, it seems, does not.

Anyway: to be clear, I don't think fiction is better than non-fiction. I think fiction is better at doing certain things than non-fiction is - better at telling a certain kind of human-nature story. I think we've started looking to non-fiction for the things we should be getting from fiction, while at the same time criticizing certain non-fiction for dealing with exactly the small-scale, relatively-petty concerns that we do find interesting, thus why we were reading the thing in the first place.


Petey said...

"The reaction, then, points us back to the whole fiction-is-better issue. The only reason readers reacted as they did was the dynamic created by the author being a real person."

But even if she'd written under her own name about a character named Nathan Zuckerman with highly similar life-issues, I'm not sure it'd completely solve the blowback problem...

kei said...

Do you think that fiction is better at these things, or more that readers (of a certain kind) are somehow crippled into reading these things in a particular way? Though it's obviously both, it seems increasingly like it's more the latter. I want to blame reality TV for this in a weird way, as if the commenters think that bashing "reality TV' justifies bashing this kind of personal nonfiction, but obviously hose genres are different forms of media (this is not a comment about reality TV being < nonfiction, but the reactions to it).

But yeah, fiction is better for personal stories, I guess. Is there something about a fictional character that is easier to sympathize with than a real one? But then some treat fictional characters as though they're real. Anyway, people can be mean! It's like how adults say "Gosh, kids can be so mean sometimes." The comments section is like a playground.

(I also wonder if she would have gotten this response if the author didn't have that picture up of her, provided by her. It shouldn't matter, but I'm afraid she has a look that can be construed as a bit self-satisfied.)

caryatis said...


"...the small-scale, relatively-petty concerns that we do find interesting, thus why we were reading the thing in the first place."

I'm wondering about why we do read such things. Of course we can be interested, as you seem to be, in how this particular person's choices fit into the zeitgeist. But my natural reaction is rather less sophisticated--to look at personal essays or advice columns as attempts to say what choices people should be making, and to conclude either that the advice is right or that the author's an idiot. But of course that's not the response the authors are looking for....

Phoebe said...


But something special happens when protagonist=author.


Yes, people are mean. And yes, absolutely, people confuse fictional characters and real people, esp. the people who wrote the fiction in question. I think the issue, then, is partly just how the author of personal writing will take criticism. It's one thing if a character you've created (even one with your name - see Philip Roth, Larry David) provoked. It's another if it's you.

That's interesting re: reality TV. Audiences of all genres might just assume that personal=outrageous, and that might inform the response. So if the topic is outrageous (as with the woman who announces she doesn't use birth control and will have as many abortions as need be), there will be outrage, but if it's just kind of ordinary (having a baby intentionally with one's spouse at 26, or the Korean-leftovers debacle), the response will be, stop making a fuss about nothing.


I think people are drawn to small-scale stories for a full range of reasons, but that author-as-protagonist encourages a less nuanced or sympathetic reading. There's on the one hand all this pressure to be nice and not criticize, and on the other, an impulse to be all kinds of harsh. And then the problem is, even the more nuanced discussions sting for the author.