This weekend I returned to my alma mater, St. John’s College, to participate in a fundraiser for its Caritas Society, which provides St. John’s students with supplemental financial aid when needed. St. John’s College, for those not familiar with it, is the third oldest college in the U.S. , so old that four of its founders signed the Declaration of Independence. There are almost no electives in the college; all students follow “the Program,” a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum based on the most important books and ideas of Western civilization.
It was a wonderful visit that reminded me of four very fruitful years spent in an intellectual incubator. I was one of three writers in a very well-attended “Meet the Author” panel; and as the only fiction writer of the three, I felt I had to Represent. The speech was a bit cheeky—dissing Plato at a school where he’s as revered as he is in St. John’s is a bit like volunteering for the dunking booth in a carnival. But it went over well, and you’ll be happy to know I emerged unscathed. As the speech has a good deal to say about the nature of fiction, deception, and self-deception, I thought I’d share it here.
THE MOST DANGEROUS FICTION
It’s a great honor and pleasure to be back at St. John’s, my alma mater. No writer could have wished for a better education than I received here. I draw on what I learned from the Great Books every day of my working life. As for the other parts of the program, the math tutorials on Einstein have also stayed with me, enriching my nightmares for decades. I was not the greatest student ever seen in these halls; I was always more comfortable writing than speaking. But I am proud to say that I was Miss Sophrosyne of 1973. (The picture below shows me getting ready for my inaugural parade through Santa Fe.) Sophrosyne is a Greek word meaning, roughly, “moderation in all things.” And of course moderation is still my middle name.
For someone who came to the College already determined to become a writer, the prospect of spending four years reading the best books ever written sounded like Nirvana. It was a great shock, therefore, to discover in my freshman year that according to Plato, poets and playwrights would be banished from the ideal Republic.
Historians and mathematicians? Come on in! Philosophers? Pull up a chair! Storytellers…not so much.
It was like being back in high school, except in high school, I was one of the cool kids.
I tried not to take the exclusion personally. Nevertheless, I was mortified and mystified. I couldn’t conceive of a society without storytellers, and with good reason, since no such society has ever existed. Storytelling is a universal and timeless human mechanism that enables us to make sense of the world and orient ourselves within it. Think of the superstitions and religions that have arisen in every culture, and of the cave drawings that predated those cultures. What were they if not story illustrations? Besides, it would never work. If you were to banish all the bakers from the Republic, other people would learn to bake. If you eliminated carpenters, others would take up the trade. And if you banish storytellers, whose work is no less essential, new ones would undoubtedly arise in their stead. So why would Plato propose such a thing?
I pored over the text of the Republic in search of his reasoning. Poetry, he wrote, “incites the passions instead of the faculties of reason.” Through the skillful use of rhetoric, the poet or storyteller assumes an authority he does not rightfully possess. For these reasons, Plato argued, fiction is both powerful and dangerous.
Now this was not so bad. I could live with being powerful and dangerous; it certainly beats weak and innocuous. But I still wondered why storytelling should be singled out as pernicious. Because it was never fully resolved, that coupling of fiction and danger stayed with me; and many years later I explored it in a book aptly entitled A DANGEROUS FICTION.
Not that I planned any such exploration going in, nor the title, for that matter. My original intentions for this book were twofold. First, I wanted to write a mystery set in the upper echelons of New York publishing, populated by characters as clever and witty as their real-life counterparts. As a former literary agent, I’d known that world very well and looked forward to revisiting it. My second intention was to experiment with a certain narrative device that required a first-person narrator, something I’d never done before. I can’t say much more about that without spoiling some surprises.
But you never know for sure where a novel is going to lead you; at least, I don’t. I share Joan Didion’s affliction. “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind,” she wrote, “there would have been no reason to write.” This particular book led me back to that old conjunction of fiction and danger.
A DANGEROUS FICTION is a mystery told from the perspective of literary agent Jo Donovan, a young, self-made woman from Appalachia who has risen into the highest circles of the New York literary world. As the novel begins, Jo is being stalked and harassed by a disgruntled writer whose novel she rejected. At the same time, she’s trying to fend off a biographer who’s writing a book about her late husband, the famous novelist, Hugo Donovan. Things get worse, as they tend to do in novels. Stalking escalates to murder, and the biographer’s digging threatens Jo’s carefully constructed life. Gradually it becomes clear that the solution lies buried in the outtakes of Jo’s redacted memories. The most dangerous fictions, Jo learns, are the ones we tell ourselves.
And here I think I stumbled, as fiction writers do, onto a small kernel of truth.
Stories are not quiescent things. They have real-world consequences. They affect our actions. A powerful story is like the dybbuk of Jewish folklore, capable of possessing its host.
The act of writing a novel tends to focus writers’ attention on whatever issues they’re wrestling with in the book. During the two years it took to write A DANGEROUS FICTION, I kept noticing incidents that seemed inexplicable on the surface but made sense — at least, a perverted sort of sense — when you factored in the dybbuk.
I’ll share one such incident, culled from the news. You may have read about it. A young woman was in a car crash. She got out of the car, bloody and disoriented, and wandered a few blocks from the scene. It was 4:30 in the morning when she knocked on the door of a suburban house, apparently to ask for help. The homeowner—a 50-something maintenance man with no criminal record– grabbed his shotgun, opened the door, and wordlessly shot her in the face.
When I first read that story, I couldn’t understand it. Why would anyone do that? We are socialized, even hardwired, to help other people in trouble. I read additional reports, trying to make sense of the story. The setting was a suburban, working-class community close to Detroit. The homeowner was white, the young woman black. The man’s car had been vandalized and a neighbor’s house robbed in the weeks before the shooting. As these details came into focus, I began to imagine a man hunkered down in a changing neighborhood, a changing world; a man who sees himself as the lone, endangered holdout against an encroaching hostile tide of Others. It’s an archetypal hero theme, endlessly reiterated in stories and films from Shane to classic war films to the recent spate of zombie stories.
When a story reflects a person’s perceived circumstances, it can slip inside him and become his story. Once it takes hold, other stories adhere to it like barnacles to a rock. Confirmation bias ensures that of the innumerable stories we read and hear each day, the ones that stick are the ones that confirm our predetermined take on the world. For the Detroit man, I imagined those included news reports and fictionalized scenes of home invasions, push-in robberies, and the use of female decoys. So when that knock came on his door, it came as something expected and prepared for. It came with a sense of inevitability. He knew what he had to do because he’d read this story before. It didn’t matter that the invader was an injured girl. He had no doubt that the moment he let her in, her confederates would jump out of the bushes and overpower him. His only hope, he thought, was a preemptive attack.
The most dangerous fictions are the ones we tell ourselves.
Was Plato right to banish storytellers? Of course not. It’s true that where there is power, there must be responsibility. I believe that writers need to think carefully about the stories they tell and readers about the stories they absorb. Teaching this critical mindset, by the way, is one of the things St. John’s does so well. As Jo learns in A DANGEROUS FICTION, it’s important to keep a solid yellow line between fiction and reality, fairy tales and life.
But live without stories altogether? Impossible. I do realize, by the way, that taking on Plato at St. John’s of all places is rather like volunteering for the dunking booth in a carnival; so let me quickly volunteer someone else instead: Dylan Thomas. “A good poem,” he wrote, “helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” The same can be said of good fiction. Stories, artfully told, are stealth weapons; they have the unique ability to slip inside readers and change them from within. In places where freedom of expression is repressed, fiction has been the vehicle for inspiration and liberation. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN contributed materially to the end of slavery, and OLIVER TWIST to the end of workhouses, to name just two examples. Fiction is also, by its nature, a vehicle for exploration and the creation of empathy. Although it takes a different path, good fiction aspires to truth no less than philosophy; and that, I suspect, was Plato’s greatest objection to it. Even peddlers of the truth fear competition.
Speaking of competition, I would like to take this opportunity to propose my own ideal Republic, the Republic of Writers. I’m not quite sure yet where this Republic will be located. A corner of Belize would be ideal, that country permitting, but other venues are under consideration. As for the laws and customs that will govern such a Republic, I will have to group-source that project; the task is too large for one writer’s brain. But I do have a few ideas. The national currency will be chocolate. One of society’s time-honored traditions will be that upon finishing final edits, writers will send every writer they know a box of said currency. The borders of the Republic will be patrolled by literary agents; and the firing squads, should they be required, will be composed of critics. All weapons must be imaginary, but there are no limits on those. The national drink will be champagne, and the national dish, naturally, will be a chicken in every plot.