The following is a re-post of my blog entry from January on the Hudson Valley Writers networking site:
I just re-read an article that I had decided on my first reading was very important for my writing, then promptly forgot about. "Ready-made rebellion: The empty tropes of transgressive fiction," by Jonathan Dee, appeared in Harper's in April 2005 and can be found here: http://harpers.org/archive/2005/04/0080507.
Be forewarned: if you're a fan of Neil Labute, A.M. Homes, Will Self, Chuck Palahniuk, or Dennis Cooper, they don't go unscathed here (especially LaBute). But fanhood should always be open to challenge anyway, don't you think?
Dee opens with these statements: "Good fiction has never been about moral instruction; it would be much easier to write if it were. Its more imposing task is to do justice to the inexhaustible complexity of human motivation." He goes on to say that we look to writers to tell us why people act the way they act. The challenge in that statement, of course, is that the writer must have some self-understanding in order to illuminate his characters. So the journey toward self-awareness, perhaps the most important journey any of us makes, is crucial not only for life, but for fiction. This became most clear to me when I was in a therapy group led by the late Mark Abramson, whose firm, even cantankerous insistence upon clarity and honesty of thought and expression was not only an invaluable and loving aid in emotional growth, but became a rigorous training ground for my writing as well.
But I'm often easily confused by what goes on in the marketplace; new work getting praised as hip and edgy might make me question what I'm doing. Or, worse yet, its influences might creep into my work past my internal literary gatekeeper, who sometimes sleeps.
I'm grateful to Dee for helping make clear my muddy instincts when he writes, "Books that depend for their sense of opposition on the straw man of a presupposed bourgeois mentality outside the fiction itself--on shock value, in other words--are working in conditions of profound safety disguised as risk. The characters suffer no repercussions (nor do the writers, for that matter, regardless of outlaw posturing), but the atmosphere is one of self-conscious edginess and aesthetic daring."
I don't want to be that type of writer. I'm not entirely confident that I haven't slipped into some of the methods he decries, even in stories now "finished" and on the market. But I am hereby re-dedicating myself to being vigilant against shallow posing, to exploring my characters from the inside rather than judging them from outside while pretending objectivity. And to continuing my own inner exploration, because, whether I'm writing or not, that's what I need. I believe in Dee's final declaration: "Artist, diagnose thyself."