As a fiction writer who teaches, I often speak about what I love in fiction, what to me makes it powerful and engaging.
This is a version of a talk I have been giving for years to students and other interested parties; it is a talk I’ve become — what is the right word? — uncertain about in the last five years, not because I don’t believe what I’m saying or that I care about it less but because I’m not sure that people can find it meaningful anymore.
There are a number of reasons I feel this, most of which have to do with how we take in knowledge and information and how that has changed the nature of perception. I’m not saying anything new here: think iPhones and the constant staring there at, a skull-fracturing change which plainly has consequences beyond how people understand the reading and writing of fiction.
Writers are preoccupied with memory. They have to be: a story is, at its most fundamental level, a sequence of memories. You can’t have a plot without memory. Endings need a middle. A middle has to have a beginning. Effect follows cause. Consequences follow actions.
Even if a story has a disordered timeline, the fun is in how our brains put it right. We read on, waiting patiently to find out the explanation, what the nasty thing was that was seen in the woodshed, and how that led to what came after.
We humans also tend to see ourselves in terms of story. We look back through our memories to make sense of our personalities. For example, we might tell ourselves, “I’m hard working because my mother abandoned me.” Or maybe, “I steal things because my mother abandoned me.”
But what happens if there’s a gap in the story? Say you pick up a book and it turns out that an error at the printers has erased a paragraph. Or a whole chapter.
You’d worry—correctly—that the whole thing may no longer make sense. And when it comes to us humans—well, we don’t actually know if the self is really built on memory and story. But we like to believe it. So what happens to that belief—to us?—when there’s a part of the story missing?