To confuse matters concerning the word “lies” more, its meaning is slightly changed as Stegner moves from one topic to another. For example, Stegner agrees, in the “Creative Writing” section, when Chekhov states that writers should be careful of endings and beginnings because that is where writers are most likely to lie (30). In this instance it could be understand the word “lie” means “dishonesty.” Dishonesty is very different from “unreality.” Many writers make honest mistakes in writing fiction, not because of cruel intentions or laziness, but, perhaps, because they are learning or struggling with that component of creative writing. No serious writer of fiction intends to be dishonest with the reader, unless it is the pure intention of the fiction to do so. It is impossible, in the end, to know the underlying meaning of Chekhov’s own words without a reference in comparison to the context provided.
Another interesting aspect of Stegner’s view on literary fiction and creative writing involves ideas. Stegner observes that fiction writers are “bound by the things of experience” (17) and that the “functional house should be haunted by ideas, not inhabited by them; they should flit past the windows after dark, not fill the rooms” (17). This is not only profound, but also true. Since fiction deals with the writer’s underlying ideas – famine, world peace, AIDS, etc. – if a writer “fills the room” with those ideas, the fiction becomes the idea and not the story that carries the idea; the reader loses interest and message loses its power. That is not to say that the idea cannot come first. Stegner observes that different writers approach ideas in their own ways, sometimes with the idea itself, adding the fiction around it, and some writers use the fiction to formulate the idea (17-18). However, in either case, the idea should remain secondary.
Finally, in coming full-circle, the last chapter of the book contains a short story that is directly from the life of Stegner. However, this is not the place to discuss the short story, but rather to demonstrate how Stegner applies his definition of literary fiction to himself as the writer. “Goin’ To Town” is based on a event from his childhood; his purpose for writing it, he notes, was therapeutic (114-115). Throughout this chapter Stegner emphasizes fiction as a therapeutic method of self-help, a way to reflect and share that reflection with readers – a kind of sharing without revealing the self. With his strong convictions concerning literary fiction as truth, when Stegner states that fiction, both written and read, are “likely to be as frivolous or as serious” as the lives of the people who read it and write it, and that “reality is not fully realized until it has been fictionalized,” there is no surprise (97-98). However, it is arguable that the phraseology of these two statements is a bit extreme. Sometimes, serious people read or write for escapism, burying their truths deeply into unreality. Moreover, life, reality, realization, self-discovery, etc., go on whether or not the experiences of an individual are ever fictionalized.
In the end, Stegner’s book has much to offer literary writers, and the advice and information in his book are valuable on any level in spite of fiction writers’ and literary scholars’ arguments over what is or is not literary. Perhaps, the possibility of unreality exists in literary fiction despite the best of intentions. Perhaps, the difference between art and craft, between literature and genre, is a fine line that is difficult to see clearly. One might resolve, then, to lend some contemporary shape to Stegner’s view. Perhaps, literary fiction is a fine art in which the character, places, and experiences, both first-hand and observed through any medium, reflect reality in a manner that is not intended to
by Connie L. Sherwood
Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction is a series of previously uncollected works that delve into the art of teaching and writing fiction. Within these pages, Stegner’s life-long experience with creative writing and teaching offers sound advice and words of wisdom without frills, without promises. While Stegner’s approach is interesting and has merit in that it gives serious literary writers some guidelines on teaching and writing fiction, it nevertheless stifles creativity and muddles the meaning of “truth” and “lies” in fiction.
Stegner’s view of literary fiction is strict. He observes that literature is art, that the lies of “escape entertainment” have no place in it, that only “serious” fiction writers are welcome to write it, and most importantly, “[i]t is fiction as truth” (1-2, 11). Taken at face value, some contemporary writers might protest that this view narrows creativity, limits fiction to realism. However, Stegner concedes that serious fiction must entertain and that it must contain “make-believe;” however, he does so with qualifications: if it entertains, then it must entertain at a “higher intellectual and emotional level,” and if it is make-believe, then it must “comment on the real” (2). What, one might ask, then, is the glue that binds art, that makes truth? Stegner notes that experience is the all-encompassing truth through which serious fiction writers fertilize their minds and, therefore, their works, whether that experience is first-hand or vicarious; a writer “cannot invent without experience” (3, 41). Stegner also states that it is not the raw observations or experiences that a fiction writer must unravel onto paper, but rather the writer’s ability to simplify and transfer those experiences and observations clearly through “the equipment of sensuousness” – the ability to make a image into words in such a way that when read it is translated back into the image and includes all sensory information. Stegner presses this point when he observes that “[a] creative writer not only perceives in images, he must communicate in them, and the reader must read them. They are both the source and method” (4, 14-16, 19).
While it is agreeable that experience and observation are what any writer must have and use and that literary fiction is art or truth, some of his ideals can be argued. For example, an argument can be made for the value of “lies.” Inasmuch as Stegner is, perhaps, referring almost strictly to genre fiction in his definition, the word “lies” could be understood to mean “unreality.” Still, even much of the “unreality” in contemporary fiction is based on or is comments on reality. Stegner’s use of vicarious is ambiguous in that it includes any second-hand experience or observation through any medium. Just as a individual can have personal experiences or watch those of others, he or she can also experience a novel, a story, a radio broadcast, a movie, or the Internet; a person can indeed experience unreality. One might further argue that fiction cannot be crafted without lies, otherwise the work is nonfiction. Lies have an important alliance with fiction because they give substance to the work – the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Though all of these elements undoubtedly come from some person, place, experience, or observation the writer has encountered or made, they are nonetheless piece-meal and the end product is only like reality, or as truth, but still a lie – an unreality that seems real. Even perception is an individual truth; no two people see one truth in the same way, so even images can lie. Even Stegner points out that “the possible ways of seeing, the possible styles and ‘tones of voice,’ are almost as individual as . . . fingerprints” Perhaps a lie is merely the Frankenstein of reality.
invoke escape or invite unreality, but rather to explore and discover through truth in experience, to stimulate intellectually and emotionally in an entertaining environment.
Stegner, Wallace. On Writing Fiction and Teaching. Ed. Lynn Stegner.
New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Print.
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