Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reality in Fiction

At this week's Edinburgh international book festival, author (most recently of The Children's BookAS Byatt gave a fascinating interview. Byatt, an atheist, in talking about social realism in fiction said, “Most people who are talking about reality don’t understand how difficult it is to say what reality is.” She goes on to say that part of the issue is that “religion has gone away.” “A kind of map of the world that was provided by Christian belief or by other forms of religious belief, has for most ordinary people in the society I live in, disappeared. This means how you say who you are has become very difficult. There are novels to be written in the future about the very careful tactics with which we choose how to describe our sense of ourselves.”

I found Byatt’s thoughts evocative as I also believe that many people, especially secular people and including me, grapple with how to understand their own nature in the absence of God’s salvation. To some degree I think it is a debate between determinism and free will. How much do we believe that our life, our fate, hinges on our own choices and how much is determined by an environment beyond our control? There are various versions of this from Freud’s role of the unconscious, Jung’s archetypes, Skinner’s conditioning, evolutionary psychology, to Sartre’s atheistic existentialism. The truth lies perhaps in the synthesis of some of these opposing views.

I do think contemporary literature even now is at the forefront in regards to the dilemma of how we describe ourselves. Authors as diverse as Orhan Pamuk, Amos Oz, Don DeLillo, Arundhati Roy come to mind where it is often the confrontation between religion/culture and materialism that serves as backdrop for the definition of the individual self in their stories.

I do wholeheartedly agree that media, the Internet, social networks are adding new layers of complexity (and interest) to the debate. Moreover, new web technologies (and the ever-increasing availability of information) have made possible a new kind of writing. This prose uses fact and randomness rather than story and structure. David Shields and Anders Monson and Maggie Nelson are examples of authors integrating these factors into their literature. Though in the end, as AS Byatt says, in the absence of religion, all we are left with is ourselves. I’m hopeful though that this will be enough. Anyway, check out the interview. Byatt is not afraid to speak her mind and hers is definitely an interesting one.

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