Last autumn I found myself talking about my new novel at a fundraiser for a college library. Only after I'd committed to doing this did I discover that I was following a man who had written a popular book about the human genome project and preceding a woman who had written about recent war crimes. Both, the organizer assured me, were eloquent speakers, and on no account, she added, was I to read from my novel. Instead, she wished I would talk about the importance of reading and writing fiction. These are my two principal activities. Nonetheless, it was with some degree of panic that I tried to think what I might say to a basically well-disposed and literate audience about this topic. Why should they read my slender novel about a woman living in rural Scotland from 1920-1947 who finds herself befriended by two otherworldly companions when they could, on the one hand, be finding out more about human progress or, on the other, grappling with human suffering? Isn't it hard enough to keep abreast with what's
going on in the real world without also having to explore invented worlds? And in the face of so much turmoil, mightn't both writing and reading fiction seem like Nero fiddling while Rome burns -- pure escapism?
Many writers have given their own impassioned answers to these questions, but what I tried to suggest that day in the college library was that the novel, as its name intimates, brings us news of another kind, and it is news that we vitally need, though it may not make the headlines. For what the novel does is to help fill the abyss between the self and the other.
One of the oddities of human discourse, when we stop to think about it, is the discrepancy between the way we talk about ourselves and the way we talk about other people. Discussing other people, we are quite happy to explain their behavior and motivation. She has writer's block because . . . He goes out with alpha-women because . . . Typically we have no trouble finishing these sentences when they concern our friends and acquaintances. But where we ourselves are concerned, we can talk until the cows make their leisurely way home about why we have writer's block, or why our most recent partner is less than satisfactory (though in a completely different way, of course, from his or her predecessor), without reaching any firm conclusions. We see other people as known territory, ourselves as the uncharted country. In writing fiction, I think great characters come from exercising both this facility for interpretation, which we bring to bear on others, and this willingness to enter into mystery, which we
bring to bear on ourselves. And one of the principal virtues of reading fiction has always been that -- more than biography or memoir, more than history -- it allows us to pour our own inchoate lives, our own confused and confusing experiences, into those of another, and in so doing to begin to organize that experience, and to have a larger life. Reading good fiction is the opposite of escapism.
In 1956, the same year as Nabokov published
Lolita, the British writer Rebecca West published a novel,
The Fountain Overflows.
The Fountain Overflows is set in Edwardian England and concerns a couple, Piers and Clare Aubrey, and their four children. Piers is a brilliant pamphleteer and newspaper editor with a passion for gambling matched only by his lack of luck. His wife, who before their marriage was a concert pianist, now spends her days trying to keep the household together and bring up their four children. The novel is narrated by one of the daughters. In an extraordinary scene, West describes the day when an unfortunate man comes to the house to confront Piers about his affair with his wife; but Piers is out, and instead the man ends up talking to Claire. Soon after the man leaves, his wife arrives; she, too, talks to Claire. Left alone at last, Claire sends her children to find a copy of
Madame Bovary, and, by the time her husband comes home, she is engrossed in the novel; the two of them have a lively discussion about the comparative virtues of
Madame Bovary and
A Sentimental Education. "But then Claire put her hand to her forehead. 'How did I come to start reading this book?' she asked us, and then drew a deep breath. 'Oh, I had quite forgotten. I like the book so much that I had quite forgotten. I am really very heartless,' she cried, rising to her feet. 'But art is so much more real than life. Some art is much more real than some life, I mean.' "
The news that fiction brings us is simultaneously news about the far frontiers of the self and about the other. In the most pleasurable form possible, novelists and storywriters bring it back to share with us, their readers, to help us live in the world now, today, tomorrow.
And that is what the stories in this issue do. Written by writers younger and older, about America and elsewhere, they bring us the news we need about love and work, parents and children, strife and harmony, memory and regret. Best of all, perhaps, they bring it to us in such various, vivid, lively voices. Each of these writers has his or her own unique, glorious, stubborn sense of what makes a story and how it might be lured out of the dark woods and onto the page. Happily we don't have to choose among them.
Or at least you don't. For me, these pages represent many hours of enjoyment and some very difficult choices. For every story I accepted, sadly I had to return many to the postal system. But that, too, is surely good news -- how much excellent fiction is being made in America today. I envy you the reading ahead.