stories are not fundamental to fiction and neither is artistic vision: Voice is Fundamental
The problem with vision, in my mind, is that it tends to become too programmatic. The goal of the writer should be to make an experience that the reader finds himself so immersed in that he loses track of time and the outside world. He, like the writer who went before him, goes to places that the body cannot go. This is done through the mind, which is inside the body. And it can only be done through the act of sitting, with your body, and reading with your eyes. I don’t want to pretend that reading does not engage, in some ways, the entire person. If you are uncomfortable reading, it will interfere with immersion.
What I do want to suggest is that the goal should be immersing the reader into a dream-like state, like easing an infant into a warm bath. I’ve been told that movies are powerful, because it is the medium of images and images are the main medium with how we engage with the world. Movies appeal to us primarily, not primally. All I mean is that they appeal to us first, because images are what come first before anything else in our experience.
Fiction induces the reader into a more dream-like state than movies, because dreams take place inside the body. Movies take place outside and have their effect on us. But dreams are the collation of the raw materials of everything we have ever seen. Movies do not require that we form dreams inside our head—a sequence of images—because we are already presented with a sequence of images through the movie. Fiction does require that we form dreams inside our head and this is a personal undertaking for each reader. I remember that my older brother didn’t want to go and see the Lord of the Rings movies, because he had an image of Frodo in his head from the books and he knew that the movies would wipe that away.
They did. What happened was that he had dreamed some experience while reading Lord of the Rings. It induced, immersed, sedated. It succeeded in taking him. Movies simply cannot have the same effect and they cannot have the same effect, because they do not reproduce dreams in us. They reproduce themselves in us. We are not compelled to form a picture of the fiction that is unique to our person. The vision presented in a movie is universal and, I think, less formative. Why? Because a movie just sits there and shoots at us like a gigantic, square ray of radioactive light. We conform to it and so it does not meet us where we are and it does not have to work so much at persuading. Movies don’t need to be as persuasive as fiction, because when presented with images, our tendency is to accept it as reality. Our ability to believe what movies present is much higher than our ability to believe what fiction presents. With fiction, we are skeptical. We are skeptical, because it is so easy for fiction to fail at inducing us into dreaming. We are not skeptical of movies, because movies provide the experience ready-made for us. Images are like the conclusion of a formal argument without any premises. We can never be quite certain what premises we have accepted…but the conclusion seems real. Movies are pure “artistic” vision (I’ll give a clear definition later), but vision that is more effective than its counterpart, because it does not require premises. With movies, we assume the premises of the conclusive image. For example, a woman close up at the screen crying. We immediately feel sorry for her and that is the conclusion. But what if she is crying in joy that her husband and children have all died? Are we to pity her then?
Fiction, on the other hand, has to provide and embed the premises in order to work right and maintain its vision. Vision is not the way to the dream-like experience, but voice is. What is voice? Voice is the way of the writer with his words. And a well-cultivated voice is the only way a writer can succeed.
What is vision? Vision is the agenda that the author has for his stories. Vision is a formal argument woven into all the sentences and comes out finally with, in some cases, an epiphanic moment. There is nothing wrong with epiphanic moments, but if the emphasis is on getting the reader to the epiphanic moment, then the reader will also focus on this final goal. What we want is not the reader to be bored by everything before it, but to be overcome with immersion before, during, and after should there be an epiphany. Epiphany should only be the climax of a growing tension, but the growing tension ought to actually be tense. I’ll explain later how that’s possible.
This whole business with the “artistic vision” (I.e. formal argument hidden into the causal chain of the story’s progress, not just in plot but in the necessities built into the given characters) is also an aside from the real, true motive behind fiction. A fiction can have a powerful vision, but it doesn’t have to be a story. Fiction can sometimes be a sketch of life, without any epiphanic moment and be just as suggestive. What do I mean by suggestive? I mean that the fiction, if only a sketch, can still convince and persuade the reader to see the world in the same way that the author does. This is why fiction can exist and be sustained even if a story is not in its presence. A story is not essential to fiction. Fiction is world building, not plot-building. And this all comes down to the inner coherence and whirring of the words used. That is about voice, not vision. Vision is something that comes after voice. Vision is, perhaps, the spine for a good story, but voice is primary.
I believe that a good fiction can suffer from a bad story, or a typical story, or a boring story, or a story that is too programmatic, or a visionary story. And these stories usually suffer from their own strengths. What do I mean? Because they are so confident of themselves, so aware of what they ought to be in their internal coherence, they strip away from themselves any element of surprise. And surprise is one of those traits that pulls the reader along. Surprise is what creates tension, because there is an unknown. If you get rid of the element of surprise, you are stealing from yourself. If you are going to depend on artistic vision for your story, then you need to be aware that this cannot exclude surprise. If you take away surprise, you have nothing to offer anyone. You know you have the element of surprise in the story when you have surprised yourself.
I find it disappointing that “artistic vision” is defined in the way I’ve been using it. I haven’t had to define it really up until this point, because we all know what it is. We might think of Flannery O’Connor and her arguments-as-stories. Artistic vision in this sense is little more than a set of beliefs held strongly by the author accompanied by arguments in the form of stories. This is utilitarian. But artistic vision doesn’t have to be so demanding. It can simply be the world through the author’s lens. He is offering us, the readers, to see the world like he sees it. This can be the everyday “Mary went to the store and whoa! epiphany in the produce aisle,” but it also does not have to be. It can be magical from the top-down. But it ought to instantly make us think more of the poetry of words than it does the morals of stories. That way of thinking about vision, too, allows us to really understand what I mean when I say voice. This also doesn’t have to reduce our view of the artist as the-guy-who-wants-you-to-see-his-personality. I think the fiction writer can produce fiction that is immersive, story reduced, and evocative of the world outside and not just the world within himself. The world within ought to feel set aside and apart like the world outside. In this sense, when we say artistic vision, we are really just talking imprecisely about voice. The emphasis there is on the thing that the words are designed to evoke (images) and not on the words fundamental to fiction. It is less about the author’s vision, then, and more about how the author can successfully give vision to the blind reader through the mud of words.
Artistic vision is usually programmatic, because it has an agenda for each story. Again, that’s fine as long as voice comes first and surprise isn’t excluded. “What’s on the agenda for this story?” the author asks himself. “I know! Same as before!” And off the writer goes, writing the same formula again. Once the reader knows about the agenda, he looks for it. He feels that the entire goal of reading that author is to discover their vision. Once he has discovered that vision, he looks for it again and again. He thinks about what it means and its ramifications. He ponders, he is aware and conscious. I can’t help but think that this is the exact opposite of what the fiction writer really wants from his readers. At least for me, I don’t want my readers to be conscious subjects. I want them to be led to the same conclusions that I have made about the world without noticing the change. I want my argument to be so compelling and so rich, that it induces them into their own dream of it behind their eyes. I don’t want them to be able to see what argument I used. I don’t even feel it necessary to have an argument. Are dreams arguments? The dream that the fiction induces is unique to the reader, so they take it as their own. They cultivate, they enjoy it like a little bird. But ultimately, what they are doing is agreeing with me. That is successful fiction. It’s magic.
There is dark magic and good magic. Dark magic, when you pick up on it, is worthy of being thrown across a room. That would not be an over-reaction. Good magic is wielded by the possessors of truth and the general side effect is that the reader appreciates life and the fullness of mystery contained within it. That sounds so stupid and trite in nonfiction prose like this. That’s why we need fiction! Fiction does what other prose writing cannot. It comes up from behind us and we turn around and see it standing there like someone we’ve missed for years. If it were bad magic, we’d be turning around and staring at all our fears without any solutions. Bad magic is written by people who don’t have answers and they want you to share in their inability to give any. Bag magic focuses on the internal world and all its complications.
In a properly functioning individual, the internal world is rich–but it is not complicated. People with anxiety suffer from complications they cannot untangle. People at peace have little to untangle, but they have plenty to enjoy. Their world within is one that is a pleasant place to be, despite the grim complexities of the world outside. I’m not saying it’s wrong for a fiction writer to bring us into the head of a broken person. But if he doesn’t lead us out, that fiction writer is not worth your time. All he has done is shown you inside his own brain–and instead of asking for help, he’s asked you to admire him. Pfft.