Here's a game I like to play with my students in the writing classes I teach.
"Without contemplating it, without thinking hard, just say the word your tongue forms," I tell them.
Then I ask, "What color is an FBI agent?"
A few stammer and stutter objections—I do teach in Berkeley, California after all—but most shout out an answer: "White!" Then they look chagrined.
"Okay, what color is the FBI agent's partner?"
"…who is also an FBI agent, no?" I ask.
My students are well-meaning people, eager to be writers, or at least to give it a whirl. Some of them are even very good, and really only need to be told to start submitting their work. A lot of them, however, have surrendered their imaginations. I find myself repeating Ronald Sukenick's famous dictum, "Use your imagination, or someone else will use it for you" like a mantra and it helps…a little. The problem is that imagination has been all but conquered by the mass media, but the conquest has been a subtle one. We don't even realize that our minds have been colonized—the image of a white FBI agent and over his (always his) shoulder a black man (always a man) in identical dress and with the same nearly affectless aggressiveness comes unbidden.
It's like we made it up ourselves.
When it comes to the writing of fiction, there are a few factors that make the territory of our imaginations hard to defend. One is the continued ideological supremacy of bourgeois realism. "Imagination" is often a dirty word, a practice for children and simpletons. The bourgeois realist is interested in authenticity and autobiography, which would be fine except that we live in a mass culture. Everyday life tends toward the homogeneous, especially in the precincts of the literary writing classes. The theme of infidelity is so ubiquitous that one would think that eventually some major novelists would just say, "Ah, the hell with it, I'll write about a long-term polyamorous relationship that works…or doesn't." A subgenre to be born! But no…
Mass culture also means that today’s literary fiction is limned with the material of popular culture—thus the Lethems and Chabons of the world winning literary kudos and genre fiction prizes. The best of this stuff is very good (the best of everything is very good) but often they are still just selling us nostalgia for already-consumed products, just as genre fiction proper does.
Now, I love genre fiction. I write genre fiction. I was recently interviewed about my new book from PM Press, Sensation, and the first comment from the interviewer was “...I wouldn’t call this science fiction,” and my immediate response was, “Why not?” and the interview was derailed for a few minutes as we worked out our different conceptions of the genre.
Despite my joy of it, genre fiction is transparently an artifact of the era of industrial manufacture—it was born as light recreational reading for the working classes and makes use of a variety of standard tropes (detectives, spaceships, pirates, heaving bosoms) and set pieces to tell its stories efficiently. What’s the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction? Well, literary fiction was born as light recreational reading for the middle classes, so it appeared in more expensive magazines and books and used a different bunch of tropes and set pieces (summer homes, miscarriages, horrifying encounters with the marginalized, extramarital affairs, pretensions punctured by fate). Pure quality is about the same in both fields—most is garbage, some small fraction is wonderful.
Both wings of the broad church of fiction depend on a storehouse of manufactured, processed, elements of imagination. A young girl-child is in danger. What color is her hair? (Blonde.) A man, pursued by police, runs down an alleyway and encounters...(a dead end, perhaps a fence.) A woman answers the phone. Her face turns serious. She tells the caller “Thank you,” softly. Then she gently places the receiver back on the hook. What’s her problem? (Cancer.) A middle-class black man enters a restaurant in a small town in a southern state. The first racist he encounters is...(an angry proletarian white man, perhaps already drunk.) The child who discovers the magical fantasy world is (bookish, easily upset, physically weak). No surprise that many of these top-of-mind tropes depend upon and reinforce a variety of culture stereotypes and behavioral expectations. Whiter is better, the law is not easily evaded, emotional outbursts are to be eschewed, racism is a social phenomenon perpetuated by poor whites, only the pathetic have an interest in escaping reality.
The postmodern movement in fiction was interested in challenging many of these tropes, and went deeper—they wished to take on the structures of fiction as it was practiced. Forget analysis of individual psychology followed by an epiphany, shrug off the tyranny of the rising action of Freytag’s triangle! Except most postmodern shenanigans are easily reintegrated into the reigning traditions of more traditional fictions. It wasn’t even that difficult for hegemony to absorb postmodernity; tricks such as metafiction, inexplicable character motivations, and typographical trickery are all centuries or even millennia old. Postmodernity was also so interested in critique that often it reified the object of its critique—to deconstruct is to acknowledge and embrace the importance of the initial construction.
If there is a plus side, or some sign pointing to a way out (of the world of signs?), it’s this: writing is the art that requires the least capital investment. No need for art supplies, or exhibition space, video cameras, or expensive musical instruments. While many people are locked out of writing thanks to less-than-universal literacy, social pressure, and the threat of the end of net-neutrality, writing is still open to more people and to a greater extent than other forms of art. And imagination is free. We can do it. This is how we can fight.
What’s been missing is a focus on the imagination, or at least on our own imaginations, as opposed to the heavily mediated imagination of authority. “Where do you get your ideas?” is the first question writers of genre fiction are often asked, and most of them are loath to answer it. Partially because the question is stupid, and partially because the answer is too obvious: ideas come from a need to respond to one’s contemporaries, one's times, or one's childhood experiences, which means that they come from other books, from television, from films, from the newspaper, from folklore. It’s imagination, but only rarely examined imagination.
In the world of literary fiction, the question is much narrower: “Is this work semi-autobiographical?” (i.e., “Where do you get your ideas—from your contemporaries, your times, your childhood experiences?”) and the answer is generally, “Yes.” Again, the imagination unexamined and replaced with a dubious claim of authenticity. What makes a literary writer’s life more “authentic” than anyone else’s, except that we’ve already been sold many books depicting very similar lives.
As imagination is considered a childlike, and often childish attribute, writers don’t learn to cultivate their imaginations. When writers don’t use their imaginations...state and capital do. So we arrange our white men up front and put the black men behind, parade our own pasts to the public for collective amusement—Look, I was poor, but then I wrote a book! Look, I drank too much, but then I stopped and wrote a book!—and retell the adventure stories we remember seeing on television as kids.
Our first step is to see this stuff when we do it, to realize that we didn’t make this up. It was made up for us. The second step is to clear away as much of the mediagination as we can. And the third this step is to write, to really write from one’s own brain. Resist the “real”, as the real that can be articulated in a five-act dramatic structure with a likeable protagonist and a satisfying dénouement is not the real. Find your own imagination, and use it.