In Defense of Fiction: On Nuance

It is in that moment where muscles twitch slightly and a pang of synaptic excitement and that initial ineffable fraction of a fraction of a second before one articulates the “huh, I never noticed that before” that one experiences nuance.

I roll with a crowd that is somewhat slavishly devoted to reading. This is a good thing. With the exception of one of my friends, a man with whom I share my first name, the written matter they consume often takes the form of blog posts, magazine articles, and a preponderance of politics-, economics-, or entrepreneurially-focussed books. All of the above are categorized broadly as nonfiction.

A close friend of mine was reading some of my old blog posts and came upon a very brief treatise on the subject of “nuance” nested within a recent post, On the Hating of Haters.

He shot me an email asking me how one might gain a further appreciation of nuance, a question to which I responded with the following:

Short answer: read more fiction. Non-fiction writing is based on the premise of simplicity. The goal of a non-fiction book is to convey its thesis and supporting examples succinctly and efficiently. Nuance is often confused with extraneous detail, as being pertinent but largely insignificant to the larger argument; it is perceived to be a distraction from the larger “point” of the book/article.

Fiction, on the other hand, usually lacks a hard thesis and thus doesn’t need to convey information efficiently. A fiction writer may have a didactic message to convey, but the modus operandi of fiction for the past 200+ years is to “show, not tell.” Fiction writers show readers what they want to convey: adjectives are not the enemies.

As for some greater utility to fiction, I can only cite my personal growth in emotional intelligence and writing abilities. Both of which I’ve utilized in too many venues to mention here.

While it might be true that a certain critical mass of factual material must be mastered to be a functional adult. The real marker of intellect is not an increased volume of grey matter, the computational, repository bundles of nerve cells in the brain, but the volume of white matter, the neuronal connections that allow the brain to connect disparate ideas and concepts, to render juxtaposition and combination of ideas/things/messages in “contrapuntal” (to use a musical term) harmony.

That so many “young people” eschew the creative, integrative mental processes of reading fiction bothers me. They believe vehemently that consuming a media diet constituent of nonfiction, whether it is news or biography or pop-psych-sociology characteristic of Malcom Gladwell et al, makes them, in some material way, more intelligent. I counter this assertion by positing the following: functional intelligence has very little to do with the amount of factual information one crams into one’s brain; rather, intelligence can be measured by one’s competence with dealing with complexity, and the felicity with which one can deploy knowledge from disparate fields to address a given question or issue. From this integrative cerebral interconnectivity, not the mere aggregation and distillation of facts, “insight” is conjured.

Intelligence is gestalt, it is greater than the sum of its constituent parts; our knowledge is more than the words written and read, spoken and heard, created and consumed, respectively, throughout the course of our lives. The margin of error in our accounting here is the resultant cognitive gains of interconnectedness. Moreover, one cannot hard-wire methodologies for interconnectedness, only the potential for it. Why is it so hard to develop artificial intelligence? Resulting output is the product of false connections, the aforementioned insights are ersatz when uniqueness is attempted algorithmically.

The reading of nonfiction is an exercise in consumption, while reading, consuming, fiction is an exercise of creation. In the act of creation, which will be described below, the brain comes to play.

————————

A brief interpolation: have you ever noticed that on the bookshelves of the accomplished, one is likely to find a well-thumbed volume of Tolstoy or Austen or Huxley or Fitzgerald’s? These as opposed to Malcom Gladwell or any other member of the quasi-intellectual class who pass off cant and cleverness as meaning during their TED talks? Why is it that one might find, browsing the web histories of these same individuals, a link to one of the New Yorker’s blogs or to Slate, as opposed to a link to LifeHacker?

————————

Writing fiction is difficult. The writer is tasked with creating a world with a degree of comforting verisimilitude so that their readers might suspend disbelief for a moment and forget that what’s going on in the plot is, ultimately, fallacious. This is the objective world of the novel or short story. It is confined in its scope to the meanings of chains of well-chosen words. It is flat, its descriptions arid; it is a world nonetheless.

There is a world nested within that created by the author. When one reads fiction, one not only consumes its storyline; one is forced to imagine the characters, to form mental pictures of them, to perhaps ascribe quirks and ticks that the author failed to mention. Everything one pictures in this created world is highly personal. A beach umbrella mentioned in a story might evoke the one used on a seaside vacation as a child; in the mind’s eye, the brown bob of an old girlfriend’s hair might transpose itself onto the head of a particularly endearing female character. The world created by a reader is personal; the density of analysis one could do within the confines of a book can be virtually infinite. A book read well by a dozen people will offer a dozen interpretations; all are valid. All are subjective, and those who make claims to knowledge of an objective Truth divined from the text should be met with unflinching consternation. Their capital-T Truth is just as divined, as conjured, as pulled from the ether of their immemorial unconsciousness as the next person’s truth. Each person’s interpretation of a book is different, and one can interpret one’s interpretation as a reflection of themselves. The value of fiction as a tool for personal growth lies not in how the words on a particular page are articulated, or by the wild proclamations made by those in literary analysis courses, but by what occurs “between the lines” and over the infinitesimal space between synapses.

————————

A didactic question: If nuance–intricacy–in fiction didn’t really matter, would we never again, after viewing a film adaptation of a book, claim, “You know, man, I liked the movie, but the book… the book, like, had so much in it that the movie, you know, like, kinda leftout. I dunno, but the book was just so, I dunno, man, what’s the word…” phantasmagorical in its breadth, depth, and detail? Yeah, man: phantasmagorical. Try typing that out in a text message.

————————

Nicholas Carr, in his book-length rejoinder to his Atlantic article, [sic] “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, discusses the nature of the plasticity of the brain: that, with repetition, mental and physical activities, done repetitively, literally change the wiring of the brain. New neuron channels are formed, making behaviors that were once difficult easier over time. Recollect, for a moment, the monumental task before young children learning to dress themselves: the relative conceptual ease of snaps and elastic bands versus the enormous difficulty of buttoning a shirt. Tying shoes presents a problem that initially appears gordian in its intricacy. We learn. We don’t walk around naked. Not yet anyways.

The point being this: we live in a world driven by efficiency, we consume media that panders to the lowest common denominator of comprehension, and in a world so loaded with new information, new happenings, the new New New Thing (referring to the Michael Lewis book), Americans are using an ever-shrinking vocabulary to articulate what’s going on. (I don’t really want to say “we live in a world where…” anymore; it makes me sound cantankerous.) If one were to pull back from the goings on in the world, one would realize that ours is one of monodimensional blanket statements; things are articulated as black and white, righteous and “evil”, good and bad, immutable truth and rancorous bullshit. If it isn’t expressed plainly, elegantly, and matter-of-factly, it is taken as suspect. There are no freedom fighters, only terrorists; no moderate conservatives, only Randian, Bible-belting, free-market, ignorant, moose hunting, racist, xenophobic, quasi-populist Sarah Palin devotees. The monodimensional sells itself on its simplicity, and to mitigate the stultifying nature of the monodimensional, in lieu of another dimension, carefully-chosen language articulates itself in the spicy argot of over-dramatic extremism.

Ultimately, the point of Carr’s book, that the Internet affected our brains neuronally, that our neural pathways programmed for deep contemplation, concentration, creativity, and imagination have decayed in favor of those that allow us to consume and process huge quantities of information quickly (i.e. superficially), is “learned behavior.” People who think simplistically implicitly allow themselves to do so.

Authors’ worlds are recognizable and engaging not because of the nouns they choose, but the adjectives and verbs implemented. These paint a mental picture, the resolution of which is wholly dependent on the specificity of the chosen words. An author mentions tiny details that spark, if only for a brief second, within the reader a “huh, I never noticed that before” moment. It is in that moment where muscles twitch slightly and a pang of synaptic excitement and that initial ineffable fraction of a fraction of a second before one articulates the “huh” that one experiences nuance. It is for these brief moments of cerebral vivacity, where I identify and solve simultaneously the trick the author is playing, catching ex post facto he or she rendering connections from disparity, that I read fiction. Many of my friends see the world as one that offers incredible opportunity, a view which I share; but unlike some of them, through years of reading too many works of fiction to ever count, I believe I’ve gained the ability to live fully in the moment, to notice what is ignored, to engage the world actively, to find the needle of interest in the great musty haystacks of the mundane, and, ultimately, be able to articulate to you, the reader, what I wish to articulate with a degree of exactitude I defy another 20-year-old kid with a blog to surpass. An appreciation for variegation, of tiny variations, of minuscule vacillations, comes with one for vocabulary—said appreciation is my avocation. It is learned and adopted and eventually taken for granted. We are creatures of habit, after all.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

1 thought on “In Defense of Fiction: On Nuance”

Leave a Reply