I feel like I've written about this here a little bit before, but I don't think I've ever quite communicated what I wanted to, so let me try again now. One of the things people like to talk about in grad school is what fiction is "supposed to do." Well, of course the correct answer is it's not supposed to do anything. It does what we want it to do because it is a human construction. And you can see this in the vast differences between fictions from different countries -- by the standards taught in American workshops, most fiction written in the world is not only bad fiction, it barely counts as fiction at all. So if we are honest with ourselves and if we are willing to admit the validity of the experiences and fictions of other people in other cultures, then we should be able to say at the outset that fiction doesn't really have to do anything.
I am a pretty argumentative person and not especially shy in such conversations, but I never bothered trying to advance this position. I could tell it wouldn't be received very well, not least because it called into question the validity of the entire creative writing education model. (I believe in that model, or I wouldn't have been there, but people get touchy.) I had a professor who was fond of saying that fiction should, if it aspires to be literature, be about the human condition. This is the part that I've written about before, I think: it seems like a mistake to me to say "the human condition" as if it meant something. It doesn't. There is no "the human condition." It's a popular phrase, but it's totally empty. We don't know what it's like to be human. We can't know. We can only know what it's like to be us, here and now. We can listen to others describe their experience of humanity. But that won't be "the human condition" either. It will be their human condition.
This instructor also said -- and this seemed to be a popular opinion as well -- that you couldn't tell a human story about someone who was simply trying to meet his physical needs and survive. Which is exactly the problem with attempting to define "the human condition." There are millions of people whose only experience of the world is struggling to find enough food to eat, enough warmth to stay alive. If we can't describe that experience, then surely we can't describe "the human experience." Now, I would say that fiction can describe that experience. But I would also say that it can look further outside of "what it is to be human."
I am thinking about this now because of a blurb on the back of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I won't reproduce the blurb because my response is largely tangential to its substance. The blurb is about how human the characters in the book are. I don't disagree because I don't know: I haven't started reading the book yet. This also made me think of David Foster Wallace's belief that good fiction should make us feel less alone. This sounds just as harmless as the idea that fiction should be about the human condition, and it has the advantage of actually meaning something (I know exactly what it means to feel less alone.) But I don't think it's true either. I've always thought that loneliness was an extremely valid feeling. And many of my favorite books make me feel extremely alone. They isolate me from my world. I think that's a valid experience. I think it's a good one, often.
And here is the thing: most of the universe isn't human. I find it totally arbitrary to suggest that you couldn't write great fiction about being a fish, an octopus, a bear, or a block of wood. I often try to write about inanimate objects, alien lifeforms, nature, change, economics, machines. Often I fail, because writing about something other than yourself is difficult. But I don't know why we discourage it. I don't know why we tell people not to try.
Of course in writing about others we are always really writing about ourselves. The protagonist of Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy is never seen or heard: we know he is there, and we know who he is, from the way he describes what he sees. Our fiction reveals us in the same way, inevitably. And so if you do write the story of a fish or an octopus or a bear or a block of wood, you will really be writing the story of yourself, or of what you see in the object -- not of the object itself. And so there is a very real sense in which we cannot help but write about "the human condition," and there is a real sense in which all writing really should "make us feel less alone." But these things will attend to themselves. We cannot prevent them, and so we need not force them: we are free to explore as many strange territories, as many seemingly inhuman worlds, as we might like. What happens next will be literature because it can't help itself.
That our merely looking at an object invests it inherently with some partial share of our humanity is a fascinating thing. We might decide that our humanity is not that special, which I think would be a valid way to think about it. And this might improve our fiction. If we stop chasing our own humanity, what else might we discover? On the other hand, it might suggest that we are more special, more powerful, more central to the universe than anything else in existence. I would be open to that also. And again, it might improve our fiction: if we know that we have the capacity to empathize with anything, even a lamp or a cup or a book, then we might find the energy to feel for each other.
We fail to love and care for each other sufficiently because we are secretly worried that other people, people who aren't like us, might not be really human. But it seems more likely that nothing is human, or everything is. For my part, I suspect the former. Others might suspect the latter. I only really hate the ambivalence of those who believe that some things -- their things -- are human, while others are not.