The Proposition: Writers and Readers Run SCHOOLS of Fiction. Fictionalists self-organize Schools, at low or no cost to students, that emphasize the creation, exploration, mutation, and propagation of fictional worlds.
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In 1818, Joseph Jacotot, a lecturer in French literature at the University of Louvain, had an intellectual adventure.
Fleeing likely persecution under the Second Restoration of the monarchy, Jacotot found himself exiled to a teaching post in Brussels. Knowing no Flemish and having no motivation to learn it, Jacotot assigned his students the task of learning French by studying a bilingual French-Flemish translation of the Odyssey. Jacotot didn’t teach his students the Odyssey, nor did he teach French lessons; he simply told them to learn French by reading the book. Periodically he would ask the students how they were progressing, even though he couldn’t evaluate their self-assessments because he still knew no Flemish. Finally Jacotot asked the students to write, in French, what they thought of the book. The results proved enlightening: Jacotot’s students had learned French without being taught French.
Jacques Rancière presents Jacotot’s adventure as an exemplar for educational overhaul in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987). Jacotot’s take-home lesson: it’s not only possible but preferable for a schoolmaster to teach subjects of which he himself is ignorant. Or, to paraphrase a popular slam on the teaching profession, those who can should do, those who can’t should teach. It’s like the Music Man forming a school band from scratch without being able to play a lick himself.
In the traditional educational arrangement the teacher is positioned as Master of the subject and of the students; his task is to explicate the subject to the student. This assignment of roles, said Jacotot, is predicated on an inequality of intelligence between Master and student, an inequality that reflects and perpetuates the hierarchical society that the educational system serves. Even progressives perpetuate the system by instituting one educational reform after another attempting to redress baseline inequalities between the underprivileged and the elite, reforms that are doomed never to reach the goal of actually achieving equality. Rather than making equality the goal of education, Jacotot assumed equality as its starting point. All children are perfectly capable of learning their native language without explicitly being taught: why can’t they learn another language, or mathematics, or philosophy, the same way? Give the kids a book and some time, make sure they’re not being lazy and inattentive, and voilà – the students teach themselves. A book is self-explanatory: why stick a Master explicator between the student and the book? The Master implicitly teaches students that they cannot teach themselves, instilling a passivity before recognized experts that’s liable to persist for a lifetime. And it’s in this way that schools serve as an ideological apparatus of the status quo. The students’ passive dependence on the Master, the “stultification” of their will and attention, recreates and preserves the broader hierarchical social-economic inequality between the elite and everyone else. In contrast, self-taught students are “emancipated.” Obliged to engage their own perfectly adequate intelligence rather than relying on the Master’s, the students enter an educational “circle of power” that brings them together with a teacher in a joint exercise of intelligence among equals.
Whoever teaches without emancipation stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. He will know he can learn because the same intelligence is at work in all the productions of the human mind, and a man can always understand another man’s words.
Equality of intelligence among individuals doesn’t mean identity in its application, requiring each student to learn the same things. Nor does a society comprised of emancipated individuals become an intelligent society. Jacotot’s vision for education and society — and Rancière’s as well — is an anarchism verging on libertarianism, in which individuals pursue their own pathways in a milieu of mutual support among equals. But doesn’t this DIY ethos of the blind leading the blind generate unrealistic expectations among overconfident students sure that they’re the next Einstein or Shakespeare? No, Rancière insists, that’s not the point.
[I]t’s not a matter of making great painters; it’s a matter of making the emancipated: people capable of saying “me too, I’m a painter,” a statement that contains nothing in the way of pride, only the reasonable feeling of power that belongs to any reasonable being. [Quoting Jacotot] There is no pride in saying out loud: Me too, I’m a painter! Pride consists in saying softly to others: You neither, you aren’t a painter.”
Jacotot knew that the ignorant schoolmaster couldn’t successfully be instituted as a societally mandated model, with the accompanying insistence on certifications and standardized pedagogical techniques and evaluations. Emancipated education can’t be instituted; it can only be practiced, parent to child, ignorant schoolmaster to ignorant student, citizen to citizen.
[G]overnment doesn’t owe the people an education, for the simple reason that one doesn’t owe people what they can take for themselves. And education is like liberty: it isn’t given; it’s taken. (pp. 106-107)
Jacotot’s aphorism can be updated for today’s writer of fictions: Education isn’t given; it’s bought. Can we ignoramuses, students and teachers alike, take education back, emancipate it?
* * *
Me too, I’m a novelist! That’s what I told myself when I started writing fiction. I didn’t study creative writing in school; I didn’t take seminars and workshops; I didn’t read books or articles about the art and craft of fiction. I didn’t even join a writers’ group, an educational format that comes closest to Jacotot’s and Rancière’s egalitarian model, with each group member simultaneously occupying the role of student and schoolmaster. I read some novels, and then I just started writing one. Pretty soon – well, two years later – I had a finished novel to show for it, and a pretty darned good one too as far as I was concerned. Eventually I dismantled and reorganized the material in that first novel, but most of the original text has survived. Several more novels would follow.
Do I regard myself as a better writer for having avoided writing school? Well yes, sometimes. But more often I hear the MFA-credentialed author smirking at me from the back cover of his published novel: “You aren’t a novelist.” I’m aware that the truly ignorant don’t know what they don’t know, whereas the knowledgeable and the skilled and the educated know their limits. Having acquired a few advanced degrees in other fields, I’m aware that I have learned things, been taught things, that others, self-educated in these disciplines, have not – things they don’t know that they don’t know. But it’s not just knowledge and technique and an awareness of one’s limits that formal education bestows; it’s also a sense of elite collegiality, of being equal to those who are better than the unschooled. We are the therapists, the theologians, the scientists, the engineers; they are not. Or maybe it’s the shared awareness of pulling the sheepskin over their eyes.
The MFA is a professional degree, like a JD or an MD or an MDiv. For what profession is the recipient of an MFA in fiction qualified to practice? The profession of writing fictions? By most accounts this profession doesn’t exist in the usual sense of being a paid occupation. Of the thousands of MFA graduates entering the profession each year, how many will earn a living wage through writing fictions? Maybe I’m being too much of a purist here. This morning after finishing my run I introduced myself to our new neighbor two doors down. I asked if he’d met the three roommates living between his place and ours; he hadn’t. I told him that they were artsy types. Me too, he enthused: I’m in advertising; I’m a writer. Well, yes, advertising is creative writing; I’d go so far as to call it fiction. I’ll have to find out if the new neighbor has an MFA, if he regards his advertising gig as a day job for paying the rent while he works on his novel at night, or if he deems himself a practicing author in his job.
Originally a profession was a public declaration of vows taken upon entering a monastic order. In professing oneself a writer of fiction a vow of poverty is required. Once while walking in Nice I came across a young man handing out copies of his poetry, begging bowl on the sidewalk in front of him: poetic monasticism. When in public I admit to being a novelist it feels less a profession than a confession.
I have no real idea about what it’s like to be an MFA student. I’ve read about the workshops in which students critique and edit one another’s manuscripts, a format that sounds a lot like Jacotot’s pedagogy of egalitarian ignorance except for the inclusion of an already-credentialed Master seated at the head of the class (or maybe at the preferred position in the circle of power). I presume that, when push comes to shove, it is the Master’s voice that rings most clearly in the students’ ears. I wonder whether, in commenting on their colleagues’ works, the students attempt to emulate the Master in style and substance, to impress the Master with incisive commentary, to compete with one another not just in the writing but in the critiquing. Mastery as a teacher of writing fiction is attained not just by attaining the recognized advanced degree but by having one’s own fictions published. No doubt the MFA student heeds the Master’s critique not only in order to become a better writer but also to produce more publishable writings. A letter of recommendation from the Master to her agent or publisher would be a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The MFA degree also qualifies its recipient to practice a second profession: teaching. The student can become the Master. Surely MFA students are aware that making a living as a novelist is nearly impossible. But if you can get your degree and manage to get a novel published, you’ve got a real shot at teaching creative writing at the university level. But is that any more realistic as a career aspiration than becoming a professional novelist? So many MFA grads fighting for so few teaching slots, most of which are part-time adjunct positions. Having racked up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, the MFA graduate starts looking into careers in advertising…
[O]n the (pretended) will of the people, the Church will no longer call itself Church; it will call itself School. What matters it? On the benches of this School will be seated not children only; there will be found the eternal minor, the pupil confessedly forever incompetent to pass his examinations, rise to the knowledge of his teachers, and dispense with their discipline – the people. The State will no longer call itself Monarchy; it will call itself Republic: but it will be none the less the State – that is, a tutelage officially and regularly established by a minority of competent men, men of virtuous genius or talent, who will watch and guide the conduct of this great, incorrigible, and terrible child, the people. The professors of the School and the functionaries of the State will call themselves republicans; but they will be none the less tutors, shepherds, and the people will remain what they have been hitherto from all eternity, a flock. Beware of shearers, for where there is a flock there necessarily must be shepherds also to shear and devour it. The people, in this system, will be the perpetual scholar and pupil. In spite of its sovereignty, wholly fictitious, it will continue to serve as the instrument of thoughts, wills, and consequently interests not its own. – Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, 1871
Well that’s a bit extreme, isn’t it, even for an anarchist? Presumably teachers ascend to their position by virtue of having attained more knowledge, greater mastery, higher levels of accomplishment than their students. Is mastery to be scorned as an authoritarian constraint imposed on the free expression of innate genius, bestowing a false legitimacy on the vicious circuitry of wealth and oppression that disguises itself as democracy? No, Bakunin protests, that’s not it:
Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism censure… If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed upon me by no one, neither by men nor by God. Otherwise I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, as they might give me.
Surely most students and teachers of fiction writing would agree with Bakunin. The problem, it seems, lies not in the authoritarian status of the school, which has long been eroding from within, but in the economic stratification of late capitalism. For the past three decades the price of higher education has been rocketing upward, climbing much more rapidly than the overall cost of living. Meanwhile employment opportunities and real wages have stagnated, beginning with blue-collar jobs but eventually and inexorably extending into white-collar sectors traditionally requiring higher educational attainment. College teaching in particular has been hard hit, with tenure-track careers having been replaced by piecemeal adjunct gigs, while writing, never a particularly lucrative undertaking, has sunk far below poverty-level sustainability. Is it really worthwhile not just to devote one’s time to acquiring a professional degree that offers so little return on the investment, but also to pay big bucks for the privilege?
* * *
Suppose a novelist were to teach a writing course independently. Suppose this teacher took on 7 writing students for a semester. The teacher would convene the group of students as a class 3 hours per week, devoting an additional 1 hour per week to each student individually. In this hypothetical independent writing school there is no overhead – no buildings and grounds, no administrators and marketeers and fundraisers. Suppose each student were to pay $1,000 for the semester. All $7,000 of the class’s tuition which would go to the teacher – a part-time wage comparable to what the university would pay an adjunct professor for teaching the same course in an MFA program. Maybe the 7 students enrolled in this independent fiction writing school would take two classes per semester for two years, while also studying and writing independently. At the end of the two years the 7 students would have earned the equivalent of an advanced degree in fiction writing while paying a total of $4,000 apiece – a small fraction of what they would have had to pay if they’d enrolled in an MFA program. Over those two years, each of four writers would have earned $7,000 working as part-time writing teachers – still not enough to live on, but combined with whatever money they might be making from their writing it might keep them from starving without having to bump up their barista hours to full time.
Give the ratchet another turn. The four writers teaching the independent courses organize themselves into a writers’ cooperative. They convene regular writers’ group sessions, encouraging, critiquing, editing, discussing, and promoting one another’s work, simultaneously teaching and learning from one another. The cooperative develops a house style: a distinctive set of shared thematic elements and techniques and standards. Would-be writers, attracted by the writers’ works and the house style, enroll as student apprentices. The four senior writers teach writing classes and advise the apprentices. In exchange, the apprentices handle the scheduling of the teaching sessions and take a major role in editing, formatting, distributing, and promoting the senior writers’ books. As they advance to journeyman status, the students assume more responsibilities, running the writing groups for new apprentices, advancing from text editing to copy editing, writing reviews and analyses of the senior writers’ books, and working on their own fictions, which they workshop in collaboration with the senior writers. Eventually the journeymen become masters, assuming full status and responsibility within the house. The house becomes an independent publisher, putting out compilations and stand-alone novels written and edited by members of the cooperative. The four writers will have created a “school” in the sense that, say, Rembrandt had a school, unified not by a reigning genius but by a unifying aesthetic or ethical or political commitment. No money passes from students to teachers: the whole arrangement is based on work-study, with the teachers compensated for their efforts by having more time to write without being bogged down in production and logistics and marketing, and by having more associates actively making their writings visible in the outside world. As the school matures its reputation grows, magnifying the visibility of its writers, increasing the readership and the cultural impact of their works.
Students and apprentices might live two thousand miles away from the writer-run schools/houses that best suit them: would they have to relocate? Non-residency MFA programs address the geography problem by having students and teachers converge for only a few weeks during the year, while one-on-one mentoring is conducted remotely via email and telephone during the rest of the year. But surely there’s value for writers-in-training to gather together on a more regular basis, both for offering social support among practitioners of an intrinsically solitary calling and for mutually honing writerly art and craft “as iron sharpens iron.” Maybe a syndicate of houses would emerge, with ongoing local workshops and tutorials cross-pollenated by writers affiliated with a variety of geographically scattered houses. The houses could then guide their students’ progression from apprentice to journeyman to master remotely, with students and teachers focusing their one-on-one exchanges on shaping the house’s and the student’s works in progress while relying on local groups to build students’ collective momentum and shared identity as initiates into the writing profession.
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What about learning to read fiction? In prior generations students of literature were taught to read great fictions well, whereas would-be writers of fiction were left to their own devices. Now the positions are reversed: writing programs are booming while literary studies wither. With the price of higher education continuing to escalate, it’s tough to justify taking courses that don’t lead toward some plausible career path – or even an implausible one, like the writing profession. The only professional readers are English teachers, and their numbers are dwindling as education becomes increasingly pragmatic up and down the school age range. In the old days aristocrats encouraged their children to acquire a liberal education as a hallmark of superior breeding; now it’s exclusive clubbing and helicopter skiing that signify membership in the plutocracy. So let’s acknowledge that attaining mastery in reading fiction offers neither practical payoff nor class status. Is it possible to imagine a low-priced means of attaining this mastery? If so, would anyone take advantage of the opportunity?
Let’s suppose that the writing houses are also reading houses. For some, attaining mastery of the house style entails the ability to write high-quality texts that recognizably incorporate that style. For others, mastery means the ability as readers to recognize the style, to interpret its contours and parameters, to extend its reach beyond the canonical in-house texts to other texts, other media, the world, other worlds. A master reader would also be able to make informed judgments about the quality of fictional texts and their value not as commodities but as cultural resources – a capacity for discernment that becomes critical if readers are to displace commercial agents and publishers in selecting and promoting books for free widespread distribution.
When I was back there in seminary school we learned to read ancient Hebrew and Greek so that, in parsing Holy Writ, we could get closer to the urtexts. We would devote intensive study to the exegesis of short passages, paying careful attention to syntactic nuance, tracing explicit and implicit scriptural cross-references, tracking down the uses of specific words in other contexts. The purpose of close Biblical reading wasn’t so much to appreciate authorial art and craft as to understand what the author was talking about, to glimpse the contours of a reality behind the surfaces of the world and of the text, a deeper reality revealed in language. We would summarize our findings in our own texts, contributing incrementally to the historical cumulative project of Biblical study.
When I was a doctoral student in psychology we learned to parse research papers published in academic journals. We learned theory so that we could understand the hypotheses being tested and their importance to the field. We read historical reviews so we could trace the context and trajectory of new work vis-à-vis other studies cited explicitly or implicitly in the paper. We learned experimental design and psychometrics and statistics in order to understand and evaluate the empirical claims made by the study’s authors. The purpose of close scientific reading wasn’t so much to appreciate authorial art and craft as to understand what the author was talking about, to glimpse the contours of a reality behind the surfaces of the world, a reality described in language and mathematics. We would conduct our own research and describe our findings in texts and equations, contributing incrementally to the historical cumulative project of psychological research.
The readers and the writers of scholarly texts are by and large the same people, cultivating the same areas of expertise. Biblical scholarship is embedded in a continuum stretching back more than two thousand years. Still, there is room for plenty of variation in hermeneutical strategies and theological interpretations – divergences that have provoked animosity and even outright warfare between adherents of competing views. And, surprisingly to outsiders, new readings of ancient texts continue to arise. Scientific scholarship expands rapidly from the surface outward, but it’s built on a cumulative body of historical work. Still, variation is rewarded, with significant new findings taking precedence over the confirmation of prior findings. Scientific progress isn’t linear and continuous; it’s a far-from-equilibrium self-organizing system, with intermittent theoretical and methodological mutations disrupting the status quo while cross-disciplinary hybrids amp up the complexity.
Having never studied fiction writing formally I can’t characterize the educational experience from a first-person point of view, but my second-hand impression is that the skills and techniques cultivated in the programs emphasize authorial art and craft. Do they nurture also the art and craft of reading? I presume that unschooled readers of fiction zero in on content – the plot, the characters, the situations – whereas the pros of prose attend to phrasing and sentences, to narrative structure and style, to rhythm and flow, to broader historical and cultural context. Like Biblical exegeses and research reports, fictional narratives point to realities hidden behind the surfaces of the world, behind the texts that reveal and describe them. Wouldn’t it make sense for our imagined schools/houses of fiction to incorporate literary studies into their curricula, drawing on expertise attained not just by master writers but also by master readers?
In what ways might fictional education be altered, what sorts of knowledge and know-how might be cultivated, if pedagogic attention were to shift from the art and craft to fictional realities, from signifiers to signifieds, from the pointing finger to what the finger is pointing at? A scientific experiment is conducted and then it is written up; the written report is not the same as the experiment it reports or the features of reality made manifest in the experiment. Is a fictional narrative reducible to the text that documents it? Or is the fictional text a write-up of an experiment that investigates or simulates a larger fictional reality? If so, is it possible to identify the techniques of good fictional experimentation and simulation, as distinct from techniques for writing up the findings? And by what criteria should the results of a fictional experiment or simulation be evaluated; with what fictional realities should they correlate? Do the results from a particular fictional research project suggest follow-up studies, alternative hypotheses to be tested, collaborations with other investigators operating within different fictional paradigms, cross-fertilization with other fictional realities, interventions for extending and enhancing the fictional reality depicted in the text?
But, it might be argued, fictional realities are qualitatively different from religious realities or scientific realities. Fictions are made-up worlds, worlds made out of words, and so fictional education does and should focus on wordcraft. Then again…
* * *
Biblical study is a kind of fan fiction, its practitioners paying homage to the Canon in its original sense. Certainly it’s possible to focus on those ancient texts as literary productions, but in the longer historical tradition students strive to immerse themselves in the reality glimpsed behind the texts “as through a glass darkly.” In their investigations the exegetes extend and enhance that dimly realized reality, postulating theories about original sin or the trinity or substitutionary atonement or unconditional election. Eventually these enhancements become orthodox doctrine, enshrined as canonical descriptions of Biblical reality, abstract constructs inferred from but not directly present in the texts. Alternative doctrines, alternative realities can also be construed from the same canon, parallel worlds constructed within competing fan fiction factions. Maybe that’s how the Biblical world got started in the first place: “Let there be light,” some theorist once proposed; and there was light, a chronicler of the theorist’s speculation creating the textual reality in which subsequent generations of readers would become immersed.
Scientists, paying homage to the material world, also create parallel realities. “Let there be visual perception,” they assert, describing the mechanisms by which perception operates, testing their hypotheses, modifying them as needed. Alternative models are put forward to explain the findings: is perception bottom-up or top-down, representational or instrumental, simulated or direct? Different schools of thought arise, endorsing one or another alternative, conducting research from within that hypothetical world, that paradigm. All too often scientists act as if the mathematical and linguistic abstractions they use to describe and explain the world are intrinsic to the world itself. “Let there be light,” the physicist said, and there were wavicles oscillating at varying frequencies rippling out from the light’s source at speeds determined by the electromagnetic fields through which the wavicles pass, some of them bouncing off the surfaces of your eyeballs… The map is not the territory; the scientific explanation of the world is not the world being explained.
Except sometimes it is. An AI simulation, using light reflected from surfaces as its input, can be trained to recognize human faces using criteria that humans don’t use but that perform the task with far more accuracy than any human being can hope to achieve. The AI face recognition system becomes part of the real world, identifying service personnel at international airports who have been given security clearance for stepping onto the tarmac and entering aircraft.
While Biblical scholars and empirical scientists and AI engineers might occupy worlds of their own invention, they’re still trying to converge on some external standard of realism against which an invented world might be evaluated: its truth, or its correlation, or its accuracy. And so they collaborate with each other, building on earlier findings and traditions, converging on an informed consensus as they try to minimize the discrepancies between their invented worlds and the actual world. By contrast, novels are, well, novel. The fictional worlds in which novels unfold bear varying degrees of correspondence with the actually existing world, but realism doesn’t necessarily serve as the basis for evaluating the excellence of a novelistic invention. Still, one gets the sense that writerly craft is judged by the degree to which those imaginary worlds are made to seem realistic. Are fictional realities sui generis and thus beyond the scope of evaluation by criteria other than the writerly craft with which those realities are described? Or are there criteria for evaluating imaginary inventions other than comparison with some external standard of validation or comparison, criteria that readers and writers of fiction can learn, can perhaps even master?
It would seem to be a question of aesthetics.
The Rembrandt painterly school focused not just on technical proficiency but on artistry, with the painting’s subject and the painter’s representational accuracy being secondary concerns. An artist of the Rembrandt school could paint a portrait of a Biblical figure for whom no visual representation or verbal description existed to serve as a model against which the representational accuracy of the painting could be evaluated. Still, the painted rendering had to look like a real person, look like what one might imagine the subject of the painting looked like. Even Bosch’s inventions look like realistic renderings of imaginary beings populating an imagined hell. Eventually representational art receded, with the object on the canvas – its invented reality in and of itself, independent of the realism of its craftsmanship and its actual or imagined correspondence with what it depicts – having become the focus of the artist and of the critic. On what basis are nonrepresentational works of art evaluated? I claim no expertise in art criticism, but my sense is that more attention is drawn to the theory behind the project, the conceptual space that the artistic object occupies, the context in which it can be interpreted, the alternate reality it occupies and toward which it points conceptually and abstractly rather than pictorially.
My impression is that, in the plastic and the literary arts, imaginary realities are idiosyncratic, subjective, individualized, yet at the same time transcendent, sublime, inspired. Art is the reality in which the work of art is immersed, from which it emerges, of which it is a component part. The reality of art is intangible, immaterial, ineffable. Craft and technique can be taught; it’s not clear whether art can. And so the schools teach craft and technique, which can be deployed as needed in the service of any distinctive art that any individual student might be capable of creating.
This scholastic pragmatism is understandable. If art is incomparable and intangible while craft is material and capable of being mastered according to recognized standards, then it should be easier to attract students and teachers alike to a craft school. If school equips students for the teaching profession, then mastering the ability to evaluate and to improve others’ craftsmanship becomes an essential skill to be learned. And if the student proves to be an artist, that artistry is most easily recognized in the contemporary scene as distinctiveness, uniqueness. Having apprenticed under an established artist, being a member of an artistic school, following an established tradition – these suggest conformity, a derivative artistry. Master the established craft, but find your own art.
Artistry is regarded as a characteristic of the artist, as genius of impression and expression, as vision and voice. But artistry makes sense only within an artistic ecosystem, comprised not of physical spaces and objects and forces but of imaginary ones. Artists and artworks occupy this ecosystem, responding to and generating its allures, following and setting its trajectories, simultaneously shaping and being shaped by it – rather than as a property of that which is being expressed. The imaginary reality in which a work of art is embedded and that it reveals does not reside solely in the head of its creator and its audience. The artwork itself gives vision and voice to the imaginary reality it occupies, to whoever has eyes to see and ears to hear.
Isn’t it possible to pursue mastery of the artistic ecosystem, discerning its parameters and its force fields, acquiring the knowledge and the skills required for thriving inside of it? No doubt some have already attained mastery in navigating certain niches within the artistic ecology. Maybe they can teach what they know – not just the craft but also the art. But the artistic ecosystem is limitless, subject not to mastery but to exploration. The ignorant schoolmaster model would be well-suited to the challenge, outfitting one another as artistic explorers and setting out, together and alone, on expeditions into the unknown.
* * *
Every picture tells a story. The dynamic, storied aspect of a static image depends on the viewer to set it in motion, imagining a narrative in which the picture is embedded as a kind of cinematic screen shot. Films and novels are static objects too, but they have their stories built inside them. You can still watch between the scenes or read between the lines, but the scenes and the lines already tell stories. Still, a narrative remains static until it is set in motion. A movie or a novel is like an AI simulated life form: it just sits there until you turn it on. You turn on a movie by watching it; a novel, by reading it.
You can design and build an elegant and efficient AI, running it on a battery of test cases to ensure its accuracy, but ultimately you’ve got to cut it loose, release it into the world, put it to work. The same is true of novels. You can design and build the novel, continually oscillating between writing and reading what you’ve just written, editing and expanding and refining the text in order to make it work better. As designer-builder you can deem the novel a success in the lab, but eventually you’ve got to cut it loose, send the novel out into the world of readers, to see if it works. Works how? Number of books sold, number of buyers who actually read the book, number of readers who gave the book a thumbs-up – consumer-oriented metrics make sense when books are sold as commodities intended to please customers. Certainly a commercial AI has to please its customers if it’s going to work in the world. But mostly the AI has to perform its designated task effectively and efficiently. Does a novel have a designated task other than pleasing its customers? Should it be able to do its work effectively and efficiently?
A novel takes place inside of an imaginary reality. A fictional narrative sets events in motion that unfold within that imaginary reality. Arguably a novel works if the imaginary reality is well crafted, if the events make sense inside of that reality, and if the text does a good job of simulating that reality and the events unfolding within it. A reader can judge as a critic or reviewer whether a novel works, occupying a point of view outside of the novel’s reality as it were. Or a reader can enter into the novel’s imaginary reality, experiencing it firsthand as either a spectator or a vicarious participant, finding out how well it works from the inside.
The writer is positioned inside the imaginary reality, a reality that isn’t fully formed yet, a reality that places a demand on the writer to stay inside even while reading. Eventually the writer has to step away, trying to gain some distance, some perspective, evaluating and critiquing from outside of the imaginary reality. In groups and workshops the writer benefits from other writers’ perspectives on the text as it is goes along. Group members occupy the role of reader straddling the inside-outside partition, but almost surely they are reading as writers, as fellow designers and builders of fictional simulations. At some point the writer wants to get the novel out of the lab and into the hands of some real readers. But who? Don’t ask your friends, the writer is advised, unless you want them to become former friends. A professional editor? Now the writer is shelling out money that may never be recouped, buying the perspective of someone who’s simulating the viewpoint of a potential agent or publisher, where commercial concerns become paramount. Again, a lab technician, not a real reader.
A fiction school or laboratory could cultivate a cadre of perceptive and reflective readers to beta-test the new fictions being produced by the school’s writers. But maybe the order should be reversed, with reading collectives cultivating cadres of writers to create worthy fictions. In transforming fictional texts from commodities to cultural resources, readers will have to come up with a way of curating collections of texts worthy of widespread free distribution. Readers, not publishing companies or platforms or professional librarians, select new acquisitions for the collection. Readers, not professional reviewers, analyze newly released books. Readers, not publicists or advertisers or bookstores, promote books for wider readership. To move fiction into a post-capitalist era, readers need to cultivate artistic mastery among themselves.
The public should try to make itself artistic, Oscar Wilde wrote in an earlier era of decadent commercial philistinism. But are aesthetics the only criteria by which a fiction is to be deemed culturally valuable? Entertainment, escape, exploration, experimentation, simulation, inspiration, revelation, disruption: fictions can “work” in a lot of different ways. Maybe the public should also try to make itself scientific and visionary, practical and theoretical, political and mystical in its collective engagement with fictions.
Maybe in my speculation about possible schools of fiction I’m being too humanistic, placing too much emphasis on the writers and the readers while not focusing enough on what is being written, what’s being read about. Maybe what’s needed are schools not for practitioners of fiction but for fictions themselves. A Biblical seminary studies the Bible and the reality it reveals; a scientific lab studies science and the reality it reveals. Novices become masters and masters become doctors, but from a cultural standpoint what matters most is the study, not the student; the profession, not the professional; the creation, not the creator. Fictions: what they are, what they do, what they’re made of; the constants and the variables, the structures and dynamics, the histories and trajectories, the actualities and possibilities and impossibilities. Labs for discovering realities and building them, for dismantling and reassembling them, for expanding and collapsing them, for entering into them and escaping them.
Who would teach in such a school, and who would learn? It’s a fictional school: enter into it and let it tell you.