John Gardner says that the kind of entertainment fiction offers, at its best, is “entertainment of the soul.” If a story, whatever its flaws, is that, it’s worthwhile in a way that a story can’t be if it’s not. Now: can I define this?

This is difficult territory. Any effort to talk about art comes up against this eventually. Beauty, for example, is “entertainment of the soul.” And it, too, is nearly impossible to talk about.

Perhaps it means that the work acknowledges, admits to the normally unspoken hopes, longings, dreams, and suffering. In some way, the work says that these are what human life is really about, these things we all know but seldom talk about – may not talk about even with ourselves.

What are these things?

Human aloneness and the unending hope of getting out of lifelong separateness into some communion with others. Perhaps it never happens, or never can happen for long in the way we secretly hope. But “entertainment of the soul” is independent of the story’s outcome.

The struggle for self-knowledge and self-transcendence. To become what one secretly is, to go beyond what one is and what one has been made to be by circumstances. Again, the “entertainment” lies in the struggle, not in its result.

 

Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” which is often talked about as the first modern short story, and still one of the greatest, ends this way: they seemed to be on the verge of a decision, and a new, beautiful life would then begin; but they both knew that the most difficult, the most complicated part had only just begun . . .

It’s a story of adultery, about two already-married people who fall in love. And once you start to look, you see that this is what many short (and long) stories are about.

It’s a story about: the real life is secret; on the surface, in society, there is only falsehood. The story of adultery is the story of leaving the world of falsehood for the realm of the true, the real – of actual love.

Of course this story can be, and often is, told by inverting it, as in Andrea Barrett’s “The Littoral Zone,” where the adulterers do not find truth or the more real life or the love they imagined. It’s “The Lady with the Dog” carried forward, leading to disillusioned marriage and falsehood renewed. But this does not mean that the longing for truth, for meaning, for the secret life of the soul has ended – it remains alive in the disillusionment.

 

This tells me something important about what we want from fiction.

We want acknowledgement of the heart’s desires, not dissembling and obligatory falsehood, hypocrisy, convention.

 

If we shall never attain what is truly needed and desired, then we still want the necessity of it to be spoken and assented to, respected somewhere – in a story.

 

The story is on the side of the secret, the unspoken, the not allowed. The story is subversive. The story is for breaking down the established order. The story says what we’re not allowed to say. The story is against resignation. The story is against accommodation. The story is against settling down. The story is against compliance. The story is against giving up. The story is against untruth.

 

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