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Modern man reads and needs novels in order to feel at home in the world, because his relationship to the universe he lives in has been damaged.

— Orhan Pamuk, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist

My experience says that Orhan Pamuk is right. For me, writing fiction has indeed been driven by not feeling at home in the world, and by the hope of one day being more at home. In this I don’t think I’m unusual; right now in my fiction writing class, I have fifteen students, and twelve of them are writing about characters who don’t feel at home in the world. Three or four of those are writing about dystopias in which it seems there is almost no possibility of ever feeling at home.

When I read fiction, I have always covertly asked certain questions: what is this world I find myself living in like? What holds it together? Is there an underlying pattern? How does one go about living here?

And:

Is it possible to get out of the aloneness and separateness of being human? What would that look like, if it could ever happen?

And:

What do people really do, really feel, really want, really fear? I want to know not just what they admit to doing or wanting, what they say they feel, but what really goes on in human life. What are the secrets, open or otherwise, that help to constitute life as it is actually lived?

Why would I care about that? Because I want to know if I am completely unlike anyone else in experiencing life as I experience it.

Now, there are two ways fiction can go in responding to this feeling of not being at home in the world. One is to set out to create a feeling of being at home by writing a work in which we know that our expectations will be fulfilled. This is the province of genre fiction, e.g., romance novels, detective novels, spy novels, fantasy of various kinds. Which is not to say that such stories can’t include things that are upsetting, violent, sad, etc.; but I know how the genre works, and when I open the book I already feel that I am guaranteed a certain type of experience. So, if I’m reading a detective book, people may get shot and killed, the detective may be (and usually is) someone who doesn’t feel at home in the world, but my expectations of a certain kind of story, and certain characteristic moves within that story, will be met, and I know this from the start; this is what makes reading the book comfortable and creates for me as a reader a temporary feeling of being at home. This is what makes sequels and series appealing to readers. This is the attraction of fanfiction, both reading it and writing it: you know in advance exactly what the expectations are, and you know that every effort will be made to meet them. How reassuring that is.

The other way fiction can go is to confront the situation of not feeling at home in the world head-on. Not only are the characters not at home in the world, but the story itself is alive and dangerous, and we can’t get comfortable in it. Just when we, as readers, think things can’t get any worse, they might and they sometimes do. Whatever our expectations may be, there is no reason to feel sure they’ll be met. If the genre story is conservative (it always plays by the rules), this other story, which I guess I have to call literary, harbors the opposite ambition: it wants to be disruptive, even revolutionary.

Does this mean the literary story is inherently superior to the genre story? I’m not at all sure I want to argue that. Art cannot consist solely of breaking the mold. As one of my very smart students almost immediately pointed out when I made this argument, to paint this as a binary situation is too simple. The disruptive, radical, subversive aspect of the literary story needs to exist against a backdrop of some shared idea of order, some expectations that are met, because if it did not, the story would be baffling, obscure, impossible to make sense of.

When confronted with a binary situation, look for the third space. But that is a whole different topic, which signals that it is time for this post to conclude.

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