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Who’s the Medium now? Part III

In the past few months I have been hoping to cultivate a personal-intellectual project regarding the many ways readers think about the stories, characters and authors they encounter. This is proceeding more slowly than I might have liked, but mostly for good reasons—there are so many other wonderfully interesting things to explore in parallel! (Two weeks into my freshman year at Harvard, a young man from my entryway declared forcefully at dinner, “It has always been too long since one has read The Little Prince. One should be reading it constantly, non-stop, day in, day out. Unfortunately, there are other books that require one’s attention.” Two days later I fell deeply in unrequited love with him.)

But at the very least I can return periodically to the questions raised for me so fortuitously by a good visit, so, here, allow me to follow up on a question I mentioned my post “Who’s the Medium now?.”

When a friend stated she cannot enjoy art from creators with whose views she disagrees, I asked first, “Does this also apply to non-fiction?” She said, “I don’t read non-fiction.” As she is in a graduate program in a humanities discipline, my response was a look of some bafflement.

She clarified that she essentially does not read any books in a ‘non-academic non-fiction’ type genre, and that there are some books “I have to read to do my work.” Although she has since clarified that these academic books are enjoyable, her initial phrasing gave me the impression that she read them only because she has to.

I do not know, though I would welcome more insight from her, what formed her preference (aversion? categoric disinterest?), or whether she considers it something good, bad, or indifferent about herself. Perhaps she merely has so much good fiction to read she has decided not to distract herself with some of the enticing offerings of “actual” present and past. (I occasionally wonder how I will ever get to any new books, since there are so many wonderful books to re-read: not just The Little Prince, of course, but also How to Eat Fried Worms, Watership Down, and the Fionavar Tapestry—although I more recently realized I can’t handle that world again.) Or perhaps her identification of an author’s ground axe(s) with the art makes her especially suspicious of authors working in actual facts. Or perhaps it simply hasn’t interested her so far.

But I doubt that good non-fiction cannot interest her. This world is, after all, a wondrous place, full of far more variety and subtlety than we can grasp. Good fictional worlds share the same qualities, to my interpretation: but it takes less skill in an author to go beyond the reader’s imagination when facts are involved.

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. (NOT SO in the case of Macbeth: the historical Lady Macbeth’s given name was Gruoch, but I understand there is no documentation beyond that of her being particularly intimidating or formidable.) But it is very often more interesting. The much-married Henry VIII of England and his extensive, fractured family provide a favorite example of mine. (My main source is Alison Weir’s joint biography The Six Wives of Henry VIII; among the prosaic fictional treatments I have briefly encountered are The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Autobiography of Henry VIII.)

When King Henry married Anne Boleyn, she was very likely in her early-mid thirties, pushing the safe limits for childbearing years in her time (and even in our time, pushing the easy limits for conception). So although Henry was fixated on securing his succession with a legitimate male heir, that was not a strong argument for marrying this woman.

Furthermore, the extrication process from his marriage to his first wife (his brother‘s widow), Katherine of Aragon, had dragged on for seven years, due in no small part to Queen Katherine’s own exemplary political and personal connections and her popularity with the British people. Henry could not expect to gain in domestic or foreign clout by repudiating the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Finally, during all but the last few months of the political and religious wrangling leading up to Henry’s “divorce,” he and Anne most likely were not sleeping together.

Which pretty much leaves Anne Boleyn’s own personal magnetism as the one most likely proximate cause for Henry’s insistence on marrying her. And I have to say I have a heck of a lot of respect for a woman who had an intensity of magnetism that maintained such a hold for so long over the imagination of a man who had very little rational expectation that she could bring to his complex life any relief (beyond, presumably, in bed), and every reason to wish he might be able to forget her.

Nancy Kress’s short story “And Wild for to Hold” is the only fiction I’ve seen on Anne that can so much as hold a candle to the compellingness of her history. (If only Siân Phillips had ever had a chance to play her!) Unfortunately, Kress’s treatment does not depict Henry or any of the other wives, each of whose own stories was fascinating and tragic in a uniquely real-life way.

I told my friend about Henry-and-wives the day she said she doesn’t read non-fiction. She was fascinated.

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Who’s the Medium now?

Last weekend a long-standing friend and I re-wove a fascinating set of threads from a once shimmering and strong connection that had been somewhat out of repair. Also that weekend, over brunch, she told my husband and me that she cannot enjoy art from creators she knows to be jerks.

I got a bit wistful pondering the vast expanse of good, important stories from which she cuts herself off by this judgment. I have all sorts of follow-up questions I have not yet put to her:

  • When you are intrigued by a book, must you check the author’s credentials first?
  • How do mythological frameworks play into this? (e.g. If there is no single obvious source for Orpheus‘s story, but you happen to believe classical Greek culture was depraved, is that entire archetype invalidated? Furthermore, would Greek culture invalidate Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending, or is that enough a new work of art that its validity depends only on Williams‘s predelictions?)

I did ask one follow-up question first: “Does this also apply to non-fiction?” I’ll get back to the part of the conversation that flowed from that bit in future posts.

It took only one nap before I realized that my friend’s x-ray vision through a work of art into its creator (and all the various axes s/he grinds) can only be the product of a personal paradigm of art, stories and reality differing significantly from mine. To make a long story short (too late), I imagine she must see a story (in particular, but also other artistic expressions) as a medium through which an author communicates with the audience(s). Yet it’s very common particularly for authors of fiction to describe stories and/or individual characters as compelling the author to express them one way instead of another. I believe them. In my paradigm, generally, the author is the medium through which the story communicates with the audience(s).

Of course, in actuality it’s almost always a big knotty combination of author and story using each other. But in my experience, a good story feels inevitable, whether or not it happened (or could happen, or could have happened) in this physical universe in which I live.

And for you?