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Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

If this is not the only post you read this year comparing Beatrix Potter‘s books to Sex in the City, please share your blogroll with the rest of the group.

Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

I started thinking and talking about this question a few years ago. (I labeled it a “personal-intellectual project” of which my “Who’s the medium now?” set of posts in 2010-2011 is one expression). The only counter-example I know well is Dougal Dixon‘s After Man: a Zoology of the Future. An author friend, Alec Nevala-Lee, pointed me to “hysterical realism” (a term for packed-to-the-gills works such as many by DF Wallace, Pyncheon, Don DeLillo, and Zadie Smith) as potential counterexamples:

From James Wood’s review coining the term:

Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with “ideas and themes that I can tie together–problem-solving from other places and worlds.” It is not the writer’s job, she says, “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.”

My dad offered many more well-known and better-loved counter-examples: Beatrix Potter’s books. “They’re about animals, not people.” “Of course they’re about people!” I said. “How so?” “Because they’re about how people feel and think and interact with each other.” My dad then accused me of tautology: I define any work of fiction as being “about people.”

That might be a fair criticism, but not with respect to Beatrix Potter stories, and particularly not with respect to The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. Its first line may be, “Once upon a time there was a Pussy-cat called Ribby, who invited a little dog called Duchess, to tea,” but The Pie and the Patty-Pan is, in fact, exactly like the Sex and the City (TV) episode “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.” Both are surface-funny and subtext-baffling, showing absurd examples of what one may and may not say in certain social circles, what kinds of miscommunications or properly understood communications can or cannot threaten a friendship. Both poke fun at social conventions but apparently without denouncing them. The little animal details in Potter’s book like Duchess begging for a sugar cube on her nose or the doctor being a known and accepted kleptomaniac by virtue of his species (magpie) is probably all that makes Potter’s version easier for me to stomach than HBO’s.

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This is very similar to my argument for Invisible Cities and The Twilight Zone being about people: they use tight, focused, beautiful metaphors to externalize a mind or soul’s internal conflicts. And I think it’s an argument very relevant to speculative fiction fans: the main message of a show like Babylon 5 is always, “Aliens are just people, too.”

2 comments

2 Comments so far

  1. Ed March 3rd, 2014 9:24 am

    “Trailhead”, by EO Wilson

    http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/01/25/100125fi_fiction_wilson?currentPage=all

    (about relationships, but not humans)

    “Carbon”, by Primo Levi

    http://www.transitionnetwork.org/sites/www.transitionnetwork.org/files/CarbonStoryByPrimoLevi.pdf

    (about humans, but not relationships)

  2. Josh March 4th, 2014 8:30 pm

    E.O. Wilson is great entomologist, but IMO when he talks about sociobiology he is anthropomorphizing the ants and entomorphizing the humans. Trailhead is just a more subtle version of Beatrix Potter.

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