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Newsletter 27 May 2014: Imaginary meaning trumps the real

Illustration: Chris Ware

Anyone who has been following the posts on this site, on traditional careers versus innovative work of your own, will be under the reasonable impression that as far as writing goes I value non-fiction over fiction. That if asked which form is the better manner in which to transmit ideas I would plump for essays detailing thoughts and opinions in as exact a way as possible over imagined stories whose meaning is as much down to the reader as it is to the author.

But all through the past year or so of writing The Tyranny of Careers I’ve felt a certain uneasiness whilst writing: that this non-fiction, this writing down of clear thoughts, is not what I most want to be doing. That if I were to be honest what I’d really like is to finish and publish (in whatever form) a novel – not clear thoughts, but opaque stories, from which meaning must be unearthed.

Why should fiction be valued over non-fiction? I don’t think I’m wrong to say that fiction writers are more celebrated than non-fiction writers, are more famous and receive more accolades. And yet fiction writers appear in some ways to have it easier – they have more scope to almost cheat on delivering meaning to a reader because they can be more opaque in their writing, yet they are hailed for being more literary, for not laying the meaning of the story out too clearly.

This is slightly facetious of course. Because the best fiction transmits its meaning to the reader in a magical way that non-fiction cannot do, and this is not an easy task at all. But I think there is another reason why fiction is celebrated over non-fiction, and that is to do with how we like to learn new stuff.

We do not really like to be instructed. We like to come across meaning for ourselves, almost by accident. To feel that we are communing with a novelist through shared experience rather than being told an opinion by an essay writer. It is a sensation equivalent to the increased pleasure of hearing a favourite song by chance on the radio rather than choosing to play it ourselves. The reason why marketing diminishes creative work, by telling us (in trailers, in reviews, in quotes) why we should enjoy this particular piece of art.

Of course I am making these points in non-fiction blog essay, still in a telling-people-what-to-think kind of way, rather than allowing-to-discover-for-yourself kind of way through fiction. So I have to do something about that. It’s time to go back to wondering what kind of fiction I’m able to write, whilst this draft of The Tyranny of Careers is waiting on notes from readers. Enter some short story competitions, try to finish a novel-length story (which is the story that I’ve wanted to be published above all others). Read lots more fiction myself.

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