Fiction Isn’t About Reasons

Our friend Joshua Henkin, whose NYTimes notable book Matrimony just came out in paperback, is guest blogging over at The Elegant Variation today and showing that James Wood isn’t the only one who knows how fiction works.

Most interesting so far is a sneak peek at Josh’s novel in progress, which apparently offended some folks at a synagogue recently.

the section I read from was told from the perspective of a woman who, raised in a secular Jewish home in New York City and Westchester and having spent much of her teenage years in serious trouble (drugs, promscuity, bad grades, etc.), finds herself in Jerusalem in her early twenties and ends up becoming an Orthodox Jew. The section I read from, though it posited as its starting point the woman’s religious transformation (she’s now married to another newly religious Jew, and the mother of their four children) focuses in some detail on the character’s travails when she was a teenager. Perhaps because the material I read from was fairly sexually explicit and I was reading at a synagogue, the reading inspired some discomfort among the attendees, particularly from one elderly woman who wanted to know why. Why were my characters the way they were? Why, specifically, was the young woman I was writing about so promiscous, and was the reason she later became an Orthodox Jew because she was tired of being promiscuous?

Though I’m not sure I managed to convince her, I tried to explain to this woman that fiction isn’t about reasons — or, at least, that it’s not about the kinds of reasons that can be reduced to a simple (or even not so simple) answer at a book reading. Fiction is about plausibility, certainly, but to make something plausible (to make your characters and their predicaments come to life, that is), is different from explaining them or giving a reason for who/what they are. Fiction is like love. It just is. As soon as you need to explain it, something has gone wrong.



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