The Price of Everything

For a lot of reasons that I won’t go into today, it’s been a rough intellectual week. So I did something that I occasionally do when I’ve run short on self-confidence: I re-read one of my novel manuscripts.

It’s like getting an e-mail or a phone call from out of the blue, from friends you haven’t heard from for a long time. And I realize how much I miss them. In this case, it’s three people that I spent hours every day with for a year. I sat with them and listened to them and did little else from September 4, 2014 through September 1, 2015. I know Clay and Cam and Thanh better than I know the other people in my grad school cohort, better than I know my colleagues on the Selectboard, because they have revealed every secret in their lives to me. The fact that they’re “fictional characters” is irrelevant; they are more real to me than any of the people I encounter at potlucks or professional workshops.

I could get caught up in questions of whether the work is any good, but at least for me, that’s an uninteresting (and unanswerable) question. The more important judgment is that these are good people, actively working to become better people. And that places a burden on me; I have helped them to become real, and thus I bear a responsibility for their well being.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps.

I wrote for a number of years about qualitative research ethics, about the responsibilities we take on with regards to those who’ve allowed us to see and represent their lives. It is not enough to merely not treat them badly, which is what most research ethics is focused on. We have a positive obligation as well: to do things that participants will find valuable, to help them benefit from our presence just as we take intellectual and career benefit from the work they do to help us understand them.

Is it entirely lunatic to imagine that we have similar obligations toward our fictional characters? In principle, of course it is. But Clay and Thanh and Camille are not principles. They have jobs and friends and families. Cam is getting ready for grad school. They live in Indianapolis. I’ve been in their apartment, I’ve seen the Jennifer Bain painting over the mantle, I’ve seen the array of takeout containers down the kitchen counter that night that they were all too tired—and too happy—to cook.

Here’s the deal. When I finished The Adjunct Underclass, it was a thing, an object. I was proud of it, my editor was proud of it, various communities of reviewers approved it, I worked with Renaldo for months to get the copy editing right, tuning sentences and disagreeing over the differences between OK and okay and why those differences mattered. But it was external to me. It became real when I started to hear back from its readers, who told me their stories. Who told me that they felt less alone and less confused.

We spend all this time on the object, but not because of the object. The things we make are only media that convey emotional or intellectual value. We’re like plumbers, in a way; we care deeply about the craft of joining the pipes, but the value comes to the family who, months and years later, can make dinner and clean dishes. Who can shower after a long day, water the garden.

I think that fiction holds the same possibilities, and responsibilities. I want my readers (as imaginary as my characters—far more imaginary, in fact, since I haven’t lived with them for a year) to feel less alone and less confused. And I want Cam and Thanh and Clay to live among others, the way that they deserve to. I want the depth of their experiences to be seen and acknowledged.

Oscar Wilde once described a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Writing is a business, and its labor is paid at whatever variable rate is in effect at that moment. But writing is not merely a business. It is a series of obligations that we voluntarily undertake, an expression of value that cannot be quantified. And I believe that some of those obligations are due to the characters who reveal themselves to us, who share their dreams and fears and shames and joys for our consideration.

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