The Ethnography of Fiction

How do World One and World Two interact?

When [the author Hilary Mantel] is starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions. She tried this for the first time when she was writing “The Giant, O’Brien”: the giant came in, but, before sitting down in the chair, he bent down and tested it, to see if it would take his weight. On that occasion, she never got any further, because she was so excited that she punched the air and shouted “Yes!” But from then on she could imagine herself in the giant’s body.

“The Dead Are Real,” Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012

I want to return to an idea I’d tested out on you a couple of months ago: that the people in our fiction are real, by any meaningful definition of reality, and that we owe them our most careful and generous observation.

Remember that we’d posited the notion that there exists a World One, within the novel, and a World Two, which we inhabit as daily people. In World One, there is a logic. There is a series of factual and moral connections between the characters who live there. There is a problem that vexes them, that they have different ways of resolving, toward different desired ends. As the reader and the writer, we do not live there; we have no ability to interact with them, to change their circumstances, to investigate their reasoning aside from what they’ve already revealed. And likewise, they do not live with us. They do not go to dinner with us, or use up our toilet paper. World One and World Two do not intersect in any experiential way; World One is observable to us over here in Two, but only observable and no more. (World Two is, of course, utterly outside the experience or interests of those over there in One.)

This is actually quite a common experience. I hardly have access to the thoughts and experiences of anyone at all. I can talk with people, ask them questions, watch them and listen to them, but I can never have a full understanding of who they are, what they love and what they fear, what childhood memories have driven them. I can’t inhabit their bodies, to know down in my cells what it feels like to drive a Formula One car or be a cellist. The more time I spend with my friends, and the more different experiences we share, the better my understanding of them might become. They have become fuller characters for me, but they remain eternally outside my complete understanding. (I remain outside my own complete understanding as well, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

What ethnographers try to do is to enter another community and to try to understand what matters to them. To enter that place and to shut up and hang out for a while. Maybe not even to ask any questions at first, because the questions we carry with us at the start won’t be informed by any meaningful knowledge anyway. No, we just go, and chat, and try to do whatever it is that the locals are doing, and listen to their stories and their grievances and their pleasures, to watch the ways they move their hands, to watch the ways they touch one another or avoid touching one another. How they touch the things around them, how they enter rooms and what corners they gravitate toward. To see who has permission, and who doesn’t.

We watch and listen and shut up. And slowly, some sense of the local rules begins to emerge. We start to see structures, patterns, habits. And we repeat those back to our new friends, and they laugh at us, and correct us, or say “well, yeah, sometimes it’s like that, but sometimes…” And eventually, if we’ve been careful, we get to a place where we can tell them something that sounds true.

And once we’ve gotten to that place of truth, once the locals believe that we understand them, we allow ourselves to report back to other outsiders. Not merely to tell them the facts of what we’ve seen, to tell them the patterns that we were clever enough to intuit, but to invest those facts and patterns with meaning, with gravity, with moral weight. To allow our readers to have an emotional connection with people whom they will never, ever know.

When we do that work well, the interests of the people of World One—that is, our ethnographic hosts—are primary to our concerns. We aren’t worried about ourselves or our careers or how we’ll be received or how our work intersects with the work of others. That’s all before and after, and not at all during. While we’re invested in World One, their lives and goals and joys and disappointments are primary to us.

And THAT, I realized this weekend, is why so much literary fiction feels like a disappointment to me, perhaps even a betrayal. The author isn’t actually doing justice to those in World One, isn’t letting them have their own voice, isn’t patient enough to just shut up and listen. The author, over here in Two, is being willful, is deciding what’s happening in One. Is paying them to stage a fight, is buying them drugs, is falsifying the data. Is lying. The characters in those stories are always firmly connected to the mind of the World Two writer, never allowed to become their own people and live their own lives.

When an author starts with the statement “I will write a story about betrayal,” or “I will write a story about social class,” or “I want to experiment with genre X,” the story is fraught with the danger of artifice, of being no more than a pretty fantasy of the author’s own making. In research terms, the author is going to manipulate the data to get the outcomes she went looking for in the first place. When the author starts with the question “I wonder what it’s like to be a really good musician?” or “I wonder what it felt like to live in 1930s Germany?” there’s a better chance. But when the author starts with “There’s this Irish guy, O’Brien, who was a 19th century circus giant, but he was also really well educated and sensitive” and then watches and listens as O’Brien tests out the capacity of chairs… that’ll lead you to the truth.