The Ecological Function of a Story

Yeah, you’re much prettier outdoors…

Our house has been beset by black wasps for the past couple of weeks. They’re digging wasps, and seem to have nested in the soil of a giant potted rosemary that we keep on the porch in nice weather and in the living room in the winter. They aren’t really a hazard—they’re kind of sluggish and not aggressive, so mostly we’ve been able to trap them under a glass and take them outdoors.

I looked them up, and found the following:

Adult females of S. pensylvanicus build an underground nest which they provision with various orthopteran insects… Prey are stung three times, once in the neck and twice in the thorax, and are paralyzed by the wasp’s sting, although they can survive for weeks. The prey are then carried to the nest. While collecting their prey, the females are vulnerable to kleptoparasitism, in which birds, including the house sparrow and the grey catbird , steal the prey that the wasp has collected… The eggs of S. pensylvanicus are 5–6 mm (0.20–0.24 in) long and 1 mm (0.04 in) wide; they are glued to the underside of the prey insect between the first and second pairs of legs. Each of the several chambers in the nest houses a single larva, which consumes 2–6 katydids or grasshoppers. 

Wikipedia, oracle of all that is known

Well, there’s a pretty specific ecological tale, eh? These wasps take down katydids and grasshoppers like a mob hit (once in the neck and twice in the thorax), and have to get back to the hideout before another gang can hijack their victims. Then they glue eggs onto the victim’s belly so that their kids can cannibalize their way to adulthood.

(There’s a Jared Kushner or USC Admissions joke waiting in there somewhere, but it’s too early in the morning, and not my primary task today.)

And the sparrows and catbirds in their own role, waiting on the trail like bandits to steal the already misbegotten goods. And the katydids, innocently chowing on some leaves with a side of aphids when the hit man busts into the diner. The whole thing is a nested tale of ecological functions.

I’ve been thinking about this lately for a few related reasons. First, I’m doing a talk next week at Trinity College in Connecticut, and I’ll be talking about my ecological framing of the adjunct crisis. Second, I’ve been thinking about all of my worry in the past week about honoring both characters and readers, and wondering if I haven’t been really more worried about me. I’m the writer, after all, so it’s no surprise that I’m concerned about my own culpability and capabilities. But a productive way out of this dilemma might be to understand what ecological niche my stories might fulfill. To quit worrying about my own survival as a wasp or a katydid or a sparrow, and to imagine what happens out there because of these stories.

And it’s clear that stories accomplish work, for good and for ill. One of the members of my writing group, homesick for his MFA cohort that he’s now graduated from, has assembled a local reading group to go through the novels of William Faulkner. He said that one of the members asked at some point, “When will something good happen to these characters?” And my friend laughed and said, “You might be in the wrong reading group. Nothing good will ever happen for anyone in a Faulkner novel.”

And I thought to myself, well, Faulk that! Contemporary literature is so oversaturated with misery, it’s like an algae bloom that chokes off all of the oxygen of hope from the biblioscape. Why would I want to provide more misery to a world already suffused with it?

Brandon Taylor describes the first time one of his stories was on the table at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop:

Another thing about that first workshop was that I heard something about myself that I had never heard before: that my story story was protective and civilized and carefully managed. These to me seemed the primary virtues of fiction that I loved and that I wanted to write. There’s nothing I want more than peace and order. I had a difficult life. A strange life. And so in turning to fiction, I wanted to create for my characters a space where the urgent material of their lives would not contain the question of whether or not they would live or die. I wanted to write about people moving through the world who could count on more time, who didn’t have to confront the ugliness of violence and harm and malevolence. I wanted only to make for my characters a space where they could be. I left the workshop that night feeling like I had been struck by lightning. I was angry and ashamed.

The thing I have been thinking about for the last year—every moment of every day almost, and certainly every time I sit down to write, or think about writing—is this question of protectiveness, of orderliness. These traits were presented to me in the way a doctor describes some malformation of the inner ear or bad nerve in the lower spine: not a catastrophe, but not quite as it should be, either. Like I’d have to spend the rest of my life compensating in ways minor and major, making myself slightly more brutal, slightly crueler.

That’s exactly my experience of any review in any fiction workshop, whether in a classroom or at a conference or informally with people trained in one of those realms. It’s like Christopher Walken and “More Cowbell!!More Misery!!! More Trauma!!! More Suffering!!!

Yeah, that’s a hard no.

I count hospitality as one of my primary ecological functions, the fact that people can come to my home and relax and laugh and have a good time with one another, no matter what other crap is going on in the rest of their lives.

The insistence on cruelty feels to me to be oddly gendered: that serious literature is written by men, and for women to gain entry to the serious camp, they have to be just as cruel as men can be. Every few days, I get an ad in my e-mail from Random House, a regular scrolling feed through mystery and thriller and romance and young adult. And when the “women’s fiction” comes around, I can count on seeing the word heartwarming in more than one of the book descriptions.

Guys don’t get to be heartwarming, nor do serious writers. “Real literature” bears exactly the field markings that Susan Faludi identified for contemporary American masculinity: stoicism, self-sufficiency, competition, and vanity. No one will help you, the world is against you, you’re on your own, and you’ll suffer through it. It’s every bad father ever.

So the ecological function of my stories, regardless of their specifics, is to work against that tide of cruelty, to help re-oxygenate the lake. To say: We can do this. There’s a way through. You’ve got abilities you never imagined.

Every creature, from bacteria to aphid to wasp, is doing something. The difference between us and the lower orders is that we get to decide what role we want to play.

Core Questions

If only life were Likert-scale simple…

A couple of days ago, in our discussion over the novel American Dirt and the problems it has presented, I raised a set of questions, originally posed by author Alexander Chee and which I saw in the book review by Myriam Gurba:

Writers interested in exploring the realities of those unlike themselves should answer three questions before proceeding: 1) Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view? 2) Do you read writers from this community currently? and 3) Why do you want to tell this story?

As much as it would be nice to have three simple meditative guides, I find these questions to pose their own new dilemmas. For instance, the frame: “writers interested in exploring the realities of those unlike themselves…” How unlike is unlike, and which “realities” are most salient? Every single fictional character I’ve ever considered is unlike me in meaningful and important ways, similar in others. To borrow from my friend Van, who teaches rhetoric and often thinks about the innumerable ways to compare across circumstances or texts: “what difference makes a difference?” What forms of otherness present the greatest potentials for authorial harm? Are there forms of otherness that cannot be bridged?

The first question specifies more closely: “why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?” That’s a particular version of the dilemma, that of casting a POV character. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, there really are only a few of my 80 most recent characters who wear the custom golden POV badge; the rest are the people who are encountered, on stage for a paragraph or a page. But author Brandon Taylor explicitly points out how problematic “minor characters” can be:

When an author writes a black woman who shows up only to be angry in two scenes full of sass and pilfered vernacular, divorcing the anger from its cause and playing to the worst of tropes, he is performing a violence. When an author conjures up a Latina cleaning woman who is old and slow and barely speaks English but leaves her home, the people who love her, and the dignity of her life on the cutting room floor, he is performing a violence. 

It makes sense that I bear some obligations to all of my characters, whether lead actors or supporting actors or extras in the crowd. The issue at hand is, what kinds of obligations?

Let’s loop back, though, and respond to Chee’s three questions, questions that make sense no matter what the distance might be between character and self.

Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about young people whose talent is recognized early and coached steadily. What does it mean for a young person to be so talented, and to have acquired the singular focus required for professional-level skill? What would he leave aside as he pursued that one thing? And what would it mean for that one thing to be as obscure as table tennis (a sport that I loved in my teens and 20s)? I’m always drawn to write about men of any age who are aiming at something they can’t even understand, and the ways in which they discover capabilities they hadn’t had the chance to fully exercise before.

You’ll notice that there’s nothing in my writerly motivations here about specifically wanting to write an Asian American character. I think it’s just a fact of the sport that a kid that good would be the child of elite players himself, and also be surrounded by a community of coaches and competitors who demand more of him every day—and in the US, that’s going to mean people of Asian heritage. But it’s been noted by lots of writers of color that a common flaw when white writers create characters of color is that those characters are just white. They don’t have the daily lives, the history, the concerns and joys that a person truly of that culture would experience. So my job is to work even harder to understand the day-to-day specifics of David’s life. I’ve done a lot of that. There’s a lot left to do. 

Do you read writers from this community currently? So here’s an embarrassing moment. I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I ought, at least in part because I’m so frequently disappointed. The demand for trauma in contemporary fiction is so high, and the bar ratcheted higher every season, that I’m often unable to appreciate the craft through the pain. I don’t watch many movies, either, for the same reason. I seek out writers of hope, and they’re hard to find. David’s and Gwen’s story is more nearly a Helen Hoang book than an Ocean Vuong book. It has some similarities to Peter Ho Davies as well, a writer who’s done a great job exploring what it means to be simultaneously Welsh and Chinese and American.

And here’s the even more embarrassing moment. I’m an ethnographer. So I’d much more trust my own observations of a community than some other writer’s description of it. It’s like primary and secondary sources, I want to see lives. And so YouTube has been my friend here, watching the loneliness of Xu Xin as he goes back to his bare dormitory room after yet another day of training, watching what it looks like when Soyoung Park nearly collapses after playing Ginastera’s Sonata #1. Biographies as well, especially Andre Aggasi’s brilliant Open, showing us the demanding father and the Bollittierri boot camp and dropping out of school in 9th grade to just play tournaments. Those are the source documents from which this story is made.

Why do you want to tell this story? Well, that’s a tough question to come right after I admitted that I don’t trust fiction to always tell us the truth. But I think it can. And maybe that’s just industrial-scale hubris on my part, to think that I can succeed in doing work that I don’t always trust when others do it. But I’ve always wanted us to see hope, to see the possibilities just below the surfaces of life, and to recognize the room for the greatness of everyday people. That’s what’s behind ALL the stories I write. That’s why I wrote about teenagers 25 years ago, to help people see that those anonymous kids in their classrooms actually had rich, complicated lives.

Another part of it is the creation of what writers call counterfactual narratives. Most of my characters start out in circumstances that are something close to my own experience: the failed academic career; the safe, dull professional work; the high school life of being good at sports that had no social cachet in a football-centric culture. But I use those stories to learn an alternative path, tracking the marble down a different hill than I rolled, to see what the other side of the slope might look like.

So this has turned out to be a long post, and I’m sure there’s some TL:DR going on. But, you know, the subtitle of this website is “Where a writer thinks things through,” so you know what you signed up for, right?

Back soon with more.