Palliative Fiction

Yeah, it’s tough, but we’ll make it. Maybe some of these books can help.

Palliative Care: an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems—physical, psychosocial, and spiritual.

World Health Organization

Last night, Nora and I watched the first episode of the Lynn Novick / Ken Burns series on Ernest Hemingway, in which one of the chattering commentators praised him for fully capturing the “brutalizing era” that he saw around him. I’ve written before about the artistic valorization of suffering that supposedly makes literature serious. And Hemingway brought us fully into the violence of life: into war, into the bullring and the sport-hunting trip, and always into his toxic relationships with women. And I wonder, I really do, what we as readers gain from that. I’ve missed out on a vast amount of important literature because I’m just not interested. I finally three years ago read The Great Gatsby, which really isn’t anything more than an extended cut of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, in which every character has exchanged their last scraps of honor and decency for champagne and nicely wrapped shirts, covering the shambles of their misery with an expensive skim-coat of gaiety.

What do we gain? Can attending a dog fight do anything other than brutalize us just a little bit more?


A friend of ours wrote a few days ago that his obituary should include the line “and also penned what has been described as the two most profound books of poetry never to have been published.” Nora was deeply touched by that, and wrote back to him about the importance of doing work that may never be seen. And she wrote the following about my work: Herb talks about readers and wanting people who take pleasure in the characters he shapes, who identify with them, see themselves as better because of them…but then I have always said he is a pastor in writer\academic\municipal leader’s clothing. And that’s true. As a college teacher, I was less interested in teaching what I thought students “should know,” and far more interested in sharing my enthusiasms so that they might find their own.

Any career has three elements, and each of them requires a different role from its guides.

  • There’s technical or content knowledge, the things our tribe knows that others don’t. Our body of knowledge, our mode of discourse. College is really good at content knowledge, and the teacher’s job is to convey that.
  • There’s logistical knowledge, the tasks and tricks that we need to know in order to employ our content knowledge. We need to know how to schedule and how to budget, how to acquire good materials and how to quickly discern materials that won’t last. How to build and manage a team, how to find funding, how to keep a client happy. The training of that comes from the supervisor.
  • And finally, there’s emotional and strategic knowledge, the reasons why we do whatever it is that we do. We need to know what draws us, both in the proximal sense of interesting projects and in the distal sense of life mission. And that’s fostered by the mentor.

When I taught at Duke and at the Boston Architectural College, I was an adequate teacher and a decent supervisor, but I was attentive every day to being a mentor. That notion of “the life of the mind” really did speak profoundly to me, far more than any specific expression of it. My best students have gone on to be lawyers and doctors, writers and historians, urban planners and engineers. I’m agnostic about the mode of joy any individual chooses, favoring joy itself in whatever form it emerges.

I had a conversation once with the president of a college now loosely affiliated with a religious denomination. I asked whether there was any tension for him between the intellectual and religious roles he played. He said, “We can teach students what to think, or we can teach them how to think. It isn’t possible to do both.”


I’ve struggled for a long time to find a rapid descriptor of my “genre.” I’ve tried out men’s romance, which is kind of true but self-denigrating. I’ve tried out men’s fiction, as a mirror of women’s fiction ( the WFWA defines “the driving force of women’s fiction is the protagonist’s journey toward a more fulfilled self”), but men’s fiction just sounds like more of the Hemingway macho adventurism that got us into this mess in the first place.

But Nora’s comment last night clarified things for me. I want to ease suffering and encourage enthusiasm. I want to find a character I care about and write them toward safety—and by so doing, to write my readers toward safety as well. We have all suffered, and we’re all going to die. Our condition seems to be terminal. So a palliative fiction, borrowing from the WHO’s definition of palliative care, would be one that improves the quality of life of readers and those around them through prevention and relief of suffering, addressing pain that is physical, psychosocial, or spiritual. That feels like a worthy enterprise to me.

So, for the moment, palliative fiction will be the shelf tag. Tomorrow, I’ll recommend some.