Orca Blog for October: The Connection Between Literary Writing and Relativism

MFA fiction has been accused of being formulaic, flat, and cold. There are many reasons, but one I haven’t seen before is that MFA instructors are afflicted with a bad case of relativism. I’d like to explore that possibility.

Relativism’s basic premise is that truth, on a cultural scale, is in the eye of the beholder.* It was intended to explain the power of culture over its members, but has been misinterpreted and misapplied, and now has become a belief system of its own: no one cultural system is better or more right than any other—or to put a current spin on it, you don’t get to tell me that what I believe is right or wrong. That’s where the trouble starts. Relativism has become wildly popular among college instructors as a justification of marginalized cultural beliefs. But some say that if cultural beliefs are sacrosanct, then we are also forced to defend ideas we may find horrific, say, the way ISIS treats women, or how white supremacists view people of color. I’ll ignore this rather selective use of relativism to talk about how this philosophy has affected current fiction.

If the initial statement above were true for fiction, then fiction would reflect the philosophy of defending persons of certain cultural backgrounds as victims of more aggressive, predatory cultures. You only need to read a few stories in major university journals to find evidence of this. Okay so far. But the issue for me is that this approach relies on culture for characterization—the idea of how an individual fits within a culture and becomes a representative of it. That seems to me a break with earlier forms of fiction, which emphasized anti-culture—characters who consciously fought against the shortcomings of their own culture, as opposed to characters who stand as representatives of a particular culture. More simply, it’s iconoclasm versus tribalism.

Iconoclastic characters, are by nature, more willing to take chances. Characters grounded in culture, subculture, family, or group tend to be bound by that group’s philosophical limits, even if they struggle to prove their individuality. As representatives of some thought system, they can only speak and act in accordance with the goals and beliefs laid out for them by others. Therefore, the chances they take tend to be ones aimed at fitting in with a larger group. The idea of exploration (philosophical, scientific, or otherwise) for its own sake, the search for truth outside cultural boundaries, is largely abandoned in favor of acceptance, which is a defense of known values.

Hence the formulaic flatness I often see in the submission queue. Protagonists shackled by group think, afraid to be wrong, afraid to step outside culturally-accepted norms. Afraid to take real risks, which is what good, literary fiction is about. (Or at least it used to be. And it still is at Orca.) Such characters are also inoculated against self-examination, another hallmark of literary fiction. Self-examination implies it’s okay for a protagonist to realize s/he is wrong, something else I don’t see much of in the queue. You can’t admit you’re wrong when your views are beholden to a culture. And you never attempt to transcend those tenets.

Obviously, some of what informs my view of relativism and its relation to fiction is generational. I went to school during a time when iconoclasm was popular in literature, and critics praised the anti-hero. What I find particularly interesting is the writers of that time who I remember best: Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Bernard Malamud. The protagonists of each writer struggled against the confines of cultures that preached conformity, and which proscribed severe penalties for those who dared to try and break free, and yet those characters pursued their individuality relentlessly (aka facing risk). The biggest difference I see in what comes in through the submission queue these days is that protagonists now adhere to the power of the group. Their goal is often to defend a political or cultural position. They seek to cast off the cultural shackles applied by one culture, but then hold out their arms in order to be shackled by another. I suppose that view is somewhat relativistic itself, but in its initially intended sense.

The current writer who seems to best approach that older style of writing these days is Rachel Cusk. Her recent trilogy has received much praise (and I absolutely loved it). It features a protagonist who is as detached from convention as a person can possibly be and still succeed in today’s world. I can’t help wondering if its iconoclastic undercurrent has something to do with its popularity among critics (even if they don’t realize it).

This misapplication of relativism has changed the face of modern fiction, as well as modern culture. Maybe thanks to Cusk and other writers like her that’s beginning to change, although based on the current hyper-political situation in the U.S. it will be a while before it makes it to the mainstream. But some of us still believe in the power of the individual to influence things, and honestly, those kinds of characters are still far more interesting to read about.

– Joe Ponepinto

*(Obviously a simplified definition. For a fuller discussion, here’s an article on the Stanford University website.)