Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tom Noyes Keeps the Faith

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Tom Noyes, author of Come by Here (Autumn House Press), explains why fear and trembling over the state of literary fiction augur well.

Literary fiction is sick. Literary fiction is dying. Literary fiction is dead.

One doesn’t have to search too far to find these kinds of sobering pronouncements. In fact, if you’re a dedicated reader or writer of literary fiction, you know this dispiriting news seems to have a way of finding you. But what’s the real story? Is the news of literary fiction’s demise greatly exaggerated, or is there truth to be heard in the dirge-like proclamations of its final failure? It’s difficult to figure out what to make of all the discord and strife.

Here’s one possible answer: No matter how healthy or unhealthy literary fiction is believed to be at any given point in history, the anxiety that its readers, critics, and practitioners feel about its health, the very anxiety itself, is necessary, invigorating, and, ultimately, affirming. Uncertainty, doubt and existential angst about the state of literary fiction bodes well for the continued relevance of literary fiction. No matter how desperate and dire, no matter how bitter and troublesome, all commentary that calls into question literary fiction’s survival and relevance is, even if it doesn’t mean to be, an intrinsically vital, dynamic expression of faith in fiction. In a roundabout way, these kinds of foreboding statements function to buoy and breathe new life into the very thing that they aim to bemoan and eulogize.

Mr. Dynamic: Paul Tillich
To explain further what I’m getting at, to push this point of faith in fiction, I’m going to turn away from fiction writers and fiction critics and turn toward a couple theologians.

In his important work The Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich defines faith as “ultimate concern.” Faith is not simply the will to believe, says Tillich. Rather, it is a cognitive affirmation of the transcendent nature of the ultimate reality (the reality with which the faithful is perpetually “concerned”). When you have true faith in something or someone, according to this definition, you cannot not be concerned with them. You cannot not think about them. Whether this ultimate concern, this dedicated thinking about the something or someone, takes the form of praise or critique, love or hate, is essentially irrelevant. Furthermore, Tillich argues that doubt is included in every act of faith; in fact, this interaction between faith and doubt is part of the dynamic nature of faith. Surely this tension is anxiety-inducing, but it’s also necessary. There can be no faith without doubt, without anxiety, without what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”

This is where another religious thinker’s notion of the “double movement of infinity” is perhaps helpful. For Kierkegaard, a nineteenth-century Danish Christian existentialist, the spiritual life was a roller coaster ride, an anxiety-inducing cycle of a) desiring to be in God’s presence, b) realizing that his physical nature wouldn’t allow him to be in God’s presence, c) feeling the pain of this realization, and then d) somehow, through the pain of this unfulfilled desire, finding himself, in a sense, in the presence of God, but not present enough, so that e) the cycle starts all over again. Rather than lending his life sustained peace and harmony, Kierkegaard’s spiritual convictions depressed him and about drove him mad. Moreover, Kierkegaard seems to suggest, this is exactly how humankind’s relationship with the Divine is supposed to be. It’s supposed to depress you sometimes. It’s supposed to sometimes drive you nuts. This is faith.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, fiction writers? Fiction readers? The form will sometimes yield itself to be almost exactly what we always hoped it would be, but then, inevitably, it disappoints us, or worries us, make us nervous, and the chasm between what we desire for our art and our art’s reality drives us to, well, want to do nothing more than to obsess about and revel in the pain of our favorite writers’ and our own “failed” attempts.

In applying this concept of faith to “the state of fiction” statements, my suggestion is that even the most ardent critics of fiction and its practitioners are exhibiting faith in the “ultimacy” of fiction. In fact, it’s possible that fiction’s biggest doubters and bemoaners are, ironically, in this sense, its biggest supporters, its lifeblood. The worst thing that could happen to fiction, to any art form for that matter, to any deity for that matter, would be for its disciples to become satisfied and content. There can be no true faith without doubt. No dynamic faith without anxiety. When tendencies or examples of contemporary fiction make us fiction writers nervous or angry or confused or panicked, or relieved or delighted or invigorated, we can know we’re standing on solid, safe ground. It’s only when we stop feeling or thinking anything at all about the state of our art that we should consider ourselves goners.