Fiction is like carrot soup.

“So, is this autobiographical?”

“I think this character is my aunt.”

“Was it that boy you dated senior year?”

Each time I write a book, its publication brings on a flurry of questions. The questions happen because the books are fictional, and I’m beginning to think there’s something about fiction that doesn’t make sense to us as human beings.

Apparently, we struggle to believe that a human being could actually make up another human being. Out of whole cloth. Straight from the imagination to the page. It just can’t be.

Why is that? Why do we start peering intently into the space between the lines, looking for the author’s real life in her unreal story?

Are we somehow uncomfortable with the thought of a person “creating” another person?

Does the suspicion happen because only some people can actually use imagination in this way? Is it like what happens when I try to imagine what my mathematician friend Sharon does at work? It can’t be real, can it? Numbers like that?

Are we hoping for a secret glimpse into another person’s history, and hoping her writing will grant us one? Is this the human temptation to read someone else’s page in the Book of Life?

Yes and no to all of these, perhaps.

When called upon to discuss the phenomenon with my husband, who was gazing speculatively at me across the dining room table, I gave it serious thought. The man’s not in the book. No, he’s not in that one either. But he still wants to know how I think this works.

I’d imagine nearly everyone who’s tried to write fiction has heard that old saying: “Write about what you know.” But I think the sayers of this saying often mean, “Don’t write about what you don’t know.” Or perhaps, more dangerously, “Don’t write about what you don’t know as if you do know.”

We have to write about what we know. We might get our knowing from living, and we might get it from research, but if we don’t get it from somewhere, people who do know will read our writing and say, “Well, THAT could never happen.”

And that’s just the problem: if it’s fiction, we all know at the start that it didn’t happen. Not in real life. It’s just that we want it to read as if it did. We want to recognize its quality and humanity as real, even though we know the events are imaginary. There must be hundreds of reasons for this. Probably, we like our own version of reality better than reality. We like to believe our pretending is realistic.

(There is an inevitable tangent here—to achieve maturity, we have to consider how much of what we “know” about other people is also imagined. How much do we fill in the spaces between our knowing? Our version of a person might be plausible without being true.)

So if we need to write something that seems real but isn’t, we must be drawing on real knowledge, but giving it a different form.

And that’s why I decided that fiction is like carrot soup. Carrot soup is made from carrots. Real, individual carrots. But to make soup, you have to chop the carrots, cook them with stock and spices, run them through a blender, and perhaps even cook them some more. When you serve the soup to (for example) your speculating husband at the dining room table, it’s no longer possible to discern which particle of soup came from which individual carrot. When he tastes the soup, however, he will know instantly that it’s made from carrots. Real carrots. Something he sees often in his life and knows the taste of, something he can recognize as real.

But only the taste remains. He’ll never know which of the carrots he saw on the counter was transformed into this one spoonful of soup.

4 thoughts on “Fiction is like carrot soup.

  1. I like your metaphor, Melinda. I think this tendency to read authors’ lives into their work comes mainly from a lack of understanding of what writing fiction actually is. It’s mysterious to the layman, like higher math. (On the part of people close to an author, it can also be a desire for immortality through being made into a character!) But it can be annoying enough to push one to extremes. I’ll bet (or, I should say, I devoutly hope) Alice Sebold doesn’t get asked, “Did you really get murdered like the girl in Lovely Bones?” And J. K. Rowling probably doesn’t get asked (too often) whether she got her acceptance letter to Hogwarts when she was 11.

    1. I wonder why it’s so easy to see that fantasy is not real (she couldn’t have gone to Hogwarts) and so difficult to believe that fiction is not real (I could theoretically have had an aunt just like Xenia.). The truth is that J.K. Rowling could just as easily write herself into Hogwarts as she could into, for example, a fiction novel about a single mom who became a writer.

  2. A friend of mine once read a work of fiction (categorized and clearly labeled as such on the side of the book) and asked me if I knew how much of it was true. Not having read the book, before commenting I went to the bookstore and read it in a couple of hours. Perhaps it was the author’s list of “facts” at the beginning of the book that caused my friend (and many, many other readers of the book and viewers of the subsequent film) to believe a work of fiction rather than established church tradition and well-documented history, as well as learned docents in a famous French museum. In talking over the book with my friend, I got the sense that the willingness to believe fiction over history arose from the fact that the former provided justification for a set of misbegotten modern beliefs and behavior while the latter verified knowledge that required action and the modification of lifestyle. Whether it is a willingness to believe fiction over fact or the unwillingness to believe that a fictional character is purely the creation of the author, it is unfortunate when a reader’s search for truth or sources in work of fiction distracts them from the story being told. Is this a case of an overly skeptical readership or merely one of selective suspension of disbelief?

    1. This reminds me of a conversation I had recently about an author who created a pretence of truth as part of the fictional construct of the book. The pretence included a statement that the manuscript had been given to the author by the main character, with the hope that the author would publish it. Unfortunately, in constructing this literary pretence, the author went a bit too far. The introduction included statements about the main character and the circumstances under which the author received the manuscript. Some readers were not able to tell that this was actually fiction, and when, much later in the book or after they finished reading it, they found out that it was a work of fiction, they felt betrayed.

      Creating a sense of reality about a fiction work can certainly be part of the craft, but I think there’s a line. Up to a point, careful research and writing that make realistic fiction are a good thing. Past that point, where the fiction is seriously attempting to pass itself off as fact, I think the author is flirting with an ethical problem.

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