Friday, June 14, 2013

The Credibility of Fiction

Yesterday, in a post about reading Brian Evenson's fiction with students, I wrote about "credibility." Quite simply, I meant that the credibility of a fiction is determined by its relation to reality. Mundane stuff, I know. But the same relationship is also at play more generally in culture: our convictions serve as transveyors between the real and the virtual.

Several months ago, John Kay, a columnist in the Financial Times, wrote about how credibility works in the worlds of gov't and high finance. He said that the key to understanding the behavior of many elites today is in how they emphasize credibility: “The behavior of companies and households depends on their expectations of the future. If these incorporate all knowable information, and governments lay out consistent fiscal and monetary plans for sustainable public finances and low inflation, the best course for companies and households is to adjust to a new equilibrium consistent with prudent budgets and price stability. The key is the credibility of the plan for price stability. Arguments based on faith are impossible to refute: if magic fails, it is because we do not believe enough in magic; if credibility fails to bring about the desired outcome, it is because our commitment is too weak to establish credibility. Since the only markets in which you can immediately see prices adjusting to economic events are securities markets, these markets’ movements provide the test of credibility. Even in the bond market, however, expectations are rarely formed with reference to all potentially knowable information: sophisticated market participants base prognostication not on a detailed understanding of future public finances but on conventional wisdom, and on what they have just read in the news or seen on television.”

Such a claim might seem wildly reductive, but Kay’s column arose out of an analysis of several articles in which the term credibility was bandied about as the ultimate measure of one’s seriousness. And by measure, here, I emphasize that credibility, as Kay defines it, is nothing more than a belief in the way that an assessment (preferably statistical) not only describes reality, but indeed forms reality. If a realistic outcome contradicts or does not conform to the predictive assessment then that does not necessarily imply that the measure itself is at fault, but rather the failure is in the lack of market participation, the failure of a needed number of participants to accord themselves with the logic of the measure, to give it the power to bring its predictions into being.

The very notion of credibility, in the sense Kay describes, is an idea fiction writers are very familiar with. More than a metaphor, it’s the very stuff of fiction. Kay’s so-called “magic” is simply what we tend to call the “Suspension of Disbelief.” One willingly enters the fictional world as a space of possibility: a space in which ideas are put into play, where models are formed, the very models that we may employ in the evolution of the story’s future.

In this respect, I find it curious that John Kay’s discussion of stock market participants seems to impute that credibility is somehow matched by the speaker’s insistence on his views. The more insistent, the more credible. And the financial community is well aware of this. This is precisely why psychologists are paid handsomely for their analysis of narrative, and for chatter surrounding the stock market. For instance, psychiatrist Richard Peterson at MarketPsych, a specialist at decoding investor sentiment, developed proprietary text analysis software that identifies and quantifies economically predictive sentiments such as optimism and pessimism, or tones such as uncertainty or surprise. “From the tens of thousands of newspaper articles, blogs, corporate presentations and Twitter messages being analysed every day, MarketPsych builds a picture of investor feeling.” The MarketPsych Data Feed provides real-time sentiment updates from sources such as earnings call transcripts, chat forums and social media sites. MarketPsych’s innovative software engine analyzes 2 million articles daily and normalizes the predictive elements of the text for quantitative research application. The data feed includes 400 plus sentiments, tones, and topics related to 30,000 global companies, 150 countries, 1,000 cities and states, 40 currencies, and 100 commodities.

One possible avenue for thinking of fiction as a literary genre that exists alongside such monstrous narrative machines is to track the various ways that narrative voice unveils itself in the unlikeliest moments and in unexpected spaces.

I think of Patrik Ourednik’s novel Europeana as I write this. Ostensibly it reads as a history of the 20th century, Ourednik says of his book that “the primary question wasn’t to know what events, what episodes were characteristic of the twentieth century, but which syntax, which rhetoric, which expressiveness belonged to it.” Given Ourednik’s statement, the book seems concerned primarily with information rather than with cultural critique or historical narrative. In this spirit, the book’s many comparisons and contrasts of topics—from philosophy to psychology, the moon landing to Barbie dolls, the death of humanism to the ethics of Amish people and a rise in popularity of pets, etc.—produce either sheer information or else a rhetorical argument. How does the work produce meaning? I think Ourednik is unusually adept at making his rather flat (though at times hilarious) language talk back, squawking between the margins if you will. Indeed, a passage in the book seems to presage the Wall Street quants who sent the banks over the edge in pursuit of profit: “Mathematicians invented the theory of information, and conceived of information as something that was unrelated to meaning, and they posed the question of whether the absence of significance in information had any connection with the absence of meaning in history.”

As self-fulfilling narratives take root in the culture, feed back on themselves, metastasize and distort, the reality that girds these stories, these simple models, tugs at them and in a way propels their movement. In this sense, Ourednik is oddly on this side of reality, while the history he describes exists in a fictional universe. The book’s narrator is situated in a reality quite distinct from the counterworld of the 20th century. His unfiction, for lack of a better word, mocks the historical narrative.

Finally, I think of other fiction writers who venture into the same territory. The Peter Handke of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is tortured by the difficult task of writing on his mother’s suicide, offering that suicide as he describes it as the most exemplary moment of her life. Handke writes that his task was to present his mother as anything but a literary type. He had to skirt particulars and anecdotes, anything that could be regarded as a formulation or abstraction, that could lift his mother into a protagonist in a story. Characters in a story become literary rituals, he writes, whereas the individuals that give rise to them are forgotten, they become mere pretexts.

“There are two dangers—one, of merely telling what happened, and two, of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences—these dangers have slowed my writing because in every sentence I’m afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case. Consequently, I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways to formulate them. But I soon noticed in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach—starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience. From my mother’s life, I sifted out the elements that were already foreseen in these formulas, for only with the help of a ready-made public language was it possible to single out from among all the irrelevant facts of this life the few that cried out to be made public. I compared, sentence by sentence, the stock formulas applicable to the biography of a woman with my mother’s particular life; the actual work of writing follows from the agreements and contradictions between them. The essential is to avoid mere quotations even when sentences look quoted."

Handke’s difficult task is to tell his mother’s suicide story without letting it fall into story. And this brings me back to the question of credibility (i.e. the value we place on something in the real world). Since value is determined by the fulfillment, or lack thereof, of desires and needs: how much stock can a reader invest in Handke’s suicide story? It’s not a fiction, not biographical, nor does it posit suicide as a rational solution. Rather, the book accounts, as though entering transactions on both sides of a ledger, for the ready-made formulas that circumscribed his mother’s life, and in a meticulous fashion, Handke’s readers are left to consider how this most-private tragedy, transformed into a public narrative, extracts sympathy as payment from the reader while offering (or preventing, as the case may be) therapy for the writer.

No comments:

Post a Comment