Register Tuesday | April 16 | 2024

Russell Banks on Research

I am ashamed to admit Russell Banks's essay "On Research" in the PEN anthology Writing Life might be the first thing of his I've ever read. But clearly, I should take a look at his novels, since his views on writing and research so brilliantly express things I've been failing to articulate, even to myself, for years:

"Write about what you know, we're constantly told. But we must not stop there. Start with what you know, maybe, but use it to let you write about what you don't know.

"The best fiction writers seem to be great extrapolators; they start with a cue, a clue, an iceberg tip, and are able to extrapoloate from that the hero's entire soliloquy, the motive for the crime, the entire iceberg. How does Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, know so much about the sexual secrets of lusty, irresponsible, working-class white men? Or of African-American, inner-city male adolescents, for that matter? I mean, come
on! ... She's got to be extrapolating all that information from some small bit of only marginally related information close to home, conjuring a an entire world of quotidian data, speech, nightmoves, anxieties, sweaty desires, and hormonal after-effects, drawing it out of what...? A pair of men's undershorts flopping in the wind on a backyard laundry line, glimpsed by her from the passenger's seat of a car speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike? I suspect so.

"As a fiction writer, one has no need to master a subject, to become as expert on it, or to report or otherwise testify on it later. In fact, quite the opposite. Because if I had done as much research to master a subject as would be required of a scholar...then it's very likely that my novel would have died aborning. Its form and structure would have served no purpose but to organize data more or less coherently; its characters would have been case studies instead of complex, contradictory humany beings; and its themes would have led me, not the acquistion of a comprehensive vicion of the larger world, but to a narrow, parochial didacticism and/or ideology."

As they say in the funny papers, wowsers. This creeping tendency of research to take over a text, to enslave characters it was meant to illuminate and make the plot into a mechanism for someone to walk into a room and demand, "Can someone explain this crazy proportional representation thing to me one more time?" -- well, it's enough to make a devoted fiction writer refuse to write about anything she didn't make up entirely inside her head, just to keep safe from an academic onslaught.

But that's not how inspiration for fiction works. Sometimes the story one most desperately needs to tell takes its spark in the dubiously real world, and we have to go to the material -- learn the history, listen to the accents, memorize the map and/or order off the menu -- out of respect for the story that needs telling. Banks is somewhat coy in insisting that that sort of work is *not* research, merely getting the story right. But whatever you call it, sometimes you need to do it.

I think an antipathy to fiction that's been made submissive to fact is a reason some of us are not wild about most historical fiction. I don't think that anyone would disagree that any novel that makes its story, characters, setting, and world live and breathe and affect the reader is a superlative achievement, whether it's set in the past or future, Liberia or the author's living room (I am thinking, actually, about Chester Brown's Louis Riel). Who doesn't want to read that book? Some miss the mark a bit, and though I don't myself dig it, I do understand why even second-rate historical fiction is popular: for those who feel, like an Austen heroine's mother, that reading novels without "learning anything" is a little indulgent, the historical novel as accessible textbook is not a bad bargain.

But I don't do that, myself -- I suspect that my reach is not that far, or at least, not in that direction. My fiction strays very rarely from the world I see while going about my daily life. But even then, it's important to get it right, to study the facts that anchor the story, so there are no gaps for characters to slip through, no inaccuracies or incongruities to jar the reader. Mr. Banks can call that work what he likes, but research is fine with me. So, in just a sec, I'm going to gather up my taxiways map, my laptop, and my TTC pass, and head for Pearson International. It's no grand project, an afternoon at the airport, but it's the story I desperately need to tell.

(From Rose-coloured.)