Alchemy and Mud: Arguments in Fiction

I’m regularly surprised when my readers spy ideology lurking in my writing, as if the presence of an argument or even a sensitive topic in a work of fiction is proof that the author is trying to seduce the reader into changing coats. The chief advantage of couching ideas within a fictional medium is greater flexibility to play and experiment–so why assume the author is so serious? Consider Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Babylon Lottery” (which details a universal lottery in which Kafka appears as a “sacred latrine”), Ken Liu’s “Advanced Readers’ Picture Book Of Comparative Cognition” (a delightful catalog of alien races and how they read), or my own “A Word That Means Everything” (Bible translation into the language of solipsistic octopuses).

Playfulness with ideas is rarely achieved in nonfiction, except perhaps within the context of targeted thought experiments. As fiction writers, we can associate ideas because of their sympathetic connections or weird implications. We can pose arguments, but at a distance, because our characters pose the arguments, not us. It’s the alchemical interplay of ideas that is centerstage, not the author’s prejudices.

Or at least that’s what I hope readers take away from my fiction. But I write about religious topics and occasionally politics. These topics tend to stoke tribal thinking. The alchemy of ideas condenses. Or worse, it’s adulterated with mud.

“manifests a behemoth and a rogue show of heinousness”

The most spectacularly unfortunate feedback I’ve received in this vein was sent to me by a respondent to my “Two Variations on Default Salvation,” after I submitted it to Critters. I quote it at length:

This short story has a weird outlook on religion: it encompasses a strange view of its perception (of ideas) in this regard (my view)*?

[…] It also becomes a journalistic overview of someone’s opinion and relentlessly paragraph after paragraph is trying to drive and ram that perception (or belief system) into the mind of the reader (my view)?

Ideologies, principles, philosophy, doctrines and dogma become entangled within an idiosyncratic view of religion overall and the idiocy and idiom and the vernacular used denotes a simple-mindedness and a gullibility rather than the supposed “creative” egotistical perception?

In other words, idealism, romanticism and Utopianism mingle with shards of egotism and it manifests a reality of narcissistic and self-obsessive thoughts, ideas becoming gross aspects of vanity and the self-admirer and the self-absorption of an egomaniac’s bragging and boasting becoming almost intolerable (my view)?

As a result the manuscript is egregious in nature and may be viewed as outrageous and heinous (my view)?

There tends to be a continual “tongue in cheek” perception with regard to religion but unfortunately it shows and displays a hollowness (or ignorance) concerning the concept of ideologies and the futility of self-importance with a pretention of sheer disregard for religious belief systems (my view)?

[…] Again paragraph after paragraph denotes vanity, self-centredness and a flippant and disrespectful and superficial view towards Christianity (my view)?

[…] Perhaps this storyline is an attempt at subjugation of this particular belief system: of crushing, overwhelming, “putting down” and “conquering” the theologies and romanticisms created through thousands of years (my view)?

To compound this the journalistic approach and the “monologue” (or lecture) delivered becomes a monomania within itself and this obsession (of sorts) becomes hysterical in its efforts to dismantle this particular belief system and in trying to monopolize this particular perception (in this regard) it blindly goes where “angels fear to tread”?

The manuscript tries (page after page) to be “ruthless” in its attempt at this style of writing but it only manifests a behemoth and a rogue show of heinousness and an inner monstrosity is unfortunately created (my view)? […]

What’s to be done with feedback like that?

When I receive feedback of this nature, I’m of two minds because of an open question: “Does the reader that wrote this feedback represent my target audience?”  Insofar as the answer to that question is “Yes,” I’m reminded that there are certain treatments of religion and religious figures that will turn some readers off, sometimes spectacularly. Treating people’s closely-held beliefs with levity is one. Using Jesus’s voice in the first person is another. 

I’m reminded that I have the philosopher’s penchant for argumentativeness. On some level, I as the author am present when my characters pose arguments.  This may well be a weakness of my writing style.  When I read Ted Chiang, who writes about religion in a masterfully nuanced way (consider his “Omphalos,” based in a universe that is both scientific and Creationist), I’m impressed to the point of astonishment. He has such a light touch; all argumentative potentials are held in delicious tension. God remains judiciously absent (A notable exception is his “Hell is the Absence of God,” which plainly states God’s actions.)

Moreover, my “Two Variations” begins with a short introduction that is written in an authorial voice; I would be a poor writer if I didn’t expect readers to notice my presence when I write:

Suppose your theology of salvation is that only those who deny Christ are damned. Everyone else is saved by default. This is an attractive view. Children and others unable to grasp doctrine are saved. Those who live without opportunity to accept Jesus as their savior are saved as well. The damned are damned, on some level, because they choose to be. God wisely grants them autonomy.

This complicates Original Sin, but there is a more pressing problem: assuming this theology, why did Jesus have a ministry?

But there is a degree to which I owe it to my writing to disregard feedback like the above because this reader is not my target audience.  Why?  Because readers have a duty to read what the text is saying just as writers have a duty to use language to effectively convey the meaning they intend. The authorial voice I wrote in, from the very first sentence, should be ample reason for any reader who is among my target audience—indeed I would say any attentive reader—to realize that I’m problematizing a particular Christian theology, that of default salvation. The authorial voice makes it clear that I’m upfront about both the attractions of that theology and its difficulties.

I may be in some sense “‘putting down’ and ‘conquering’” that theology because I believe its difficulties are quite substantive, although I hope to be perceived as posing a significant problem for said theology (one which could perhaps be responded to by some means I have failed to consider e.g. the doctrine of double predestination endorsed by Reformed Christians). That was why I included Biblical evidence in favor of the theology I’m criticizing.

But I should hope it’s abundantly clear that I’m not in the business of “crushing, overwhelming, ‘putting down’ and ‘conquering’ the theologies and romanticisms created through thousands of years” (at least not by means of this piece). My ideal reader would realize that the piece is a reductio: I suppose a position is the case and show how that supposition entails an unacceptable result, so the supposition must also be unacceptable. In other words, my ideal reader would realize that everything I’ve said within the course of the narrative, however disrespectful or blasphemous, is if anything contrary to my own beliefs.

Have I unduly limited my readership?  Maybe but I didn’t write this piece with the intention of getting it published by a notable market.  I wrote it because I thought the argument was intriguing and it allowed me to do theology using tools I think theology should avail itself of. These tools include blasphemous depictions of Jesus precisely because believers will want to resist casting Jesus in a bad light. I want to show religious outsiders doing theology in fresh ways.

* This instance of (my view) and subsequent instances are likely an attempt by the respondent to satisfy Critters’s requirement that feedback be diplomatic and couched as the respondent’s opinion.