Rules & Reality in Fiction

Ron Tanner | May/Summer 1997


"Children are the best reminders of how arbitrary our beliefs are. Since they do not yet grasp our social practices as inevitable, they do not see why we might not do things entirely differently."
–Terry Eagleton

A student organizer, a protester, a would-be radical in my youth, I've always had a problem with authority. Nothing gave me greater satisfaction than breaking the rules, especially silly rules, like the acceptable way to hold a dinner fork or fold a napkin, or that a man must wear a necktie to look respectable for a job interview or that a woman must wear a skirt. There were, however, some rules I never questioned. I wanted more than anything to write fiction, and so, when my college professors told me the dos and don'ts of Good Writing, I listened. I became a convert, a zealous defender of my teachers' rules. It didn't occur to me that most of these rules made no more sense than a dress code and, in fact, were just as arbitrary. All I knew was that by observing these codes of writerly conduct, I would gain mastery of my work and win the admiration of my readers.

To write literary fiction, the stuff that really mattered, stuff that was so high-minded and artistic it doomed the writer to a life of self-righteous destitution—to write this way, I learned, was to observe three primary rules: (1) show, don't tell; (2) describe people and surroundings with great attention to concrete detail; and (3) don't disrupt the narrative with authorial commentary or opinion. Such rules, I was told, would enable me to create something as lifelike as possible. The attention to detail, for instance, is supposed to remind readers of the temporal clutter in which they live: the overweight tabby drowsing on the window sill, the stack of unread New Yorkers heaped beside the couch, the single blackening banana atop the Oz-green Granny Smiths in the fruit bowl. And the drama of "showing," of playing things out in quasi-real time, augmented by the absence of authorial intrusion, is supposed to make the narrative as immediate and bracing as life itself: the story simply seems to happen, to unfurl freely, because there is no one in the way—the puppeteer/stage manager is invisible, as we see in this example of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom playing a game of pick-up basketball:

...he sights squinting through the blue cloud of weed smoke, ...wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread pale hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper.

Updike's writing is very reportorial, a product of the so-called objective eye, because the narrator calls attention not to his own efforts but, rather, to the action he observes. Of course, this isn't objective at all since the narrator is obviously interpreting data for us, judging actions to be nervous or patient, a sound to be "ladylike," describing a ball that "seems to ride up" a certain way. And he's being very selective, noting the large lunules of Angstrom's fingernails instead of the sweat on his brow, say, or the set of his mouth. Thanks to a well-seated tradition of the so-called objective style, championed by such journalistic fiction writers as Samuel Clemens and Ernest Hemingway, this kind of realism has come to seem a very natural thing, the One Way of serious style in literary fiction. I was taught to disdain writers who couldn't pull it off, those who indulged in sentimentality or fantasy or homily—the romance-writers, the pulp-promoters, the formula-hacks.

No one epitomizes the hack's aesthetic better nowadays than Robert Waller, whose writing, in light of the rules for literary fiction, often seems parodic, if not downright ludicrous. First, Waller tells us too much and shows us too little. Of Robert Kincaid's relations to his lover Jessica in The Bridges of Madison County, Waller writes, "He was an animal. A graceful, hard, male animal, who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dominated her completely, in the exact way she wanted that to happen at this moment." Later he adds that their relationship "was spiritual, but it wasn't trite." In a writing workshop, Waller would receive, you can be sure, a number of requests for elaboration. No doubt most of us would like to see how Mr. Kincaid "dominated her completely, in the exact way she wanted." This would show us something of their relationship, something of their personalities. How was their love "spiritual"? And why does "trite" come to Waller's mind when he mentions spiritual? Is Waller thinking of the neo-Platonic spirituality of the Petrarchan tradition, the kind of you're-heaven-on-earth sentiment that's been overdone in love poems?

Second, Waller seems unconcerned with accurate or artful prose. For example, as Kincaid's lover Jessica recalls how Kincaid "ran his tongue along her neck, licking her as some fine leopard might do in long grass out on the veldt," I'm wondering: As some fine leopard might lick its mate? Lick itself? Or lick Jessica?

Third, Waller has his characters mouth things no reasonably thoughtful person—no real person—would say (or say seriously). The stone-faced, enigmatic Robert Kincaid, for instance, pronounces at one point, "The curse of modern times is the preponderance of male hormones in places where they can do long-term damage." Sounds like toxic chemicals buried in the back yard. And: Kincaid "said he was at the terminus of a branch of evolution and that it was a dead end." The missing link?

Obviously non-literary fiction, when held to literary standards, is an easy target. But it seems hardly fair to mock a hen because it's not a rooster or a pig because it's not a lapdog. It is on the basis of unbalanced comparison that we create a comedy of manners. Like the pauper who pretends to be a prince, non-literary writers, when they enter the hall of high-brow literary fiction, betray their ignorance, using a knife when a fork is needed, bowing to their inferiors when clearly their inferiors should bow to them, saying please when they should say thank you. In their efforts to write something good, they seem wholly unnatural.

"Natural," of course, is a misnomer when applied to fiction, since all fiction is most unnatural, an elaborate artifice in which readers willingly suspend their disbelief for a time and consider the world of a novel or a story the "real" world or, at least, something close to what they know as real. As Wayne Booth pointed out so long ago: "One of the most obviously artificial devices of the storyteller is the trick of going beneath the surface of the action to obtain a reliable view of a character's mind and heart," something none of us in the "real" world can do. To believe, then, that one way of writing, one handful of standards, is superior to or more natural than another is to make a potentially dangerous assumption—dangerous insofar as we risk being tyrannized by an aesthetic which may not serve our best interests. It's like espousing an adamant nationalism; at worst, like living as the Ugly American, someone incapable of travel to another country because everything reminds him of what he's missing.

A classic instance of misunderstanding between a writer of one style and another of a very different style is Mark Twain's ironic dressing-down of James Fenimore Cooper's fiction, which Twain found abominably ill-made and outlandish. Wrote Twain:

If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature's ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed out the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were the person's moccasin-tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases—no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader (see rule 2 above).

Twain concluded that "the inaccuracy of the details" in Cooper's writing "comes of Cooper's inadequacy as an observer." Obviously Twain didn't think his complaint—that Cooper's fiction was too fictitious—odd. Nor did he think it unreasonable to impose the standards of late-nineteenth-century realism (specifically the demand for journalistic factuality) on an early nineteenth-century Romantic. No doubt his critique of a long-dead writer made Twain feel good about what he himself was doing—and maybe this is what every generation feels obliged to do: kill its father in the name of independence. In the bigger scheme of understanding fiction, however, Twain missed the point.

Some years after earning my BA, I marched into a graduate writing workshop, bristling with my armory of rules, and, lo, I discovered that I too had missed the point: during one memorable session, I heard a fellow writer say to me, with scarcely veiled disdain, "You have no idea what I'm trying to do." I sensed that she was right. And I began to apprehend that I had never received an adequate explanation as to why my teachers believed their techniques were the best. They pointed to tradition, I recall. They said such things as Tom Wolfe asserted recently, that the "introduction of realism into literature in the eighteenth century by Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett was like the introduction of electricity into engineering. It was not just another device." Device, Wolfe should know, comes from the Middle English devis, meaning "intention" or "will." Nothing could be more willful than serious fiction-writers' insistence on "realism." With the intention of rendering the world as faithfully as possible, they have designed, not discovered, a style of writing which seems to do this-which is where the rules come in.

The great problem of teaching creative writing is that teaching tends to reduce art to technique and, as a result, a teacher's suggestions may sound like injunctions: do it this way or else. The question students must ask is, Why are we doing it this way?

Early in the intermediate fiction-writing course I teach, we review the decorum of writing dialogue. To be realistic, to sound convincing, I tell my students, it can't be like the dialogue we really engage in, all that verbiage, those phatic ums and ahs, that babble. It has to be pared down, the essentials; there's a rhythm, an ebb and flow. Sure, some respected fiction writers go naturalistic with dialogue—look at William Gaddis in JR or James Joyce in Ulysses—but the mainstream folk observe the rules. And these rules constitute the trick (another word for "device") that somehow makes the writing sound natural.

Begin with the basics, I tell my students: each speaker gets a new paragraph; use quotation marks to indicate the speaking; dialogue tags indicate who says what, but don't overuse them. Punctuation points go inside the quotation marks. Here's where I pause, chalk in hand, a sample piece of dialogue on the board before me.

Rules. Where do they come from?

There are rules in any game, of course. These rules, the technicalities, come down to us from editors and, more specifically, typesetters who strove for some consistency in the look of the page. Consistency helps avoid confusion. Glance at a British text and you will see different rules: dashes instead of quotation marks. It could have been a smiley face. Here I draw a smiley face in the place of quotation marks and receive much laughter. How odd the students think this is. But it's not odd, I insist, it is simply conventional, something we've grown accustomed to over the years: quotation marks, a pair of starched apostrophes, to indicate the spoken word. Hispanic literature puts inverted question marks before every question (which always made a lot of sense to me). ¿Why don't we? It's all arbitrary. Just like the way we greet one another: "Hi, how you doin'?"

It could have been as the Mandarin Chinese put it: "Chi fan ye mei iou?"—Have you eaten?

The theory that informs this lesson comes to us from structuralism and linguistics. It's theory worth knowing insofar as it allows us to understand that nothing is writ in stone, that, in fact, the stone itself is conventional, an agreed-upon medium. The notion of agreement is key because it presupposes consensus or, at least, negotiation, something many students don't feel they're allowed to do since it seems the Teacher knows all.

Obviously we don't have to like alien aesthetics to appreciate them. I don't like, for instance, the feminist aesthetic of nineteenth-century America, articulated in such novels as Susanne Rowson's Charlotte Temple, Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, and Harriet Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. With its tractarian dogma, its use of stereotypes (angels and devils), and its emotionalism (sentimentality), this stuff has little relation to the literature I know and love, but I can see that, within the realm of codes it privileges, the art of these writers is quite effective, quite accomplished, quite "natural." I appreciate it especially in contrast to the institutionally-sanctioned literary (mostly male) realism of the day, in whose face it flies-women's fiction of the nineteenth century is often flagrantly insubordinate, if not revolutionary.

While my students have no trouble accepting the notion of convention as it applies to technique like dialogue form, they do have trouble applying this more broadly to the concept of story—that stories themselves are nothing more than games we play. This sounds to them all wrong because they have been taught to revere fiction as a vessel of Truth. You don't play games with Truth. To say something is a game, however, is not to say that we can't take it seriously. It is to say only that this thing we call literature is of human design, of value to a particular population for particular social and cultural reasons—which is to say, again, that your Literature may not be my Literature, that, given a another set of circumstances, both of us might have seen things differently.

This is why my students are so upset with metafiction, which we begin reading mid-way through the semester. Initially, they hate it, its writers are so intrusive, their style so disturbing, so unlike anything these students have been allowed: Vonnegut-as-author stepping into his novel to state, "The bartender took several anxious looks in my direction... I did not worry about his asking me to leave the establishment. I had created him, after all. I gave him a name... I awarded him the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Soldier's Medal..."; Coover-as-author proclaiming in a short story, "I have brought two sisters to this invented island, and shall, in time, send them home again. I have dressed them and may well choose to undress them."

"How can they do that?" my students demand.

"They can do anything they like," I tell them, "They're the authors."

Which is the lesson of metafiction, to remind us that fiction is only as natural as we allow ourselves to believe.

Significantly, although metafiction is now passe, it still causes a stir, exemplified recently by Tim O'Brien's novel, In the Lake of the Woods, where O'Brien has no qualms about entering the narrative (through the trapdoor of footnotes) to speak his mind: "Biographer, historian, medium—call me what you want—but even after four years of hard labor I'm left with little more than supposition and possibility (about the events in this story)." One reviewer (in Publisher's Weekly) called these "an uncomfortable authorial intrusion" which "distract from, but cannot completely offset, the power of O'Brien's narrative," a judgment tantamount to saying that O'Brien, lacking ingenuity enough to make the story work in a conventional manner, failed by virtue of this shoddy practice—he cheated, in other words because, as we all know, the author is supposed to be invisible.

In teaching, my aim is not to thwart the realist aesthetic which I myself embrace but, rather, to help liberate students from their assumptions about the ways things should be in the realm of fiction-writing. Maybe "liberate" is too grand a word but this was how I felt when I realized that I didn't have to write the way my teachers demanded. For years, I and other emerging writers were admonished for using the present tense in fiction because the present tense, we were told, betrays a shallow, fast-food-and-television-loving sensibility, a profound inability to apprehend the depth of history, i.e., the past. (See William Gass's "A Failing Grade For The Present Tense".) Never mind that a considerable number of "classics" have been written in the present tense (Dickens' Bleak House, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Updike's The Centaur, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, to name four), not to mention nearly every other poem that's ever been penned.

Is this to say that anything goes?

I'm not that libertarian and, in fact, believe that every genre and sub-genre of writing constitutes a neighborhood which, like actual neighborhoods, makes demands upon its inhabitants. Those who would be well received in a particular neighborhood must observe the decorum of behavior appropriate to those who live and work there. This explains why an avid reader of Danielle Steele, say, may not enjoy reading Bernard Malamud. If I am more comfortable in Malamud's neighborhood, it's no doubt due to my training: I've been taught how to enjoy his behavior as a writer. Which is where the rules come in. The rules or codes that delineate a certain kind of writing constitute that community's decorum—a set of conventions that signal how one should behave in this neighborhood. If I would write experimental fiction, for instance, I'd do well to know what people deem the standards of mainstream or traditional fiction: I have to know what the rules are before I can break them, in other words.

Ultimately my students and I strive to articulate the conventions a writer seems to be observing: How does the writer negotiate these in the course of telling a story? Usually we discover some regularity, some consistency, in the writer's rhetorical strategies. If we were to examine Robert Waller's work, we would find, I suppose, that while the writer attempts to respect the American realistic tradition, in some instances nearly parodying Hemingway in his journalistic attention to observable action, he subjects this to a romantic sensibility which makes realistic concerns secondary. One of his primary strategies appears to be a form of shibumi, the Japanese term for making use of white space in painting. Waller explains and explores so little (i.e., he offers lots of "white space"), and puts so much emphasis upon the abstract, transcendent nature of Robert and Jessica's sudden love, that willing readers are compelled to fill in the blanks—the book is a fantasy that makes readerly participation not only inviting but necessary. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn't work for me.

Despite the experiments my students try, mixing genres and playing against conventions, most of them return finally to the realm of the Real—the aesthetic of literary fiction in the US—because this is what they know best; this is where they are most comfortable. We are, after all, products of our environment, of what we have been encouraged to read and write. Nonetheless, by allowing dissent from the prevailing aesthetic, by encouraging students to question the status quo, we may begin to show, in the words of Jonathan Culler, that "reading is not an innocent activity," that "it is charged with artifice," that "to refuse to study one's mode of reading (one's mode of writing) is to neglect a principle source of information about literary activity." In contradiction to this notion, there persists in America the post-Romantic myth of the artist as the Gifted One who somehow-—through meditation and magic (inspiration)—apprehends the ideal form and style for his or her work. Which is to say that the artist has need of nothing but time to write: eventually lightning will strike. Perhaps such faith extends as far back as the Greeks and their sense of the poet as oracle, one touched by divinity. I have heard successful writers say, "I don't want to know what I do when I write well, I just want to do it," as if interrogation of their artful rhetoric would ruin the mystery. To them I would say, Don't worry; the mystery won't disappear, because it's not in the writing, it's in us, it's in our ability to surrender ourselves to a fiction, in spite of our understanding of its tricks and tropes, because we want, above all, to believe in the make-believe.


Ron Tanner has just completed work on a short-story collection, A Bed of Nails, and is now revising a novel. He teaches writing at Loyola College, Baltimore, Maryland.


  1. Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
  2. Coover, Robert. Pricksongs & Descants. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969.
  3. Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.
  4. Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
  5. Gass, William. "A Failing Grade for the Present Tense." The New York Times Book Review 11 October 1987: 10.
  6. Review of In the Lake of the Woods. Publisher's Weekly 11 July 1994: 61.
  7. O'Brien, Tim. In The Lake of the Woods. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
  8. Twain, Mark. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" in Anthology of American Literature. Ed. George Michael. Vol. 2. New York: McMillan Publishing, 1974.
  9. Updike, John. Rabbit, Run. New York: Crest Books, 1960.
  10. Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Dell, 1973.
  11. Waller, Robert. The Bridges of Madison County. New York: Warner Books, 1992.
  12. Wolfe, Tom. "Stalking the Billion Footed Beast." Harper's November 1989: 45-56.

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