Imaginative Skeptics

Ian McEwanAuthor Ian McEwan recently visited ASU for a lecture in partnership with the ASU Origins Project and the Center for Science and the Imagination. At this co-sponsored event, Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Sweet Tooth and winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Lawrence Krauss, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at ASU, discussed doubt and skepticism in relationship to writing, as well as the interplay between science and literature.

The first question posed to McEwan and Krauss contained the overarching theme of the discussion: what is doubt and skepticism and how is it approached in writing both fiction and nonfiction?

McEwan began by defining doubt as “someone hesitating before a problem or outcome…pausing before a moral choice.”  He explained that the novel is a secular form which is invested in individuals and is at the heart of doubt and skepticism. Using Hamlet as the quintessential example of a self-examining and moralizing character embodied by doubt, McEwan described literature as reflective of the relation between consciousness and doubt in examining human actions and motives.

In reply, Krauss examined uncertainty in nonfiction, the scientific version of doubt. According to Krauss, uncertainty quantifies science because it imparts a worth on scientific discovery and establishes a value of correctness or probability. Although uncertainty is valuable to science, Krauss discussed how in writing scientific articles, his copy editor eliminates uncertainty and ambiguity even though “there is no absolute truth in science…it’s either very very very likely or very very very unlikely or in between.”  While uncertainty is crucial to scientific discovery, he explained that the human condition does not allow for doubt in something we like to accept as pure fact and truth.

In discussing the place of the scientific account in the narrative spectrum, McEwan commented that “science invades the territory of land held by the novel.” He explained that as science progresses, it seeks to quantify how we as humans make our choices. Understanding human action, as defined by science, forces the novel into a position of doubt as it must change its set of approaches in human emotional analysis. The novel, McEwan argued, is in a position of vague threat due to the increasing advancements of science because “if [science] changes the novel, it will change everyday lives.”

The moderator asked both lecturers to discuss how each conveys skepticism and doubt in a narrative. McEwan characterized his approach as a bottom-up–not a top-down–matter. In paraphrasing a 1953 lecture by Nabokov, McEwan said that one’s job as an author is to find the details; what a novelist has to do is build a world where skepticism is possible.

In contrast, Krauss’s approach to skepticism in nonfiction is a top-down approach, which to him is the best tool a scientist can use. For Krauss, skepticism is best utilized by conveying shock to the reader because “the easiest person to fool is yourself.” By getting someone to make the discovery that what they believe is wrong, it opens up the possibility that everything else could be wrong and leads to a questioning everything.  Krauss argued that it is vitally important for a scientist to be brutally honest as “little accidents can have a profound impact.”

In their examination of doubt and skepticism, McEwan and Krauss spent a substantial amount of time examining the vitality of the novel and writing. Writing doubt takes different forms in each genre, and as science alters humans’ understanding, fiction writing will alter as well in a continued attempt to clarify the human condition. This intimate discussion between two prominent masters of their field stirred a thought-provoking lecture in the exploration of how these two fields affect and alter one another.

Guest Blog Post, Andrew Galligan: Mr. Know-It-All

Andrew GalliganThanks to my immeasurable fear of poetry (I’m a poet), I’ve read a lot of prose – both fiction and non – in the last year or two.  (And believe me – I’m making no judgment on the difficulty of reading or writing either).  Piling up the paragraphs over that time, I’ve developed for the first time in my serious reading life a handful of prose preferences.  They are not genre or period related, but more or less determine whether I’ll go on reading a piece.  One potential deal-breaker, beyond careless sentence-making or writers writing about writers, is the omniscient narrator.  Perhaps jealously is at the root, but this idea of knowing everything is just perverse!

Often when a seer is telling me a story, patiently stirring that cauldron of latent symbols, I find him more prone to early, unnecessary or heavy-handed foreshadowing.  The temptation is too large to place emphasis on minor events, to pause the story and thread an extra detail into a character or place.  They may be small shovels, but they’re still smacking my face.  It’s like hearing Bon Jovi’s voice come over a nice, warming rock riff – right away I’ve got a pretty good idea where this is headed.

Regular consumers of story – book, TV, film, barroom or otherwise – are trained to search for symbols and signposts, driven by the potential self-fellating glee of “figuring it out first.”  So, unnatural emphasis always arrests the reader, drawing increased attention like a car crash under a full moon.  Emphasis in everyday life comes when and where our minds and hearts apply it, without the guidance or intervention of a third party.  The granular events of each day fall upon us organically, settling into piles in our minds as guided by our own passions, distastes, prejudices and hopes.  Within that unrelenting cascade, we can find ourselves ascribing deep meaning to a minor event, only to have that depth truncated or in some way altered by future events.  We make our own storytelling mistake.  The grain has to change piles.

omniscient narratorComing to understand people and places integrated in a story through eyes at a time – a single vision or set of views always complicated by emotion and by biased & unreliable memory – is what we experience in everyday life.  When we as readers have no choice but to see characters exclusively through their words and actions, to develop and deepen our impressions of them, we go through an iterative rigor that mimics how we come to know the real folks we collide against.  Some may find comfort in an omniscient narrator’s IV drip of information that stitches a story together, but to me it’s a prescription much less satisfying for the exact reason that we as readers lose the opportunity to do that work ourselves.  What we’ve gleaned of human behavior through the rugged course of personal living matters less than how practiced we are at reading the cards in a narrator’s hand.

One appeal could be control.  The omniscient’s control allows us to implicitly and unquestionably trust what we’re told; the facts of people and place must be true as stated, and only an unexpected sequence of events can catch us off guard.  [Hey, the cat just puked up a skeleton key!].  That control engenders comfort because, for just once, we’d like not to be caught off guard.  In my own life, I’d love to control the sequence.  To orchestrate the order in which my impulses and emotions deploy, or when shit happens so I can be prepared.  If I could stipulate when I’d feel fun, intrigue, sex or horror (or all the above?!), that would beat the defeat of always reacting.

It’s probably because of Faulkner that I started to really see and feel differences in narration.  He’s certainly on the far end of the spectrum, utilizing a myriad of voices, heavy dialect, stream of consciousness and nonlinear narration (unannounced flashbacks!) that jam the reader through at times paralyzing confusion.  Most of us have enough confusion in our lives; I can certainly understand the desire not to grapple with it, too, when spending time to unwind and escape with a piece of literature.  The difference to me is how powerful the experience of reading can be when it more closely meets that everyday I claim I’m trying to escape.  What I’ve come to realize is that I read simply to try to understand my life and all its whys.   I’m there in that story for comfort, for information, for insight.  The confusion is not arresting, but familiar, and I want it so I can continue to turn the pages in search for a little more certainty I can use when I wake in the morning.

 

Treehouse Celebrates its First Birthday

TreehouseFor the past year, Treehouse has been dedicated to exhibiting pleasantly unusual and interesting writing that is short enough to read on a coffee break but good enough to linger over.  We feature previously unpublished work from emerging and established writers alike. We accept writing no longer than 1,000 words in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry genres. Simultaneous and multiple (up to three) submissions are accepted. Submissions are read on a rolling basis (unless otherwise noted).

To celebrate our successful first year, Treehouse is proud to present our First Annual Literary Loot Contest for Unusual Prose! In addition to publication in Treehouse, the contest winner will also receive: a one year subscription to Barrelhouse, Booth, Carolina Quarterly, Ecotone, Gigantic, Gulf Coast, [PANK], and REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters; two new Fall titles from brand new (but no less awesome) indie press A Strange Object, two new titles from Dzanc Books and a six-month subscription to their e-book club; a copy of Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) and First Year (an MLP Anthology) from Mud Luscious Press; and a t-shirt from A Strange Object and [PANK].

Our favorite non-winning contest entries will also be published in Treehouse.The rules:

  1. We’re interested in prose that does unusual stuff. In the past we’ve published stories in the form of to-do lists, invisible text with footnotes, survival guides, landlord-tenant correspondence, recipes, and also all kinds of inventive work that was linguistically, but not necessarily structurally, experimental. So if you think your story, essay, prose poem, or genrebender fits the bill, send it our way. (Sorry, no poetry with line breaks for this one.)
  2. Entries are to be a maximum of 750 words.
  3. All entries must be emailed to treehouse.editors@gmail.com by April 30. Preferred format is .doc, but .docx and .pdf are also acceptable.
  4. Subject line of contest entries must say: CONTEST ENTRY. Otherwise, they will simply be filed as regular submissions and will have zero chance of receiving cool swag.
  5. Your name MUST NOT APPEAR ANYWHERE ON YOUR PIECE. Since we often get writing from people we kind of know, either via real life or the internet, we want to be extra careful that everything is getting read blind. We’re even going to implement our ultra-secret “assigning numbers to stories and then not telling anybody what the numbers mean” system.
  6. In the interest of fairness, we can’t accept submission from editors at any of the magazines or publishing houses that are participating. UNCW students may submit work, so long as they’re not currently on staff at Ecotone.
  7. Former Treehouse contributors are invited to submit work.
  8. We also can’t accept submissions from anyone who has gotten past second base with any member of the editorial staff. (In this case, “second base” refers to urban second base; rural second base is okay.) However, if you have gotten past second base with a member of the editorial staff: why don’t you call us already? It’s been more than three days.
  9. One of the main things we’re trying to communicate with this contest is that literature is a community. We picked out the journals and publishing houses we’re most excited about because we wanted to share them with you—our favorite readers. (And pretty much everybody we asked to participate eagerly agreed.) As such, we’ll be featuring a different participating magazine or indie house every week. Please check out their sites and consider subscribing or buying books—not because they’re helping our contest, but because they’re sustaining a thriving literary community that you’re not going to get from mainstream publishing. And because they publish cool shit!
  10. We really believe in doing as much as we can without getting money involved. So even if you can’t afford to subscribe to any of our partners’ publications, consider spreading the word—about the contest and/or about any of the publishers you see that tickle your fancy—via facebook, twitter, or other social media. Or, you know, your mouth.

Our authors have been featured in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize AnthologyBest New American VoicesBest American Mystery Stories, and Best American Fantasy. In the past year we’ve published new work from acclaimed young writers like Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, Patrick Somerville, Marie-Helene Bertino, and many others.

We look forward to reading your work! To support Treehouse, you can read the magazine, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook!