Writing fiction is an act of formulating the right questions, not providing direct answers. This from Chekhov. But being a writer also presents many questions, two of which are perhaps universal to all generations and time periods and yet seem, as so much these days, more pertinent now than ever.
The first question I’ve mulled over since childhood, when I vacillated between Stephen King and John Steinbeck: what distinguishes a piece of fiction as either commercial or literary? The second question feels most urgent given the present state of our country: how might an artist’s work address times of political and social crisis?
Graham Greene seems a good writer to study in both regards. Before I read him, my perception was that he was a popular writer of thrillers and mysteries. However, the first Greene book I read was The Power and the Glory, a moral tale about a boozed-up and deeply penitent Catholic priest trying to escape persecution and find some semblance of dignity. At the time, I didn’t know about the dichotomy of Greene’s work, the two separate lineages of his fiction—the literary novels and, as he called them, the “Entertainments.”
Since then, I’ve discovered that while Greene encouraged the distinction, he didn’t offer much insight into it. In The Paris Review he attempted to clarify, saying “The [E]ntertainments…are distinct from the novels because as the name implies they do not carry a message”. The quote also implies Greene’s distaste for commercial novel, a phrase oxymoronic in the context of a serious writer discussing craft; the commercial fiction, the Entertainments, are not novels at all.
If we take his definition at face value, this presents an obvious problem. Because the Entertainments often do, like the literary novels, have a message. The actual difference may rest in how that message is delivered and to what effect. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace distinguishes literary fiction by pointing to the relationship between reader and writer, each with separate agendas, engaged in a paradoxical push-and-pull of expectations satisfied and subverted. He says:
This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical…The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—‘re-mediated’…by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedy-ing. This makes serious fiction a rough and bumpy affair for everyone involved. Commercial entertainment, on the other hand, smoothes everything over.
While commonly accepted distinctions boil down to the commercial novel’s quick pacing, emphasized plot, simplified characters, and satisfactorily resolute ending, Wallace highlights a more essential component of the writing itself, a linguistic and thematic discourse that presents the reader more agitation than alleviation, more questions than answers.
This aligns with Russel Nye’s claim, in The Unembarrassed Muse, that “Elite art[‘s] aim is the discovery of new ways of recording and interpreting experience. Technical and thematic complexity is of much greater value in elite art than in… popular art; in fact, technique may become a vehicle for thematic expression, or may simply become an end in itself.” In other words, one factor distinguishing literary fiction from commercial fiction is the author’s textual awareness, proclaiming often subversive intentions. The Ministry of Fear, one of Graham Greene’s Entertainments, has all the apparent markings of commercial fiction. And yet, it metafictionally speaks to its own making, pushing it into the realm of literary art as defined by Wallace, Nye, and Greene himself.
So far left out in the definition of commercial art is its regard for readership and financial viability. The Ministry of Fear was preceded by Greene’s most acclaimed novel, The Power and the Glory, which, released during World War II, was financially unsuccessful. In The Life of Graham Greene Normal Sherry recounts the writer’s sobering realization:
Unless books…provided information about war or spies, the chances of their becoming bestsellers were remote…Greene’s brilliant novel had to compete with…titles such as I Was Stalin’s Agent or Hitler Versus Germany…or the Gestapo in England…There was a thirst for secret intrigues and the calamities of war; there was no interest in faraway Mexico or the tribulations of a betrayed whiskey priest.
The Ministry of Fear was Greene’s attempt at providing what his greatest literary achievement hadn’t—a thriller which speaks to the political reality from which it sprung. This is where writers in 2018 come in. Though we aren’t living through a world war, we are living through a world event, one which dominates public media, harnesses public fear, and encroaches on our private thoughts. To address it might seem overkill, but to not address it, to not situate our work within this new and strange world might seem naïve or negligent. But because this is an event so unprecedented, it presents a number of new questions. How can we write anything that addresses the political reality of our times, when so much of what defines our times boils down to an unstable and unreal reality? How do we address an administration and president that seems just as much an aberration of democracy as it seems democracy’s death-rattle? How do we write truth, when truth seems lost? How do we tell intelligent lies when stupid lies have become our national discourse?
These are the questions for which I, the writer, have no answers.
But I can say the reason fiction so often eschews providing answers is that the questions in which fiction deals are often inherently unanswerable. In attempting to address the unanswerable, most writers generalize the act of writing fiction to two things: the story, and how the story is being told.
The story of The Ministry of Fear is at its barebones level an obvious attempt at a commercial thriller—Arthur Rowe is swept into espionage, accused of murder, outcast, and on the run. But amid this action are quiet moments where the book breaks from its quick pace, such as in a chapter that sees essentially no plot-level movement.
Rowe wanders the rubble of bombed London. As he passes others, he makes observations but concludes that “None of these things mattered. They were like something written about: they didn’t belong to his own life and he paid them no attention” (61). This is the first acknowledgment of literature’s sudden impracticality, as well as the fact that the events of Rowe’s life have departed from his once secure perception of reality. It is followed by further recollections of a past Rowe simultaneously longs for and fervently rejects, saying “People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month. But it’s not there anymore.” Then, in an address to his deceased mother: “It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it—but the thrillers are like life…You used to laugh at the books…about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but, dear, that’s real life: it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died.”
How the story is being told is where the complication of classifying the novel as either commercial or literary enters. And with this complication comes the complication of deciding whether Greene, writing through and about World War II, is attempting to situate a thriller within it, or using a thriller to comment upon it.
The election of Donald Trump was a moment in which, for many of us, the ground of reality broke apart. But it’s important to remember that all of the major events in human history had seemed, in the present moment, like the end of reality. A single election, a single war, a single bomb, a single personal tragedy, can have this effect. It’s a defining trait of traumas big and small—the world as we know it is no longer the same.
And when reality breaks, when trauma invades, as it always does, unexpectedly, we often question the value of all that we previously held dear. For Greene, this dearly held thing that seemed suddenly, amid the trauma of the war, impractical, was literature.
In The Ministry of Fear books represent paradox—their attempts at instruction become futile in times of true danger. At one point, Rowe waits for his hired detective, someone he hopes may provide guidance in the quickly evolving conspiracy of which he finds himself at the center. He waits in a bookstore, noting that:
Here was pornography—eighteenth-century French with beautiful little steel engravings celebrating the copulations of elegant over-clothed people on Pompadour couches; here were all the Victorian novelists, the memoirs of obscure pig-stickers, the eccentric philosophies and theologies of the seventeenth century…There was a smell of neglected books, of the straw from packing cases and of clothes which had been too often rained upon.
The books are cast under a grotesque light, impractical to the point of being perverse. It is far from the last time Greene uses books for thematic effect. They become integral to the plot in the following chapter, “A Load of Books,” in which Rowe finds himself next to a man who carries said load. At first, the bookseller seems a pitiable character. Rowe notes that “The weight of the suitcase cramped him: he looked very old under its weight,” shining light on the antiquity of the man and the books. All of this is hammered home by the bookseller himself, who says “There’s nothing so heavy as books, sir—unless it’s bricks.” Rowe agrees to help the man unload his books to a prospective buyer. But the hand of the genre is visible when he marvels at the ease with which he is being pulled into the plot: “He felt directed, controlled, moulded, moulded by some agency with a surrealist imagination.” The surrealism of commercial fiction is most often seen in the character’s easy acceptance of the environment’s absurdity. They are dropped into worlds of excessive violence, espionage, conspiracy, and they face it all with the studied pragmatism of native inhabitants. The Ministry of Fear takes great aims to measure its absurdities, to call them what they are to the average reader, deviations from real life, or deviations from pre-war real life.
Rowe finds himself in a hotel room while unseen forces of harm linger outside. The case of books, as well as its symbolism, is nearly forgotten as Rowe scrambles for a weapon, only to reappear when he finds nothing else. He opens the case, thereby ending Part One of The Ministry of Fear, with books, the symbol of rich antiquity, bringing the scene to unexpected conclusion. It is a metaphor not only of the way the world has changed in times of war, but of the culture’s expectations from its literature: where was assumed books, turns out to be a bomb.
In the second half of The Ministry of Fear, Rowe has completely lost his memory of the past two decades, thereby returning to the childhood innocence he longed for in the opening lines. The return streamlines Rowe’s character. Unburdened by the complexities of his experiences, he fully inhabits his role as a commercial protagonist. The idea of innocence being bound to narrative simplicity is touched on in an earlier section:
In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality—heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock. Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated.
Both innocence and narrative simplicity are longtime staples of commercial fiction. According to Nye “there are certain themes in popular fiction which seem to maintain perennial interest. One is nostalgia, the appeal of ‘better days and simpler times,’ the pervasive memory of the past, of childhood, of innocence not yet lost, of times free of the taint of contemporaneity.”
It’s just as easy to situate these sentiments into the Trump platform—a great America which can be had once again—as it is to situate them into the resistance—an American reality that once had, at its foundation, some semblance of truth. Our heroes, or more accurately “leaders”, are no longer brave, nor are they honest. Just as World War II turned reality into a wartime thriller (thereby turning the wartime thriller into Realism) so has the election of Trump turned reality into a piece of absurdist fiction.
Perhaps like many writers, I’ve wondered what a piece of fiction set within the current administration might look like. I started thinking about this before Trump was elected, when it seemed his run would end in a tossaway joke. Imagine the chaos of a reality TV star, an idiot, a narcissist becoming president. Imagine the damage he could do, someone with such a fragile ego, someone so brash and unqualified. A writer of fiction could do wonders with material like this. It would, of course, be a work of satire, one which comments upon the potential failings of our democracy and discourse, which remind us that there is only a thin line between our functioning, flawed system and overwhelming chaos.
But then it happened. And while the novel I imagined was an exaggeration of reality, the reality of what happened became an exaggeration of the novel never to be written.
Greene lived through a wartime thriller as he was writing a wartime thriller. And while a wartime thriller can be considered, on its own, a piece of commercial art, the fact that it was written during the reality of war, and the fact that Greene seems textually aware of this, at the very least distorts an easy classification.
Rowe learns he is wanted for murder, a murder he doesn’t yet know was staged and for which he is therefore innocent, and turns himself in to the police. After telling his story to one policeman, he is passed to another, Prentice, who the first calls “the surrealist round here.” As Prentice fills him in on the details of what has taken place in the first half of the book, Rowe is flabbergasted, asking “Is life really like this?” to which Prentice responds, “This is life, so I suppose one can say it’s like life.” In this sentiment, the story acknowledges its deviation from real life, while also asserting its responsibility to do so as an adherence to Realism. If war can so drastically shape experience, then it requires a new Realism to speak to that experience, which, according to the novel, is better aligned with commercial fiction. If literary fiction speaks to the complexities of character, the infinitely-faceted spirit of the human condition given free rein, it is starkly out of place in a world of severe reductions, of rations, of time compressed by daily bombings, of motives good and evil, of Hitler and Churchill, of existence polarized to alive and dead.
However, as Rowe and Prentice head to the next scene of the plot, the novel draws attention to Rowe’s pleasure:
It was a long and gloomy ride, but all the time Rowe repressed for the sake of his companion a sense of exhilaration: he was happily drunk with danger and action…none of the books of adventure one read as a boy had an unhappy ending. And none of them was disturbed by a sense of pity for the beaten side.
He becomes the fully immersed, complicit character of The Entertainment, as well as a mirror of its therapeutic effect. Commercial fiction is easier to digest than literary fiction; the reader of commercial fiction is not being asked to consider the unresolvable questions of real life, so is allowed a more strictly pleasurable experience. However antithetical this might be to Greene’s literary novels, which are characterized by meditations on the messy nature of morality, the second half of The Ministry of Fear finds morality streamlined—the bad are exposed and punished, the good are redeemed and go on. The novel ultimately follows the prescriptive course of commercial fiction, thereby preserving its “Entertainment” value.
Does this imply that commercial fiction in 2018 would be that that offers the reader an escape from the pervasive stories of the day? The type of work that either ignores the political and social climate or rewrites it with the happy ending the most optimistic of us have trouble imagining? And if this is the case, would literary fiction be that that fully embraces the challenge of speaking to a potentially aberrant reality, a reality that, if it isn’t aberrant, is unquestionably sad? By ignoring this reality, can we shorten its lifespan? Or by ignoring it, do we fail future generations, leaving out a part of our history that I’m not alone in hoping we will never repeat?
In any case, for Greene, the moralizing literary artist, the therapy of commercial fiction itself becomes an object of his moralizing. What makes The Ministry of Fear so difficult to classify is that its value cannot be contained to the plot. In literary fiction, the plot is only a part of the experience, which is often best exemplified by its linguistic intercourse. In the linguistic intercourse of The Ministry of Fear the claim being made is that while childhood equals innocence and pleasurable simplicity, it also amounts to ignorance. By the same turn, adulthood is not simply an immoral mess. And Rowe, embarked on his quest for justice, begins to realize the limitations of the story he has inhabited:
Over there among the unknown tribes a woman was giving birth, rats were nosing among sacks of meal, an old man was dying, two people were seeing each other for the first time by the light of a lamp: everything in that darkness was of such deep importance that their errand could not equal it—this violent superficial chase, this cardboard adventure hurtling at forty-five miles an hour along the edge of the profound natural common experiences of men.
If the Entertainments are, as Greene suggests, meant simply to entertain by immersing the reader in a message-less tale, this paragraph is a move in the wrong direction. The tragedy of Rowe’s past is that he killed his wife, a “mercy killing,” to spare her a drawn out, painful death. With his memory gone, this formative episode is no longer part of him. He regresses to a childlike innocence, but he is an adult. It is the adult in him that senses the emptiness of his hero-like bravado, which the surrealism of the Entertainment demands, yet which he is too Real a character to be satisfied with. Even prior to his memory being fully restored, he understands that, “Happiness should always be qualified by a knowledge of misery… Knowledge was the great thing—not abstract knowledge…but detailed passionate trivial human knowledge.” The tension between difficult knowledge and therapeutic ignorance is hammered home in lines such as “The sense of adventure struggled with common sense as though it were on the side of happiness, and common sense were allied to possible miseries.”
The questions posed by literary fiction are rarely ingredients for pure happiness. The realism of literary fiction deals in the most irreconcilable facts of daily life. Happiness, on the other hand, according to Nye is a required component of popular fiction. He writes that “Since the popular arts aim at the largest common denominator…the popular artist cannot disturb or offend any significant part of his public: though the elite artist may and should be a critic of his society, the popular artist cannot risk alienation.” If commercial fiction is meant to promote happiness and not criticize society, Greene breaks both rules in the novel’s last line: “It seemed to him that after all one could exaggerate the value of happiness.”
Happiness is not a word that could earnestly be used to define our recent history or, I presume, the years ahead. In a deeply divided country, it’s possible the ultimate distinguishing trait between literary and commercial fiction will be whether that fiction attempts to avoid disturbing/offending or whether it embraces its critical impulse.
However, it might be difficult to write fiction that criticizes society when much of our current cultural dissatisfaction stems from the same sources. When this thought bothers me, I try to remember that art has always been an expression within a limited medium. Each medium has its own rules and functions. What has always been most interesting about great art is what the artist can do within these confines, how the artist conveys infinity within the finite. The writer of fiction should not attempt a fictional version of Fire and Fury. What the writer of fiction should do, I think, is what the writer of fiction has always done: look beneath the overarching problems of our day, where a woman is giving birth and an old man is dying. For all the helplessness we may feel, this is where narratives, real and imagined, begin. This is where the events of human history take shape.
Though the dual nature of Greene’s body of work is still preserved, it has become a less viable method of differentiating his novels. The Ministry of Fear invites classification, thereby making it difficult to classify. This difficulty is inherent in all discussions about Art and Entertainment. The fact remains that Art, the literary novel in particular, is not worth a whole lot unless it compels one to consume it. By that same token, Entertainment’s entertainment value is often a result of its bits of wisdom and confrontation that tease out an audience’s emotional and intellectual investment. And whether we’re talking art or entertainment, books are being read by people who live in a world besought by political turmoil, gender and racial inequality, devastating economic disparities, war, violence, terror. I don’t know what an artist does with this information, but I do believe an artist has a responsibility to keep this information in mind. Good writers, good readers, and good books do not exist in a vacuum. Nor is fiction obliged to be journalistic. Somewhere between these two facts exist the answers I don’t have.