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3 Good Things About Disturbing Fiction

I did not at any point request that my teacher refer to me as “the most happily disturbed writer” he’s ever known, nor did I request this quote be emblazoned across the top of my first book. And, yet, there it is. I wasn’t at first comfortable with this. My wife and children don’t really think of me as a “disturbed” person, and as people who care about the world my wife and I don’t really relish the suggestion that I might be compounding the world’s troubles by adding to its many disturbing stories with even more “disturbed” stories of my own. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized being “happily disturbed” didn’t have to be the identity problem I’d first feared. The fact is, I am disturbed. The world and its many problems do disturb me. If the world didn’t disturb me, I’m not sure I would be a writer of fiction.

I did not at any point request that my teacher refer to me as “the most happily disturbed writer” he’s ever known, nor did I request this quote be emblazoned across the top of my first book. And, yet, there it is.

I wasn’t at first comfortable with this. My wife and children don’t really think of me as a “disturbed” person, and as people who care about the world my wife and I don’t really relish the suggestion that I might be compounding the world’s troubles by adding to its many disturbing stories with even more “disturbed” stories of my own.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized being “happily disturbed” didn’t have to be the identity problem I’d first feared. The fact is, I am disturbed. The world and its many problems do disturb me. If the world didn’t disturb me, I’m not sure I would be a writer of fiction.

rise-and-fall-f-scandamerican-domestic
christopher-merkner-author-writer

Column by Christopher Merkner, author of the 2014 story collection,
THE RISE & FALL OF THE SCANDAMERICAN DOMESTIC (Coffee House).
where the ties of family and community intersect darkly with suburban American life.
The collection has been praised by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly,
Booklist, and more.

Here are three things that I have learned about the value of being a disturbing writer of fiction:

1. Disturbing is essential

Disturbing is not the domain of the demented literary artiste; disturbing is essential to every fiction worth its work. If fiction writers are not disturbed by the things of this world—that is, if we’re not upset, or if our writing doesn’t seem to be irritating the natural patterns in the lives of those who inhabit our lives and pages—then we’re probably not going to be able to write strong fiction. Whether we’re “realists” or “fabulists” or “thriller-writers,” we fiction writers can’t do our jobs if we only try to record/present the real world “as it is.” Call it “conflict” or “tension” or “crisis,” but strong fiction will always be driven by a writer’s ability to feel the world “as it is,” interpret it, and disturb it – upset and re-order it in a way that effects changed perspectives and attitudes. If we’re not upsetting our readers, we’re probably not writing anything worth reading.

(Can you query an agent for a short story collection?)

2. If you think you’re trying to be disturbing, you are probably wrong

Shock and awe in fiction is not really “disturbing” in the way good fiction disturbs, because it’s not a lasting quality or effect. My students always love the Chuck Palahniuk story, “Guts,” and they like it upon first read because it “freaks them out” by putting candid language to the likenesses of complicated human sexual experiences. My students think the things that happen in the story are “good fiction” because they are funny, scandalous, and terrifying. But what actually makes “Guts” good fiction is not the gruesome humor and terrifying events, but rather the careful hand of Palahniuk in tendering disquieting and harrowing shame of the characters – the things that parents in the story refuse to talk about, the inability of characters moving forward in what they believe is ‘civilized society,’ the pervasive discomfort and sadness the characters—all Americans—feel around topics of sexuality and the body. What makes good fiction disturbing is not loud language or disgusting turns of event or grotesque imagery, but a fiction writer’s ability to understand the disturbing consequences of characters and the delicate and honest rendering of those consequences. Palahniuk gets this, but a more delicate example can be just as disturbing. Here’s a nice example from Lydia Davis’ story, “Television,” where she studies the disturbing way many Americans understand the natural world: “I think it is a television sound beyond the wall, but it’s the honking of wild geese flying south in the first dark of the evening.”

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

3. Like anything important and done well in fiction, disturbances are intimate

If we can agree that writers need to be disturbing in order to best render a world worth a readers’ time and fascination, we should also probably agree that we don’t need to lose our clarity of mind or change our lifestyles dramatically to create meaningful disturbances in our fiction. The way our partner’s eyes suddenly dart out the window just after we’ve kiss them; the way our kids shout out in dreams we will never be able to know; the way our neighbors leave their lights on all night long; the way our best friend slips a pill into her mouth before she drinks coffee one day. The most truly disturbing parts of our lives don’t exist in the wildly exotic or grotesque; they run through the center of everyday life. They are close to us, very close. They are intimate and personal and often so profoundly private we don’t fully acknowledge them. And that’s where writers of fiction must practice their craft: careful, brutally honest awareness of the disturbing realities of life most of us cannot bear to see, name, or share.

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