Henry Whittlesey

Since there are five Saturdays in April and Pimentel’s story was perfectly structured for four weeks, I will delve into the role of our work in (or, more accurately, outside) the literary fiction scene in this introduction to Material Dissent for the last weekend in April…

Let me begin bluntly: Producers in the field of literary fiction have lost sight of the big picture.

I will not speculate on the reasons for this here.

As literary fiction writers, editors and participants in publishing, we obviously assume a place within a larger context.

We assume a place next to, for example, the business community, scientists and academics, politicians, legal professionals, media stakeholders, IT experts, to name but a few.

A writer whose name I can’t recall recently opined that since she’s an author of fiction, she has no obligation to tell the truth. I laughed on reading those words. And sure, there is a lot of truth in them, pun intended. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this part of the reason why literary fiction has been relegated to the absolute fringe?1 Of the contributions made by the various groups listed above, is there any sector less publicly acknowledged for contributing to progress than writers of literary fiction and possibly fiction in general? They do not make money, employ people, research to achieve scientific, social or economic progress; do not enact policies, enforce laws, inform the public about the latest developments or produce technology to make our lives better, more efficient or what not.

So what is the point of writing literary fiction? What can readers forking over $30 for a new hardcover (totally unaffordable for the author of this essay) theoretically hope for, even if it is not currently present, in a work of literary fiction?

The answer to this question must be that the work of literary fiction at least potentially reveals to them recognizable, but previously ignored facets of life similar to the way Immanuel Kant’s discovery of time and space rocked the assumptions of metaphysicians in the Enlightenment. The reader must be able to relate to the characters and plot, acknowledging their trajectory and gaining insight into the causes of and possible approaches to handling the problems or issues in their own lives.

Among the arts, literary fiction is ideally positioned for this role, competing only with drama and motion picture, but without the emphasis of these latter genres on entertainment. It uses words to replicate life as we perceive it, can enter into thoughts and is malleable, allowing for the immense diversity we also experience in everyday life.

The unparalleled, unique aspect of literary fiction when compared to scholarly fields is its multidisciplinary character. It can explain effects as a result of multiple causes. It can grasp phenomena empirically found as a consequence of psychological, technological, social, scientific, historical… acts.

In academia, science and much human activity, the aim is to gain or use knowledge for an end. It might be profits in the case of a business or progress in the case of academia or science. All of these goals are, abstractly interpreted, a kind of truth. The accumulation of credits in a bank account means the business has discovered some way of getting revenue to exceed costs. That method or practice is a temporary truth that will be repeated until it ceases to work. In the 19th century, one of the earliest great applications of science was to resolve food shortages and hunger due to crop failure. The findings and innovations proved to be the start of a truth – the elimination of food shortages and hunger in the Western world, something we have yet to return to since science applied itself to this objective. Whatever truths lie behind the communications revolution that has taken place over the last 40 years have also proven themselves: we can communicate with anyone around the world (for free, no less) by pushing a button on a device that is carried in our pockets at all times (if we want) and now we can ask a machine almost any reasonably researched question and receive a competent, informative answer back within seconds.

Obviously, truth in the humanities is not as objective as it is in business or science or technology.

Before we return to literature, let us look at abstracted truth in an example from the social sciences. Similar to literature, the social sciences are not really science in the sense of the natural sciences, but rather more like the way we speak of history class in high school – social studies. Social studies became popular in the postwar era, in part with the agenda to resolve poverty. Academics and scholars studied the causes of poverty, the structures that give rise to it, the programs that could potentially alleviate it and so on. In America, the first large-scale major attempt to introduce legislation combating poverty and inequality was made in the sixties with Lyndon Johnson. The Economic Opportunity Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Fair Housing Act are examples of the legislation and programs that sought to achieve the truth, however it is defined, determined by social scientists.

Put another way, no socially accepted businessman, scientist, IT expert or social scientist seeks to advance falsehoods for the aim of failure. They may use falsehoods to trick opponents or lobby inversely for their own agenda. But the truth of money, progress, success, equality or whatever in their goal is the object of their intellectual activity and actions.

It is no different for writers. Especially ones of literary fiction. Above all in the current context where immense amounts of writing is done for truths that are different from those of literary fiction.

First and foremost is the current divergence between writing done for the media and writing as an author of literary fiction.

Journalists also have their truth and aim to advance it through their writing. There is both a commercial, i.e., profit-oriented element to their work (the media company behind them should be profitable), and an ideology to be supported (usually aligned with the political orientation of the publication).

Writers of literary fiction are generally not making a living from their writing (no commercial aspect) and are at least not beholden to the ideology of the publication they work for (although a publishing house may exert pressure or indirectly censor them). In any case, the truth of their work does not have to be aligned either with money/business or ideology.

So writers of literary fiction are effectively free. Or at least they are the freest participants in the sphere of writing. Behind them come other active participants in creative production such as playwrights and script writers for motion picture, who will also have their truths but must also align their content with the profitability and entertainment orientation of their employers or clients.

No participant in creation is like a writer of literary fiction, however, which begs a couple of questions in this context:

Why would they choose to take advantage of this incredible position not to tell the truth? Why would they prefer falsity?

Again, we can debate the truth of any writer just as the truths of social scientists are heavily criticized after 60 years of colossally failing to end poverty and inequality. But, as one of the critics of such social scientists, I will not deny that these experts have made every effort in goodwill to identify truths and find ways to achieve them.

Academic fields are often dominated by a popular idea, model, theory, etc. for a period of time. But they are not monolithic bodies. Alone political divisions in any field will inform stakeholders’ perspectives today. But even without politics, every individual adopts their own position. These are then hashed out in articles, essays, papers, books, blogs and so on. Each participant has their own truth(s). It should be exactly the same in literature.

In the field of literature, a famous example of such a division in the truth can be found in the divergent representations of the Russian peasantry. Russian writers at the turn of the 20th century heavily criticized the idealistic representation of the peasantry by authors like Turgenev and especially Tolstoy. Writers like Ivan Bunin argued that the realism of Tolstoy is not real at all. In fact, rural Russia was a mess, according to him. In The Village, he depicts the catastrophic state of ordinary citizens in great detail. Andrei Platonov, albeit after the Civil War, also followed in this vein, while his Socialist Realist contemporaries harked back to Tolstoy.

The point is that each of these writers has a view of the truth(s) and expresses it in their work. If we assume that the author criticized at the outset for saying she has no obligation to tell the truth is an outlier, then it must be possible to discern a certain perspective of contemporary authors, in their work and statements.

For all the good writing being done today – and contemporary American writers use language very creatively –, their work merely functions as a documentation of this or that contemporary milieu. Almost every writer having a novel release by a major publishing house has an author’s page, something that exists at Amazon as well. However, I have yet to find such a website with anything more than biographical information and the effectively boilerplate blurbs from essentially commissioned (trade) reviews. No personal statement is made. No framework for understanding the novel. Not even a brief interpretation along the lines of what we encounter at an exhibition in a museum.

Modern-day literary fiction, for the most part, is not informed by any authorial ambition to identify a truth or truths. It is simply a literary version of what we experience in daily life or would experience if we were in a different circle. This is interesting, but somewhat self-evident and, for the reader, irrelevant beyond perhaps generating empathy forgotten in a week or two just like most of the books we allegedly perused last year (I sit regularly in houses filled with books, each one read cover-to-cover by my parents over the last 40 years and they can’t tell be the basic plot of any one read more than a year ago).

This failure to adopt a position relative to truth is not only contrary to nearly every other professional activity, but it also makes writers’ work irrelevant and discourages people from reading.

Furthermore, literary fiction has this unique place as an interdisciplinary field per se, as mentioned at the beginning. The reason for a character’s decision at a given point in a novel can be informed by numerous causes (which is a perfect reflection of life). A physical disease due to genetic defects might cause a girl to behave strangely in elementary school, where she is among schoolkids who almost all have a completely different social and familial background than she does; later at home she hears propaganda from her parents that then places her outside of her high school friends as well, which in turn leads to nervousness that compounds the conditions arising from the genetic defect; at the same time from a historical perspective she is perceived an insider, but is socialized as an outsider during a period when the business community seeks to strengthen young women, and her mother has ceased to cook with salt and buys the cheapest products in the worst grocery store.

Literary fiction is the only discipline capable of showing the truths arising in this young woman as a product of multiple causes. Methodologically, this fails in every other field. In literary fiction, it is (methodologically) a borderline requirement for a character developing or for depth.

To be fair, this characteristic is also found in the work of contemporary American writers like Jonathan Franzen.

What we don’t find, is the second layer of these truths. That is, the interdisciplinary development of a character is present, but not the interdisciplinary nature of the work as a whole. The reader does not gain insights into what this oddly developed woman above can do to extricate herself from a complicated situation that culminates in a midlife crisis.

A work of literary fiction, like all other work produced in other fields, must not just consist of internal truths (e.g., inter- or multidisciplinary development of characters, observations), but also adopt some position as a work of art. This can be done structurally, through foils, countercharacters, conceits, the story and an infinite number of other techniques.

Literary fiction today is like an article or paper without an introduction or conclusion. You just get some random observations.

The approach I am describing has been criticized as tendentious (Gary Shteyngart used exactly that word when I asked him about this issue in regards to his dystopian work). It is levelled at the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky regularly. There is some merit to this criticism in 18th and 19th century work with a clear agenda. The same with Socialist Realism in Russia. It is poorly handled and often lacking in the diversity of truth, which has only become accepted more recently.

Most truths are context-based. Not universal. In the old days of omniscient narrators and authorial commentary, writers viewed themselves as authorities and claimed universals. Tolstoy wrote only one single passage of the narration in Anna Karenina in the present tense: the scene where Levin is mowing the wheat in the field with the peasants and enters into harmony with the metaphysical.

Today, literary fiction writers need to figure out what their view of various contexts is and how they want to depict those contexts and for what purpose. They have to ask themselves, What do I want to say here? And then they have to ask themselves the same thing when they get to there, i.e., What do I want to say now in this case?

And what they want to say cannot be a falsehood. It cannot be intentionally wrong. It can certainly be unintentionally wrong, mistaken, misguided, uninformed or subject to any other criticism. But at least then readers will know they are reading literary fiction for a reason, that is, they are tracking the lives of certain characters because they offer the reader potential: to learn, to understand, to adopt the same approach by analogy in their lives and to grapple with the ideas, theory, hypothesis, worldview presented by the author through the characters, situations, contexts of the novel as a whole.

Naturally, this applies to both the work we produce and this perypatetik project where the literary fiction and creative non-fiction show at the very least the vicissitudes of life negotiated in manners consistent with the theory of counterbalancing, otherwise referred to as peripatetic alterity. Solutions aren’t necessarily presented in any given story. They are not presented in the novel Angelika Friedrich and I have written, but the lives of characters in familiar situations, facing common issues, especially the host of problems coming with the currently prevailing metaphysical/spiritual wasteland in the uniform identification with materialism/consumption, reveal very ordinary possibilities available to literally everyone through simply a change of perception.

Characters in literary fiction, just like in everyday life, live out this alternative perception.

Since we don’t perceive it in our daily lives, maybe it will become apparent in literary fiction.

Then we will have change.


1. You might disagree with me if you are in the echo chamber of literary circles citing dubious, cherrypicked numbers usually reflecting library sales. Today, however, we have now gone over fifteen years since the last critically acclaimed author gained national media attention and became a household name (Johnathan Franzen). The only other writer to reach this level was E.L. James made famous for 50 Shades of Gray, which, say what you will about it, is not literary fiction in the sense of a work with the potential to become a classic (and was furthermore unknown when originally released by a small publishing house). Anecdotal subway evidence also suggests a further sharp drop in the last ten years and there weren’t many back then either, although you did see Kindles. Now one person reading in a subway car warrants stares and makes me want to talk to them.

Transadaptation Volume 4 – Material Dissent

January: A Blinding Light and Then, All Darkness – Jonay Quintero Hernández (Spain)

February: The Opportunist – Lauren Voaden (United Kingdom)

March: A Stranger in my City – Alejandra Baccino (Uruguay)

April: A South African Soundtrack – Sarah-Leah Pimentel (South Africa)

May: Full Circle – Ina Maria Vogel (Germany)

June: La Lluvia en Bogotá – Adriana Uribe (Columbia)

July: Freedom – Krisztina Janosi (Hungary)

August: A Bus Ride – Svetlana Molchanova (Russia)

September: Transcendence – Armine Asryan (Nane Sevunts) (Armenia)

October: Motherhood – Marilin Guerrero Casas (Cuba)

November: To be announced – (hopefully) Gennady Bondarenko (Ukraine)

December: Open – Seyit Ali Dastan (Turkey)

Background – Context

Transadaptation Volume 3: Evanescent – Young Adulthood Transadapted, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2022)

Transadaptation Volume 2: Conceived – Childhood Transadapted, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2021)

Transadaptation Volume 1: In the Middle – Prelude to a Contemporary Transadaptation, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2020)

Peripatetic Alterity: A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being – Romantics and Pragmatists by Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)

La Syncrétion of Polarization and Extremes Transposée, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)

The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2018)

L’anthologie of Global Instability Transpuesta, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2017)

From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin: German and Russian Stories Transposed to Modern-day America, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2013)

Emblems and stories on the international community

Perception by country – Transposing emblems, articles, short stories and reports from around the world

Credits (clockwise from upper left-hand corner)

Tenerife, Spain – In the clouds – Marek Piwnicki (Unsplash), Cape Town, South Africa – The hill over the wharf – ShDrohnenFly (Shutterstock), UK – Haunted house – Helen Hotson (Shutterstock), Montevideo, Uruguay – Buceo beach – DFLC Prints (Shutterstock)

Source: The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed

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