A Poet’s Complaints Against Fiction


Arts & Culture

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation. 1892

First, a word about the traditional feud between poets and fiction writers. I wish to acknowledge, up front, that that feud does not exist. Not traditionally. Conditions in the wild are very unfavorable to it. To witness episodes of this feud, you have to visit a special kind of mismanaged zoo called an M.F.A. program.

Perhaps I needn’t add that it is not my object to prosecute any such feud here. Let me be explicit: I revere the great novelists as much as I revere the great poets. I do not see poetry as the higher form of writing. I do not think poets are better people. If anything, I’m sick to death of poets and poetry in a way I could never be sick of fiction and fiction writers. Poets are my family—with all the opprobrium that implies. Whereas, fiction writers strike me as delightfully removed from any familiar mode of being. They have houses and lifestyles. And they traffic in plots, an inherently good idea.

Still, I do “have somewhat against thee,” fiction writers. There are certain abuses, rare enough in poetry, that are commonplace in works of fiction. A person who reads and writes poetry all the time will perhaps see these abuses more clearly than the practitioner of fiction, who is naturally and understandably accustomed to them.

Take a moment to reflect on the memorable metaphor that Niccolò Machiavelli deploys on the dedication page (as it were) of Il principe. He says there that a painter, in order to paint the lowlands, must of course go up into the mountains, and in order to paint a mountain, must head to the valley. Analogously, in order to really understand the nature of common citizenship, one must be a prince, and in order to know the real deal regarding princes, one must be an ordinary person like Machiavelli himself. That’s why it’s okay for him to tell you how to rule your kingdom, O Prince. And perhaps it is the same, I am suggesting, with fiction writers and poets.

The theory’s a good one. Think of the many times nonpoets have laid down memorable and all-but-devastating criticisms of poetry. Think of the recently dead V. S. Naipaul on poetry:

I used to be very humble about poetry, I felt that because my background had been deficient there was something there that I didn’t, couldn’t, understand. Now I feel that most people called poets are tiny people, with tiny thoughts.

As a poet, one must set aside any impulse to indulge in the usual sass-back. We may sass all we like, that stuck-up son of a bitch had a point.

But at this juncture, perhaps you will say to me, “Niccolò, enough with these rites and mysteries. Tell us your objections to fiction.” (I confess I do feel like I am channeling the circumlocutory spirit of Sir Philip Sidney here.)

Very well, then, here is my objection. I have only one. I call it Harry Potterism. Probably the word for it at Iowa is author’s-darling-ism. It just means the protagonist has no real vices. Or if the protagonist is allowed a couple, they will not be the source of any real problems. Real problems come from without. It’s like I say in my poetry somewhere:

Protagonists never do anything wrong;

They can only ever be thwarted.

Protagonists can fail to overcome an obstacle, but they are not themselves an obstacle. And naturally they are never a source of legitimate grievance to anyone.

Obviously, not all fiction is like this. But a lot of it is. Jane Austen is this. Samuel Beckett’s novels are this. “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And I wanna say nineteen out of every twenty movies.

It’s classic. It’s what everybody wants. It makes you feel good. And it corresponds to something deep in every child: “You, child, are magic. Everybody else—buncha muggles.” You, by definition, are James Bond. Whoever’s in your way is Goldfinger.

I know what you’re thinking. “How is any of this a fault specific to fiction? Aren’t poets every bit as—” Let me cut you off there. Yes, poets are every bit as. But there’s a difference. Poets (despite eighty years of cant about distinguishing the speaker from the writer) pretty much have no choice but to come right out and say “I am awesome, and you people are trash” when that’s what they mean. Poems that vindicate the self do so more or less directly. Whereas, Harry Potter vindicates all selves—without ever owning what it’s doing.

One can very easily cheer on Harry Potter without ever guessing one is masturbating the Self. Most never do guess it! Whereas, if one identifies with the speaker in, say, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” one knows damn well that it’s personal.

Fine! You can pelt me with exceptions all you want; the idea is fundamentally sound. It wouldn’t be, if all prose narrative were memoir and all poetry were personal monologues, like those of Robert Browning or whoever. But as long as the standard novel is about a relatable character’s adventures slaying some dragon or other, and as long as the standard poem is a weather report from the speaker’s soul, it’s going to be fiction that must bear most of the guilt for improving people’s native narcissism into the monstrosity one sees all around one.

It’s not that poetry isn’t sinister! It’s that it’s openly sinister.

Look, it’s like you’re on a diet. A slab of cake in a refrigerated display case is openly sinister. Most fiction on the other hand is more like a bottomless bag of nuts. Looks harmless! Looks natural! And worst of all, the very form of nuts, the structure of nut-eating, easily suckers you into sitting there eating them all afternoon. You can wind up with twenty times the calories as you would have gotten from the display-case Napoleon, with its exquisite zigzag chocolate-drizzle stripes.

The very fact that poetry cloys prevents the all-day, vindication-of-self binge. Your standard poem is the front side of a piece of paper; Harry Potter is like eighty books, each one of ’em thick as a quart of milk.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.