Hypocrite. It’s one of the ugliest words I know. Its prefix makes me think of hippopotamus—a rough, fat, ugly beast. The Latin/Greek makes the word sound medical, like an age-old term for some sexual perversion that dares not speak its colloquial name. It’s as bad as a curse—if not worse; I’ll wager most people would prefer being called an asshole over being called a hypocrite. I know I would, even though I’m about to argue that my hypocrisy is good for me, if not for all fiction writers who are (dis)honest with themselves.
In most circles, hypocrisy is a type of interpersonal treason. We don’t like our doctors prescribing medicines they believe are ineffective, and they don’t like admitting they are wrong about a diagnosis. Politicians, like John Kerry during the last presidential election, are so often accused of being hypocrites that they are seemingly never allowed to change their minds about anything, since most people can’t tell the difference between hypocrisy and reconsideration. Oftentimes, stubborn, blind doggedness seems to be the highest-praised virtue in the public arena, so praised that the old cliché “you can’t change boats midstream” is considered a legitimate justification for trudging mindlessly onward into oblivion. Nobody likes a hypocrite.
Yet, I want to admit that I am one. Not only do I want to admit I’m a hypocrite, but I also want to assert that hypocrisy is a good, healthy quality for a fiction writer. Maybe even a saving grace.
I’m always changing my mind. I’m always spouting off some conviction that I will later renounce. In fact, I’m often most deeply convinced of a political, moral, or aesthetic position just before I’m ready to renounce it. I’ve switched political parties, forsaken my love for rock bands after they became too popular, and made so many alterations to my writing aesthetic that I can no longer recall what my original writerly convictions had been way back when I was seven.
I do, however, remember more recent convictions that I’ve abandoned. When I was a graduate student in creative writing, I worshipped Charles Dickens and John Irving and their shared notion that good novels have a definable moral structure, that the job of a fiction writer is to convey a message, even if that message is only subtly didactic. And of course many great stories do send a clear message to the reader, none more obvious and seasonal than Dickens’ own A Christmas Carol. But these days I’ve renounced the idea that good fiction must convey a certain moral world view, a message. I prefer to embrace Nabokov’s belief about his novel Lolita: “There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction…. For me a work of literature exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss.” No messages, no morals—just great writing.
I also used to think that the best kind of writing was purely realistic. I didn’t go much in for magical realism or outright fantasy—a guy turning into a bug or an elderly angel crash-landing on a South American beach. But then I was writing Pyres, a novel in part about a teenage girl mourning the death of her father, a folklore professor who specialized in Norse mythology. In the white heat of writing I realized that those Norse myths had to come to life for this girl, no matter how unrealistic their appearance might seem. And another conviction was felled by the swift, sharp axe of inspiration.
Craig, my friend and fellow writer, has been forced to entertain my hypocrisy for years now. Whenever I get worked up about a fiction writing or storytelling technique, he’s the one who has to hear me sermonize about it for hours, knowing—knowing!—that I will inevitably abandon any and all convictions that I champion. He has listened to me when I was a populist raging about the obtuseness of arsty-fartsy literary fiction. He has listened to me when I scoffed at all the clichés of commercial fiction. For years this went on until he finally nudged me and said, “You know, you always make these rules for yourself, and then you break them.” He seemed genuinely sorry to have to tell me, in the nicest way possible, that I was a hypocrite. Heck, just four months ago I vowed to him that I would never have an author webpage nor do any blogging because I wanted to be viewed as an Author, not an actual human being who chats and gripes about stuff in public.
The first time I allowed myself to admit this character flaw was when Craig and I were walking through downtown Charlotte, NC and I was spouting off about how I refused to write a fictional detective into Pyres because there is no longer any way to write a detective uniquely. All at once I stopped and admitted that the end result of my tirade would inevitably include my creating a fictional detective for the novel. And sure enough, a couple weeks later I invented Greta Hurd, a police investigator, and made her a second major character.
I’m not ashamed—at least not much. Tomorrow I will be ashamed, but today I believe that if hypocrisy is a horrible quality for most professions, it’s a great one for a writer and other artists. Writers and artists thrive off of inconsistency—new ideas, new approaches, new perspectives. Writers and artists who approach their work the same way every time are likely to stagnate. I’d go so far as to say that readers expect us to be hypocrites because they want us to surprise them each time we release a new work. Convictions come from the rational mind, while the heart and the imagination are often capricious. If we writers stick to our rational guns, militantly following a plot plan or a character arc we’ve begun, aren’t we ignoring the very impulse that makes us artists—that flightily, contradictory, lying muse we call imagination or inspiration? The musicians I love the most, like Radiohead, are the ones who keep me on my toes with every new album release. Each time, they are certain to dismantle, intentionally, all that they have built before. Maybe their next album will be utterly conventional, thus reversing their propensity toward reinvention.
But then I wonder if maybe I’m wrong about all this. Maybe most normal people like consistency in their entertainment just as they like consistency in their politicians and doctors. Radiohead lost their popular following because they got weird, and they’ve never been as popular as Jessica Simpson, whose songs I could probably not tell apart. Danielle Steele will always remain more popular than writers who constantly reinvent themselves because, as with McDonald’s, people like to know what they’re going to get.
Certainly readers like the characters in the book to remain consistent, just as they like the established rules of a fictional world to remain consistent. John Gardner wrote in The Art of Fiction that readers are capable of sympathizing with any kind of protagonist—even if he’s a drunk, a womanizer, a murderer, or a coward—if the writer does a good job of evoking such sympathy. But Gardner warns that the one quality readers will never accept in their protagonists is hypocrisy. I want to argue against that rule, citing for instance Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello as one of the great hypocritical antiheros of literature, but then I remember that no matter how much hypocrisy Iago displays to his fellow characters, he is always honest about his devilry with the audience.
So I can see it both ways. Despite my duplicity, I will vehemently preach to my creative writing students about the virtue of being noncommittal. I tell them that in order to be sympathetic writers able to inhabit the hearts and minds of a wide variety of characters, they must abandon all their convictions for political parties, philosophical ideas, cultural comforts, culinary tastes, and especially aesthetic certainties. They must observe the world, but never make decisions about it. In the moment of creative bliss, I tell them, you must allow yourself every possible option so that the right one will be free to announce itself. If a salad fork at a posh dinner party wants to begin talking to the duchess while it’s in her mouth, then I say let it!
But I don’t really believe this, nor do I practice it. Being noncommittal isn’t the same thing as being a hypocrite because a lack of commitment simply exhibits a sense of wishy-washiness. No: I really think it’s essential to have grand convictions about everything so that the cacophony of their inevitable destruction can reverberate like the cheer of a victorious army. One can have no fun assassinating certainties if one never bothers to march those certainties in front of the firing squad. People are atheists and vegetarians and punks in part because of the secret thrill they feel when they spit upon the cultural idols that have been raised before them. Being a hypocrite is rather like being a rebel—and everybody likes a rebel.
The only difference is that hypocrites break their own rules rather than someone else’s. See, the problem with fiction writing is that one is bound to almost no rules; we don’t have to follow the guidelines of the bar association or the Hippocratic Oath or the Constitution of the United States of America. It is this boundless freedom that suffocates us, so we are forced to write our own rules to break. We have to betray ourselves, just to have something to betray.
Even now, I fear that my own self-discoveries will hurt me. After all, once I’ve realized I’m a hypocrite, how can I ever trick myself into believing my own convictions again? But, no. As I brood over my second novel and the rules I’m establishing for myself, I am again forced to believe that we novelists, we “professional liars,” ought to be good enough at our game to fool even ourselves, at least until it’s time again to smash down the icons.
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