Okay, fiction can’t repair the world. Still, I’ve been wondering lately whether the time and energy I invest in writing fiction might be better spent working socially to change the world. The question has been long with me, ever since a criticism I received in 1974 from a good friend, a Catholic priest. I had decided on a career in psychotherapy, and he challenged me: “Let’s say as a therapist you can help fifty people a year for forty years. What’s that? 2000 people in your career. Be a social activist, a community organizer – you’ll help 2000 people every year.” I didn’t take him up on that. It seemed to me that by seeking the quantity, I’d lose the quality of the relationship with those I served. Perhaps that was selfish.
In the first sermon I heard by Michele’s rabbi, he spoke about tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “to repair the world.” Every Jew, Rabbi Cohen said, should repair the world. I wasn’t Jewish, but in good Catholic style, I felt guilty anyway, since I hadn’t yet repaired the world. Such a requirement, repairing the world! Isn’t that the Messiah’s job?
When I told Michele this, she was quiet for a moment. “I think you’re missing the point.”
“He said we have to repair the world. That’s huge.”
“He meant one person at a time.”
Some years later, I came across this quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Ah. So maybe one relationship at a time was all right.
A wonderful novel, The Seventh Telling by Mitchell Chefitz, tells the story of a rabbi whose wife is dying of cancer. The rabbi is asked if her suffering is destroying his hope for a Messiah. He surprises his friend by saying that the Messiah has already come! In fact, he says, there have already been many Messiahs. For instance, he says, “Jonas Salk was the Messiah for polio.”
In the Buddhist tradition, there’s a saying that when one person becomes enlightened, the whole world is freed from suffering. Instant tikkun olam! The best thing a person can do to save the world is to save himself or herself. This obviously is aspirational, judging from the amount of suffering left in the world. But it makes a point.
Let’s say these ancient claims are true: That we repair the world one person at a time; that by cultivating our own spiritual health, we benefit the world. Let me make a case, then, that writing fiction participates in that effort.
Seriously? We should maybe send Bookmobiles to prowl the streets of refugee camps? How can writing stop ISIS? (Buy a bearded boy a book?) What about the plague of American gun violence? I suppose a paperback doesn’t fire many bullets. But really? How can writing reverse the injustices of runaway capitalism? If you read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, will the resulting brain-freeze snuff out the greed-is-good meme?
Plainly, writing alone can’t change the world. But solid, honest writing can make a difference by informing people about the pressing issues of the time – look at the articles, journalism, and reflection in the great (and even the not so great) newspapers, in Mother Jones, Harpers, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and the dozens of similar publications. And informed people ultimately will change things – they will help refugees, stop ISIS, reduce gun violence, redistribute wealth more justly. People who are well informed will eventually find one another, band together, and make the changes the world needs.
You will say, “But that kind of writing is non-fiction. You write fiction. Of what use is your novel to hungry people, to the oppressed, to victims of war and guns? How does it make for economic justice or slow down global climate change?”
To which I answer, “One reader at a time.” A good novel has the power of, say, a fine piece of improvisational music or an ink and rice paper painting – the power to touch some deeper place in those who read or listen or see. I don’t mean that fiction must inspire any particular virtue, but I agree with John Gardner’s notion that fiction must be moral. In an interview with Sara Mathiessen, Gardner said, “A truly moral book is one that is radically open to persuasion, but looks hard at a problem, and keeps looking for answers. . . . I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing.”
In my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, I wanted to explore, by means of story (as differentiated from journalism, philosophy, or memoir) the question of whether and how people who are marginalized somehow can find their way into a community that cares about them. What does it take? Who needs to be involved? What works, what doesn’t? I didn’t want to pose that question “out loud,” as I would in an essay or a non-fiction study, but rather to tell a story about real people, and to tell it as honestly as I could. That way, my readers have the freedom to be affected by the book in whatever way and at whatever level they respond to it. If even one reader is moved to consider the plight of abandoned teenagers after reading Climbing, the world is a little better for it.
A great experience with a novel, I’ll claim, can be as life-changing as an auto accident or a serious illness, as falling in love, as the birth of a child. In John Gardner’s words, moral fiction offers readers a vision of life “that is worth pursuing.” One life at a time. One of the many challenges of fine writing – fiction or not – is to tell stories that embody that vision of the life worth pursuing.
As the Talmudic rabbis put it, “we are not obligated to complete the work, nor are we free to abandon it.”