Fiction and trauma

October 23, 2019

Part 5 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview.

The next claim, by Chad Grills, I found completely bizarre:

I completely agree, because I think a lot of fiction is created (and authors don’t want to acknowledge this) but fiction, the most popular kinds especially, are created when an author is, whether they know it or not, they basically are trying to resolve traumas in their past.

And they don’t want to talk about this, but it’s clearly the case that, if you have anyone who’s trained the least bit in psychology, they can look at fiction and basically see what that person was struggling with or where they’ve been hurt or where they’ve been abused. And this is great that the author was able to process that in a healthy way and turn it into art.

However it’s not so clear if it’s great for millions and millions of people to read this. Maybe it’s therapeutic for them. I tend to think that’s why books like Harry Potter are therapeutic; it’s because the author was trying to work through something through fantasy and many other people had to work through something similar. However, I think the risks of fiction go unacknowledged.

If I understand him correctly, he is saying:

  1. A lot of fiction is written as a direct result of abuse or trauma.
  2. Often authors won’t acknowledge — or don’t know themselves — that this is why they are writing.
  3. Psychologists, on the other hand, can read fiction and easily recognise evidence of abuse in the author’s past.
  4. It might be good for the author to turn their trauma into art.
  5. But it’s bad for the general population to be exposed to this process.

I have so many problems with this.

The first claim seems to be saying that all stories are told as a result of trauma, which seems ludicrously reductive. Fiction, particularly if you extend it to all forms of storytelling, is capable of telling basically any story. A story of trauma, told from first-person experience? Absolutely. But once again, fiction can tell any story.

Now, it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a lot of dark fiction out of there, and that it can sometimes be extremely tempting to ascribe authorial experience to events. Is All for Nothing written as a result of trauma? It would be hard to argue that it wasn’t. The evacuation of East Prussia was extraordinarily traumatic, and the author was a child during the war. (Though equally he catalogued ten volumes of the suffering of others in the decades after the war, so one should still be cautious about how much trauma to impute to his personal experience.)

Dostoevsky? I’m with you. He writes such explicit passages of child abuse that they are difficult to ignore, difficult at times even to stomach. One is often left to wonder what he, the author, went through. But I would argue that we should resist the temptation to reflect too long on this, precisely because it’s reductive, and because the best fiction aims at universals. Whatever happened to little Fyodor — I would say in final analysis that it’s irrelevant — he left something of profound value behind.

And what about light, happy fiction? What about The Enchanted April? It seems more plausible to say that it’s written as a result of a rather enjoyable holiday than that it’s written as a result of trauma. Unless you count mild dissatisfaction with a comfortable bourgeois existence (depicted at the start of the novel) as “trauma” that the author needed to work through.

You could argue that there needs to be some kind of highs and lows in fiction, requiring conflict, learning, and goals. But does this amount to trauma? Does it not amount to a description of life?

The second claim — that authors don’t know why they are really writing — is just insulting. A novel takes at least a year, more commonly three, and sometimes eight or more to write, even by consummate masters. I won’t deny that authors will vary in their levels of introspection into why they are writing, but I think it’s at best uncharitable to assume that most of these people, during these three or six or ten years, haven’t thought about their own motivations more than any outsider has.

I disagree with the third claim too, that anyone with any psychological training can easily psychoanalyse someone (once again, from their fiction), and ascribe root causes in the author’s life. See, for example, this Sally Rooney interview in which she discusses how reductive it is to assume that all fiction is autobiographical.

For the fourth claim — that fiction is a good way to work through trauma — I don’t disagree that it can be, I just disagree that that’s automatically what it is. I can’t see why fiction (or any other form of art) could not be used as therapy. But to ascribe a therapeutic purpose to most examples of fiction seems perverse.

Fiction is a broad endeavour which many different people undertake for many different reasons. Storytelling is a human universal, a bit like physical movement. It would be like saying that when you see people exercise, a lot of them are just exercising because they suffered trauma. Also, they are too stupid to know that this is why they’re exercising, but if a psychologist watched them, it would be obvious to that psychologist that this was what was going on. Also, watching marathons (longform exercise) is bad for society. Maybe that’s taking it a bit far but you see the point, about warning against something (storytelling) that people do in some form every day.

The fifth claim, that fiction can be morally problematic, I addressed last time.

I’m somewhat curious about how one could arrive at such a reductive view, but I’ll resist the temptation to psychoanalyse the maker of this claim. I should also say that I have nothing against writing as a way of recording or working through trauma. And the cliché of the tortured artist can be hard to avoid altogether. Still, I don’t think trauma can fairly be called the root cause of “most” fiction.

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Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.