Citing a recent news item relating bizarre human behavior, Peter Kerry Porter at his blog Read, Write, Now writes:
. . .one looks at this stuff published daily and has to say helplessly that Dickens and O’Connor and Faulkner have nothing on this. Stephen King could do no better in calling up the bizarre extremes of human existence. No wonder contemporary readers have little taste for fiction, and novelists feel compelled to present their fictions as spurious memoir. With a world as it already is beyond all imagining, what role for the writer who wants to imagine what is not.
This is remeniscent of Philip Roth's essay from the early 1960s in which he too lamented the fact that truth is often stranger than fiction:
. . .the American writer. . .has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of Amerian reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
There is certainly much truth in these observations, and if we conceive of the fiction writer's task as one by which the writer depicts a set of characters and events that transcend ordinary reality in their extremity, evokes a landscape that strikes us as intensely strange yet still faithful to "actuality," then perhaps fiction cannot compete with reality. But is this the writer's task? Should fiction be in competition with reality in a search for the "bizarre extremes of human existence"?
In its way, the notion that fiction should be engaged in such a search only reinforces the underlying idea that realism is the novel's natural mode, that the novel exists to "record" reality, even if it is reality in its most outrageous manifestations. If William Dean Howells believed that the novel provided an opportunity to record the ordinary course of human reality, the 21st century realist may choose to portray that reality through its outliers, its most outlandish displays of human behavior, but the goal, to re-present "reality" as it is lived (by someone), remains the same. Peter qualifies his own conclusions about the difficulty of the writer's job by adding that "Imagination isn’t just an effort to invoke the extreme, but to shape it, to tame it to a tale," but while this begins to consider the art involved in fiction's confrontation with reality ("to shape it"), it finally equates that art with pruning and trimming, with taking the edge off reality (or maybe sharpening it) rather than creating something new--an addition to reality rather than a meticulously groomed version of it.
All fiction begins in reality--where else could it begin?--but why must it end merely in offering a plausible version of "real life"? Is the goal of writing fiction to lure back those readers so obsessed with the superficial appearance of reality that they've turned to memoir? Writers of fiction ought to take the opportunity to transfigure and re-imagine the real rather than just describe it. More than that, they should be seeking out fresh ways of using language to invoke the real, fresh ways of making language itself up to the task of engaging with all levels of "human existence." The writer's job is to "imagine what is not" first of all in imagining what words can do that they haven't yet been made to do.