Pants on Fire

“LIFE,” ACCORDING TO the novelist Robert Stone, “is a means of extracting fiction.” It’s a good line—short and catchy, yet possessed of a certain profundity. We like it enough that we’ve used it in advertisements for our fiction competition, the Tamarack Award, over the past couple of years. As with many aphorisms, though, its air of pithiness has the side effect of making you not really think about it very much. If you’re a writer, you may ask yourself, in passing, Geez, why am I unable to dispense gravitas in such handy nuggets? And if you’re a dentist, plumber, coal miner—a person engaged in some other type of extraction—you may just think, Yeah, whatever, or Hey, Stone, get over yourself.

Whether an artist of any kind can, or should, get over himself is a question for another day. What I want to talk about for the moment is whether we—Minnesotans, Americans, average Joes and Josies—know what fiction is anymore or appreciate what it can do. I mean, I studied it in grad school and sometimes I feel I don’t have a clue. I think we all understand that a fiction can mean either (a) an individual work of story-telling or (b) a lie, a trumped-up pretext, a serious load of crapola. We understand that we’re surrounded by fictions of the latter variety at all times, whether they’re perpetrated by politicians, business big shots, marketers, or E-Z-weight-loss gurus. We’ve grown so accustomed to this atmosphere of bad fiction (and when I say bad I’m referring to its intentions; much of it is brilliantly executed) that we’ve come to believe that any sort of class-(a) fiction is somehow bad: dishonest, evasive, craven, not ballsy enough to stare into the money-, ego-, and/or meth-crazed eyes of “real” reality.

We’ve become awfully simplistic in our fictive thinking. As a result, we get books like A Million Little Pieces, and Oprah Winfrey gets very upset. She chastised James Frey on national TV for writing fiction and calling it fact—but if he’d called his book a novel, it would never have been published. That’s what you call a real Catch-22. Hey, wasn’t that a novel once?

We’ve been running the Tamarack Award since 1986 because we believe that good fiction is the polar opposite of falsehood; because publishing good fiction is one of the best uses of ink and paper we can think of; and because if life is going to be about extracting something, well, better stories than shrapnel.

THIS WILL BE my last column in this space. Beginning next month, I’ll be on the masthead as a contributing editor rather than as the blue-penciler-in-chief. In my new capacity, I plan to stop by toward the end of every month, give everything a quick glance, and say things like “It’s none of my business, but I think you left out a comma there” and “Well, that’s not how I used to do it, but I’m sure you guys know best” until I’m pelted with staplers and driven from the building. The rest of the time I’ll be at home, performing extractions. Wish me luck. MM

Jeff Johnson