It is odd to me how conventional thought and identity are represented in fiction. Most literary magazines and most literary fiction generally present a highly conventional sense of identity on the part of the humans that are in the stories. These humans stream-of-thought sounds similar (to us). The way they interact with the world is similar (to us). Even the larger structures such as plot assume certain motivations and actions (that we can relate to). As readers we expect these conventions to be in place.
Anyone who reads I suspect is either fitting their encounter with actual people into these conventional molds, or the are, as I am, happily confused by the strangeness of other people. In my case fiction, even naturalistic fiction, is as realistic as high-fantasy. The sympathetic narrator is as alien to me as an elf.
Someone else is an exercise in don’t think of an elephant. If someone else tells you they exist, they do. In John Olson’s book, The Nothing That Is, the second person narrator says:
You try to image what it must be to be dead, to be non-existent, but you cannot, because non-existence means there is no identity to feel anything, no body, no nerves, no mind, nothing. You cannot quite wrap your mind around your own non-existence.
In Julian Jaynes book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes proposes a model of a nearly unintelligible — to the contemporary mind — kind of collective consciousness. His particular model doesn’t hold, but the underlying observation does hold to me: consciousness is not a universal system that follows a strict procedural logic; any adjustment to the underlying parameters can radically alter the system of consciousness into unrecognizable forms.
The results of these reconfigurations are all around us. Extreme versions are pathological (and are actually dangerous) such as sociopaths. But I would argue that the result is a spectrum and that the only person who conforms completely to our model of how people out to be is actually a sociopath mimicking and performing widely held norms. Yet these norms are a lie, untrue, a fiction.
And yet the reader of literary fiction often says of a book, “But people don’t behave that way. They just don’t. I am an expert in Who is a Who and these Whos are not Whos because there is nothing redeeming about these characters.” This is said as if the reader is reading books to collect redemptions like empty glass bottles they can exchange for nickels.
In literary fiction where we are taught what people are and how they behave in a consistent collection of sounds and burps and motivations. Literary fiction is hopelessly conservative. Characters should behave in such a way. They should want something. They should find a moment in which all can be gained, and all can be lost. The first thing we do as readers, typically, is sit down to a book and want to be told a story, but more often we also want to be told a story that affirms the model of whom we think we should be and whom people should be.
Even modest adjustments to the language to reflect the multiplicity of realities encountered by individuals who are not us, such as trans-positive pronouns (for those who are not trans), lead to conservative backlashes. “But using they for a single person is so very, very confusing…
Literary fiction is not the cause of this reaction, but it surely provides training wheels in our education of how to conform. And fiction — you know made up stuff — does not have to be that way.