In the twelfth part of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Katie Collins reflects on the transgressive nature of Social Science Fiction.
I’m doing a creative writing workshop at the moment, and while my fellow writers intrigue me with the fragments of fictional lives they create from the brief prompts, all I can do, however hard I try, is turn the same starting points into what someone called “an interesting mix of poetry and philosophy”. I can’t tell a tale, but I love to try and make words perform ideas in illegitimate texts.
I can’t make up stories even when there are props. A miniature pair of glasses, like the ones John Lennon and Ghandi wore. A miniature candlestick, a small square yellow sponge, a white cardboard circle and a navy blue elastic hairband. The first thing I wanted to do, I don’t know why, is put the circle inside the hairband. It took some fiddling, but I made it fit. Was this a strategy to give me more time to make up my story? It might have been, but instead of using my hands to distract the others while I fleshed out my idea, I just focused all my attention on making the hairband fit around the circle, and stay in place. And when I had succeeded, I still didn’t know what story to tell. A shoelace, a child’s red building block, a wooden lollypop stick; a small circular red rubbery object with fronds like a sea anemone. And a fifth object I cannot recall, even though my memory of such things is usually visual and usually perfect. His story was basic and simple: the shoelace became a lake, the block an island. The plastic anemone became a hedgehog that went for a walk every day around the lake, swum to the island and went home to his girlfriend, the lollypop stick. I still can’t remember what that fifth object was.
Later, reflecting, I wondered if I could write a basic story right then, with nobody watching and plenty of time. The sponge could wear the glasses. Actually now I recall trying to make the sponge wear the glasses as they watched, more displacement perhaps, but sponges have no ears so the glasses wouldn’t stay in place. The sponge could be Ghandi, or Obi Wan Kenobi with a candlestick light sabre. Bespectacled Obi Wan could go to the shops and buy a Frisbee, represented by the carefully combined cardboard hairband circle. No. Even now, I cannot create a story that satisfies me; I can only wonder why making up a meaningless narrative was significant. As my fingers tap across the keyboard, forming these words, I think about my childhood self. Did I make up stories then? I can’t remember any, though I have clear and vivid memories of making worlds. I remember being captivated by a game about horses, in which I wanted everyone to work out the details of their horse names, their colouring and life history. After a while, my playmates wandered off, frustrated. They just wanted to run about making horse noises having horse adventures. Where’s the fun in that?
I am very good at noticing things though. The other day there was a bright pink balloon on the river, bobbing in front of a jetty. As I walked closer I become absorbed in the mystery flash of neon, out of place in the rusty water’s metallic sparkle, trying to work out if it was a balloon or a buoy. The wind was working against the river, the balloon-buoy’s movement almost too lazy to see. It wasn’t tethered, it merely inched along, the ripples of current appearing to have no effect. Things that are out of place, moving to a different tempo, always fascinate me; perhaps I see kindred spirits there.
In history, I am reliably informed, there is a fine line between research and fiction. In social science though, the mainstream opinion seems to be that we do not need to, indeed we should not fictionalise, because look, here, all around us are the people living the social life we are interested in. Let’s talk to them, observe them, immerse ourselves in their culture or write autobiographically about our own. Our quest is to find out the answers not to make them up.
Of course, readers of this blog know very well that things are not so simple. But then, why does social science fiction seem so transgressive and destabilising? Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Douglas Adams. Literary writers fictionalise their analysis of social life, so there doesn’t seem to be anything terribly revolutionary about sociologists attempting to do it. Except, there is something pretty revolutionary about writing fiction and calling it science. And it is a very strange thing to try and do. Perhaps because non-fictional lives don’t quite slot into place in a way that creates a satisfying narrative, they seem to break the rules of the sorts of stories people find rewarding to read.
In ‘real life’ there are plenty of loaded rifles on stage that no one fires. LikeAnita Brookner’s Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac, which I read and enjoyed when I was about 15, despite nothing much happening other than the gentle, witty admonishment that the assumptions one might make about other people based on brief observations are probably a bit off, but which a disappointed Amazon reviewer was frustrated that “nothing of note” happens, leading to story that is “dire, dull and dreary beyond belief”. Thinking about the rules of storytelling according to Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats, sociology might need to break a great number of them.