The Last Word: E.L. Doctorow

(The following is an article in the July-August 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. Award-winning novelist E.L. Doctorow discusses the role of fiction and storytelling. You can read the issue in its entirety here.) 

E.L. Doctorow. Photo by Gasper Tringale.

E.L. Doctorow. Photo by Gasper Tringale.

The story is the most ancient way of knowing. It preceded writing. It is the world’s first system for collecting and transmitting knowledge. It antedates all the empirical disciplines of a modern society. For millennia, it was the only thing people had.

In the Bronze and Iron ages purely factual discourse did not exist. There was no learned observation of the natural world that was not religious belief, no history that was not legend, no practical information that did not resound as heightened language. Science, poetry, the law and daily speech were fused. The world was a story.

From their first telling, stories were a means of survival; they were as essential as a spear or a club; they instructed the young, they connected the present to the past, and the visible to the invisible. They distributed the suffering so that it could be borne.

Stories are still a means of survival. As the channels of communication round the world fall into fewer and fewer corporate or government hands, the unaffiliated young writer’s witness is a trustworthy form of knowledge.

The publication of measured aesthetically worked fictions from the configured voices of writers is one way a nation composes its identity. Every story, every poem, if created honestly, with regard for a felt truth, contributes to a consensual reality, so that with each generation we may know who we are and what we’re up to.

Writers appear unbidden out of nowhere. Society does not give them credentials as it does doctors or lawyers or engineers. A writer may choose to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree, but that is more of a salute and wish of good luck than a license to practice. The writer’s only credential is self-conferred.

The writer of fiction stands outside the assemblage of experts that organizes the intellectual life of a society. Expert in nothing, the writer is not ruled by any one vocabulary and so is free to utilize any of them. He can write as a scientist, a theologian. He can be a philosopher or a pornographer. She can write as a journalist, a psychiatrist, an historian. She can, if she chooses, render the drugged hallucinations of poor mad souls in the streets. All of it counts, every vocabulary has equal value in the writer’s eyes, nothing is excluded.

In biblical times the writer’s inspiration was attributed to God. The modern writer understands that the writing of stories is itself empowering, that a sentence spun from the imagination confers
a heightened awareness, or degree of perception or acuity; that a sentence composed with the strictest attention to fact, does not. And so the knowledge we glean from a story may be unlike any other. The modern fictive voice continues to sound the world and find its meanings.

E.L. Doctorow will receive the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction at the Library’s 2014 National Book Festival this Saturday, Aug. 30.

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