On January 18th, I had occasion to chair a meeting of Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest chapter while chapter Prez Julie Hyzy met with MWA bigwigs in New York. Our guest speaker, Daniel P. Smith, is a freelance journalist and author. Smith said he got the idea for his book from a ride-along he’d done with his police officer brother. One of the first calls of the tour was a homicide, a man shot by his 17 year old stepson. The scene had a transforming effect on Dan. He and his brother spent the rest of the shift searching for the shooter, leaving to Dan wonder how officers deal with their feelings when they have almost no downtime between calls. The result of that wondering was On The Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department.
After the meeting, Dan stayed for an impromptu discussion with—among others—authors Sam Reaves, Tom Keavers and Centuries and Sleuths owners Augie and Tracy Aleksy. One of the subjects that arose was why we write fiction when real stories are so compelling and exciting.
A consensus seemed to be that we write fiction because we love justice and closure—things life rarely gives us between the parentheses of birth and death. In fiction we can explain the inexplicable, weave in all the stray threads, punish the guilty, and reward virtue and bravery and cleverness in ways that rarely occur in life. Fiction has a beginning, a middle and an end. Usually. Fiction enables us to know our heroes and our lovers far more intimately than in real life—don’t writers usually provide us with their thoughts and feelings, uncensored in moments of peril and loss?
Our discussion left me thinking about the subject the next day, and I recalled a philosophy course I took in college. The instructor told us that no one—this was forty years ago, mind you—writes philosophy any more, at least not the way Plato and Hegel and Marx did. Today’s philosophers are writing novels, plays and movies. (And, yeah, essays on in the commentary pages of news papers and publications like the New Yorker. But who reads those?) Modern mainstream philosophers are telling it like it is in fiction, unhampered by the need to be fair or to get the facts right. My instructor assigned J.B. by Archibald McLeish, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, and Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ. I hadn’t thought about that class in many years, but the instructor was right, I think. He may not have anticipated blogs, and perhaps bloggers are today’s philosophers, but blogs are so ubiquitous and diverse that most serve specialized and largely convinced audiences. The big time philosophies are still being advanced by art.
That’s my take. What’s yours? Whose ideas are you listening to? Any straight philosophers we should know about? Where do we find them?