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The joy of writing that book—and the risk of it—was in the uncertainty. I was not, myself, an immigrant. Could I make the reader believe in the imaginary people I placed in these fictional situations?

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Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the reader. Novels are machines for falsely generating belief and they succeed or fail on that basis. And many a reader must surely have turned from White Teeth in exactly the same spirit. I could fail to make my reader believe, but with the understanding that the belief for which fiction aims is of a very strange kind when we recall that everything in a novel is, by definition, not true.

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What, then, do we mean by it? How does she know? Because, as it happens, she herself is X type of person. Or she knows because she has spent a great deal of time researching X type of person, and this novel is the consequence of her careful research.

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Similar arguments can be found in the interviews of professional writers. As if, armed with our collection of facts about what an X type of person feels, is, and does, always and everywhere, a writer could hope to bypass the intimate judgment of a reader, which happens sentence by sentence, moment by moment.

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  5. Is it this judgment we fear? It happens between one reader and one writer. What do I have in common with Olive Kitteridge, a salty old white woman who has spent her entire life in Maine? And yet, as it turns out, her griefs are like my own. Not all of them. But what passed between me and Olive was not nothing. I am fascinated to presume, as a reader, that many types of people, strange to me in life, might be revealed, through the intimate space of fiction, to have griefs not unlike my own. And so I read. But reading seems to be easier to defend than writing. Writing is a far larger act of presumption.

    How can such things possibly be claimed absolutely, unless we already have some form of fixed caricature in our minds? Because to be such a self is to be afforded all possible human potentialities, not only a circumscribed few. But perhaps I am asking the question the wrong way round. The counterargument would be that when it comes to presumption, we are in far less danger of error when writer and subject are as alike as possible. The risk of containment is the risk of false knowledge being presented as truth—it is the risk of caricature.

    Those who are unlike us have a long and dismal history of trying to contain us in false images. And so—the argument runs—if we are to be contained by language, let that language at least be our own. In an ideal world, one way to mitigate the problem of false containment would be with variety. Rabbit Angstrom was not the white man.

    Equally rational is the assumption that those who are like us will at least take care with their depictions, and will be motivated by love and intimate knowledge instead of prejudice and phobia. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, writing by women, and by oppressed minorities of all kinds, has wondrously expanded the literary landscape, ennobling griefs that had, historically, either passed unnoticed or been brutally suppressed and caricatured. But in our justified desire to level or even obliterate the old power structures—to reclaim our agency when it comes to the representation of selves—we can, sometimes, forget the mystery that lies at the heart of all selfhood.

    Of what a self may contain that is both unseen and ultimately unknowable.

    What is the difference between "fiction" and "nonfiction"?

    Of what invisible griefs we might share, over and above our many manifest and significant differences. We also forget what writers are: people with voices in our heads and a great deal of inappropriate curiosity about the lives of others. This is my family. My neighborhood. My body. My reality. Fiction, as a mode, shared this love and interest but always with the twist of, well, fiction. It was always interested not only in how things are but also in how things might be otherwise. I once wrote a novel about an imaginary, multihyphenated British-Jewish-Chinese boy.

    It was love and interest that motivated me, but my love and interest was located in the other. In my case, love of and interest in Judaism and Buddhism—two systems of thought in which I have no birthright. But also deep curiosity about this imagined person, Alex-Li, whose voice I had in my head. Alex-Li is a weird, nerdy, obsessive, melancholy type of guy.

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    But he is a part of my soul. And fiction is one of the few places left on this earth where a crazy sentence like that makes any sense at all. In the spirit of Kafka, he barely represents himself. He cannot defend himself from that accusation—and it would be out of character for him to try. But if even one person happens to come across him and find that his feelings and their own have a similar weight, then he will have completed his absurd fictional role in this world.

    They carry the same risk: being wrong.

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    Maybe we only think of it as containment when it goes wrong. The textbook example is Madame Bovary. I am one of those women readers, and yet there are many moments in Madame Bovary when I feel the presence of a masculine consciousness behind it all, as I do when I read Anna Karenina. Which is to say the mapping of self to other that Flaubert and Tolstoy attempted is not perfect.

    But it is not nothing. Anna Karenina has meant as much to me as any imaginary woman could. And I, along with generations of women readers, have wondered: How could a man know so much of us? But the mystery is not so mysterious. Husbands know a great deal about wives, after all, and wives about husbands.

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    Lovers know each other. Brothers know a lot about sisters and vice versa. Muslims and Christians and Jews know one another, or think they do. Our social and personal lives are a process of continual fictionalization, as we internalize the other-we-are-not, dramatize them, imagine them, speak for them and through them. The accuracy of this fictionalization is never guaranteed, but without an ability to at least guess at what the other might be thinking, we could have no social lives at all.

    One of the things fiction did is make this process explicit—visible. All storytelling is the invitation to enter a parallel space, a hypothetical arena, in which you have imagined access to whatever is not you. And if fiction had a belief about itself, it was that fiction had empathy in its DNA , that it was the product of compassion. Compassion is largely a quality of the imagination: it consists of the ability to imagine what we would feel if we were suffering the same situation. This was what fiction believed about itself, but like all beliefs not a little of it was always wishful thinking.