Like any sensible person, the Outsideists regard fiction as a dangerous bioweapon. By exploiting the human affinity for mimesis (imitation of life), fiction ensnares the captive mind inside someone else’s imaginary network of meaning – and the further into that web the mind crawls, the more distanced it becomes from the Outside world…supposedly. Of course, any Outsideist worth their slime knows the truth is not so simple.
To acknowledge that requires acknowledging something very obvious but perhaps worth stating – no-one actually exists Outside themselves. Your own Inside brain is the filter for absolutely everything you perceive, regardless of how Outsidey it is; it all has to come Into you first.
Which means that existing entirely Inside doesn’t make fiction different from any other apparatus of thinking. It can close you In or encourage you Out as easily as the next. But the ways in which it can do this are complex and insidious. Here is an overview of three.
- To begin at the most basic feature, becoming “immersed” (as some might put it) in a story is an act of escapism. It would be foolish to decry escapism; people need it as a matter of mental health. But for a story to enable ‘escape’ from the real world, it must by necessity create a world that is separate from the real. By surrounding ourselves in that non-real world, we temporarily block out the Call from Outside; a bit like covering the interior of your mental space with vast rolls of Wallpaper to obscure the cracks. And then hanging up more and more decorations.
- A story can shine a light on something in material reality, opening you up to facts and aspects of the Outside world by way of incorporating them into a narrative. This is what we might call a Window constructed within your mental space.
- (If the facts are bullshit, and the representation of the real world is fraudulent, it can instead be called a False Window – a bit like someone’s done a realistic painting of a window on the surface of your Wallpaper, to fool you into thinking you have a view of the beyond. But that’s another matter.)
- And lastly, there are stories that turn your gaze inward, and ask you to look not at the world beyond but at yourself. When a story probes the human consciousness, questions what it means to be human, analyses (supposedly) universal parts of the human experience, or even simply reflects you as the reader, it’s a bit like it’s placing a Mirror in your mental living room. (Of course, not all mirrors are spotless…this analogy goes to great pains to accommodate bad writing.)
There’s an ever-present danger in Wallpaper, and it’s that it’s for looking at rather than looking beyond. It doesn’t, by itself, push us anywhere or give us anything outside our existing frame of reference. The decorations can be stunningly attractive and absorbing, meticulous in their craft – so much so that perhaps we don’t realise we’re going nowhere. Some narratives do nothing but reinforce what we’re already used to thinking; frame it and display it back to us for our approval, as we luxuriate in our personal status quo.
A Mirror is a bit like a window, but one through which we look at ourselves as if we were an outsider. If we probe into what we see there, we are digging into ourselves, burying inwards. And at the very least, that’s going somewhere. If we dig inwards, we find buried things – new realisations, new inspirations, new material for synthesis and development. Although there’s perhaps a limit.
A Window, of course, enables us to cast our gaze outwards – and it does so inside a neat little constructed frame, with some protective glass to keep out the atmosphere and the grit. Look but don’t touch. And what any Outsideist will stress to you here is that Outside doesn’t just mean the facts of the physical world; it also means the facts of what other people have Inside them, and empathy. We don’t just look out to see a front garden, we look out to see an explosive constellation of other people’s worlds. Sometimes, a Window is there to show us imaginary things we really couldn’t have imagined by ourselves.
(And since there’s a range of things that can be seen through a Window, perhaps we need to be selective. No good staring out of a window just so you can stare at someone else’s wallpaper that’s the same as yours…or covered in False Windows. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
A piece of fiction is like a blueprint for laying out this interior mental space, with a mixture of wallpaper, decorations, windows and mirrors in a complex arrangement.
One peculiar effect of this analogy is that, with its broad definition of what counts as a Window, it conveniently collapses certain instances of wildly inventive sci-fi and fantasy into the same bunk as certain instances of historical or research-based realist fiction. Not a problem for the Outsideists, of course, whose 16th commandment is ‘Recognise the power of the fictions we create’ (see: The Outsideist Commandments). Challenging one’s own imagination to reach unknown heights is just as important as challenging one’s understanding of the real world with outside testimony. For as much as we need the latter to reveal to us what the problem is, we need the former to help us imagine a new solution.
Outsideists are also inclusive of the Mirror, although with slightly less vigour. While it serves a productive function, it can sometimes be at risk of allowing the reader to become self-absorbed if it doesn’t share the room with some Windows. Too many a reader has been so surrounded by Mirrors that they became detached from Outside altogether and lost in a spiral of self-indulgent psycho-wank.
But the feature that the Outsideists surely have the most love-hate relationship with is that confounding Wallpaper. It doesn’t have to be a problem – some readers are committed enough to the Outside already that they don’t need their fiction to blow open any holes. And as mentioned above, some readers need it purely to give them some kind of solace. But in a world where fictions are sold and promoted and streamed into our every orifice by culture, non-stop, it becomes too easy for tired, complacency-breeding Wallpaper-centric narratives to take hold in the minds of masses. (These are the most insidious bioweapons, the ones that trap our minds without us realising. They give us mimesis. They give us catharsis. They keep us satisfied.) Which makes it all the more important for the Outsideists to identify and support the Window-creating works that advance their ultimate goal of empathy – expansion – transformation.
There is potential for a future post discussing the different kinds of decorations (including False Windows) that can be found attached to Wallpaper, as well as the different ways in which we see out of a Window. (In other words, stretching the analogy to its thinnest in order to discuss theories of how fiction and drama operate.) But now is not the time.
The only remaining question is – why do the Outsideists need eccentric analogies and unusual words for absolutely every discussion?
The closest thing to an answer I can give is: think of them as a Window.