People speak so much more preposterously in real life than in fiction. I used to write fictional dialogues for college students. Though I presented the dialogues as fictional, most were at least influenced by actual conversations, and a few of them were very nearly transcripts. Here is what I discovered. Whenever I made up a conversation from nothing but air and imagination, readers tended to assume that it had really taken place. Often they resisted when I explained that it hadn’t. (I’m told soap opera actors have this problem.) But whenever I set down a near-transcript, a dialogue based with almost literal accuracy on a conversation which had actually transpired, readers emailed to complain. Certain kinds of readers were more vociferous than others: “Atheists don’t talk like that.” I had to add fantastic touches to the most transcript-like dialogues even to get people to accept them as good fiction.
So I don’t expect to be believed, but let me tell you about Standish Wanhope. That’s not his name, but this is what he really said.
We had two conversations. Both of them took place at a roundtable conference for scholars. The conference theme was something and liberty. All of the organization’s conference themes are something and liberty, but each time the something is different. I believe this time the something was John Locke and Pierre Bayle, but perhaps that was a different conference.
They are very good conferences, if you like very intense moderated discussion among several dozen people for hours on end, based on a common set of readings arranged in advance. Participants also share meals. My first conversation with Standish took place at the opening dinner. Since we were seated alongside each other, it was natural that we chat. His opening was unconventionally direct, and a little surreal. “Hello. I’m Standish Wanhope. I’m an atheist.”
Atheists don’t talk like that. Yes, so they tell me. This one did. Only one other person has ever introduced himself to me that way: “I’m Lawrence, and I’m gay.” Gay people don’t talk like that either. So I’ve heard. Never mind. Standish was straight, but he wanted me to know right up front that he was an atheist.
Why? I think he just wanted me to know. And he wanted to argue about it. He was like a friendly but aggressive and highly territorial dog, lifting his leg every few seconds to mark the boundaries of his conversational territory. The whole conversation was scented with this maneuver. I found in short order that his ethical philosophy was based on Darwin, that he had taught at a Catholic college, and that he “had fun ruining all the Catholic kids” -- his very words. I felt as though he were boasting of deflowering them.
Our conversation wasn’t promising. Picking up on his comment about Darwinism, I asked Standish what he thought of the arguments for intelligent design. He admitted that he hadn’t read them, but proceeded to lecture me about why they were wrong. To top off the lecture, he recommended what he said was a good critique.
I found him patronizing, he found me dull. It was a relief when the conference organizers stood up and went into their spiel.
We didn’t speak personally again until the closing dinner of the conference at a restaurant near the hotel. This time the content and style of his conversation were strangely different. He seemed another person.
Next week, how this was so.