But seriously, folks…

Maybe I ought to take my writing more seriously. I mean, I care about my characters, and I certainly care about writing as well as I can, but I seldom devote a moment’s thought to the notion that the story I’m telling has any deep significance. Still less do I imagine or hope that it will have any impact on the world at large.

I started asking myself this question as a result of some random reading I’ve been doing lately. It started with a biography of composer Lou Harrison. Harrison’s passion for music and his commitment to it are inspiring, and they’re very unlike anything I experience as a part of my own artistic processes.

And then I brought home from the library a few books of essays. Judith Thurman, whom I had never heard of, writes for The New Yorker. Her collection Cleopatra’s Nose opens with a study of performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, whom I had never heard of either. Beecroft has apparently fashioned a successful career out of doing very strange things, some of which are photographed. It’s hard to imagine that, anywhere but in the hothouse art world of New York, Beecroft would be seen as anything but a crank — possibly a harmless crank, or possibly not harmless.

And then there’s Allen Ginsberg’s long exegesis of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I’ve only read a few pages so far; I may get back to it. The point is, Ginsberg takes Whitman seriously. He traces connections between Whitman’s poetry and the deepest pools of the human soul, if you believe in a soul, or of human experience if you don’t.

What all of these artists have in common is New York. (Harrison was a Californian, but as a young man he spent a few years in New York, where he made important contacts and had a nervous breakdown.) I suppose New York must rub off on you. I’ve never been there. I can imagine young artists in New York thinking, implicitly or perhaps explicitly, “I’m in The Place, and I’m doing The Thing.” Anywhere else, and especially in the wilds of suburbia, the best one is likely to do is, “I’m in a place, and I’m doing a thing.” Indefinite articles, no caps.

What would it be like, to take one’s novel-in-progress with that level of seriousness? Would I sit hunched over the word processor far into the night, huddled in a pool of lamplight while the raccoons prowl in the yard outside my window? Would my characters be more eloquent, or more strange, or more obsessed with their own strangeness? Do I dare to eat a peach?

It’s a delicate question. One doesn’t want the novel to be sucked into its own navel and disappear. It’s just a story, after all. People have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years. Why should I imagine that mine be worthy of any particular note — and would I be making a mistake by thinking that it might be, or that I could steer it in that direction?

A steer is a castrated bull. Maybe trying to steer would be asking for trouble.

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5 Responses to But seriously, folks…

  1. I believe a book is much more than the story. have you ever finished a really great book and said “it was just a story, after all”?

  2. midiguru says:

    By definition, a novel (great or dismal, it matters not) is just a story. With the possible exception of Moby-Dick, I suppose, which was also a treatise on whaling. One’s reaction on finishing reading has no relation to that basic fact.

    • You are off the subject here I believe. The subject of your post and my comment is not the definition of “novel”, but if you should take your writing more seriously. My point is that by telling “it’s just a story” you may be setting the bar too low.

      • midiguru says:

        I see what you’re getting at, thanks for clarifying. The series of novels I’m working on (still, seemingly forever) started out as genre fiction — a YA adventure. But it has outgrown that concept, certainly in length and complexity and perhaps in tone as well. Once it a while it occurs to me that I’m perpetrating literature. I don’t think anyone who had watched my work process would say I don’t take my writing seriously, but even a good genre fiction writer does that. I think the dividing line is that I’ve never been educated as to the qualities and aspirations of literature. As I read, I’m occasionally aware of how literary authors are doing things, but I’m sure I miss a lot. Also, I’m wary of being pretentious. It’s hard enough just to tell a good story!

  3. Thanks for clarifying.
    I see literature as a higher form of storytelling, but there are not clear dividing lines in my opinion – drawing such lines could indeed be pretentious.

    I’m not very familiar with the requirements and limitations of genre fiction. Though I have read crime novels (by Jim Thomson for example) that In my opinion go beyond “telling a crime story”; they are told exceptionally and touch the reader in many levels. Hey, even Crime and Punishment could be categorized as crime fiction. Agatha Christie on the other hand has never surprised me with the way she told a story, never touched my soul – and she couldn’t care less.

    I think the question is what you really care (or can) to give your reader. In which ways you want to surprise him pleasantly and engage him. There is no good or bad decision and it is all yours.

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