Answering a question and thinking out loud

A friend of mine recently posed a series of interesting questions on his blog and, rather than hijack his space, I want to take a look at the big one in some detail (spoiler alert: don't expect any definitive answers):

"Am I really asking what makes great literature great and, if so, what makes great literature great?"

What makes literature great? That's a heck of a question. It's not a new one by any means, but that does't mean it's not worth reconsidering from time to time. My knee-jerk reaction is that you know it when you see it, but that's a cop-out. How do you know it? What about it makes you recognize greatness in literature?

Thinking about this has led me to wander over to Wikipedia, where I ran across the idea of "literary theory." I'll grant that my understanding of literary theory is shallow beyond measurement, but I'm pretty sure that it's not an approach I want to take when addressing this question. 

Instead, I'll start with looking at a list of great literature. For no compelling reason other than the fact that I need to start somewhere, let's look at The 100 Best Novels Written in English, as per Robert McCrum. At this point, there is a pause in my writing as I've gone off to look over the list and then look over it again. Thanks to the magic of text, you won't actually experience this pause, but I wanted you to know that it exists. 

Ok, now that I've gone over the list, I'm not certain that it gets me any closer to my answer. I've read a reasonable number of the books on the list, but most of them I read decades ago. I hope that they'd make more of an impression on me now because, honestly, while all of them may qualify as Literature-with-a-capital-"L", they didn't leave much of a mark on me. That's good, though. For something to qualify as great literature, at least using my proto-definition, it needs to leave a mark on the reader.

Fortunately, McCrum himself addresses the question as to what make literature great in a related article:

"Calvino’s definition – 'a classic is a book that has never finished what it wants to say' – is probably the sweetest, followed by Pound’s identification of 'a certain eternal and irresponsible freshness'...Thereafter, the issue becomes subjective. Classics, for some, are books we know we should have read, but have not. For others, classics are simply the book we have read obsessively, many times over, and can quote from."

A little romantic, and I'm not sure it's useful if one's looking for a systematic approach to answer the question, but still, it's not bad...until he continues with:

"The ordinary reader instinctively knows what he or she believes to be a classic."

And now we're right back where we started. 

I've tried to make a list of the books which I've read and consider great, and then list out the defining traits of those books. I won't both sharing that because it was a fruitless approach. Have you ever tried to decided if you should stay with a romantic partner by listing out their good and bad traits and then adding them up? This exercise worked every bit as well, which is to say, not at all. If I were a literary theorist, I'd suggest that the greatness of literature is an emergent property, but I'm not, so I won't.

So, after all of this, I'm just going to take a stab at what establishes the greatness of literature in my opinion. The book in question is great literature if...

* The book sticks with me. If I can't remember reading it, it may be literature, but it wasn't great to me.

* The book changes the way I look at the world or broadens my perspective in some way. I learn something of value from it.

* I enjoy reading the book. This may seem like an extremely lowbrow way of looking for greatness, but it's hard for me to consider a book great literature if it's an outright chore to read, no matter how innovative the structure or clever the prose or intricate the plot.

* The book is novel. Yes, I did that on purpose, but I mean it. If it seems new and fresh, I'm more likely to regard it as "great."

* Finally, the book needs to end well. The ending seldom saves a poor novel, but if the ending isn't up to the quality of the rest of the novel, or if the it doesn't "fit," it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

These generalization are how I recognize greatness in literature...at least, that's how I do now. The whole thing is subject to changes. I may someday read something that doesn't tick any of these boxes and I still think it's great, which will mean I'll have to reevaluate the whole thing. Which is fine. I expect defining greatness in literature to be a work-in-progress for as long as I have the wits to consider it.

Now, what good is a list like this? For me, it's a target. When I write, these are the impressions I'd like to leave on the reader: That the work is memorable, that the reader learns something from it, that they enjoy it, and that it offers something different than other things they've read. 

Of course, I'd like to stick the landing as well, My personal example of an ideal ending is Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods." I doubt I'll ever land as gracefully as Sir Terry did with that one, but if I come close, I'll be more than satisfied.


Image from lydiaoutloud.com because it is the perfect image for this post, don't you think?

Image from lydiaoutloud.com because it is the perfect image for this post, don't you think?



Post-mortem on that last story

I remember writing a paper for my high school creative writing class which should have been the best thing I wrote all year. I don't even remember the specific subject, but I recall being extremely familiar with the material and instantly had an outline of what I wanted to write spring into my head.

Only..this assignment had a particular format we were required to use and I had far more information than would fit. Not that it stopped me from trying. I wrote and wrote and wrote until my paper was more than twice the length my teacher had requested. Most of the time, when I overshot like that, my grade improved. It was, after all, a creative writing course and if I wrote more than the minimum requirement, that tended to be a good thing. 

That was not the case with this particular paper. I remember even being vaguely aware that what I was writing was kind of lousy while I was writing it, but I just had so much to say that I couldn't stop myself. In the end, it was probably the worst thing I wrote during my senior year and, while I received a passing grade, it was a richly deserved "C." 

This is a long way of saying that I'm not especially happy with Texoma by Torchlight. The assignment was to mash up two randomly-selected pop culture properties and I wound up with "Snow Crash" and "American Gods." I know and love both of these books and feel like I have a pretty good handle on the core ideas contained within them. So, I had an unusually good handle on what the assignment required, but my end product isn't as good as it should have been. Where did I go wrong?

1) The gimmick of trying to write in third person present didn't suit the story. It might have been a good ploy for one of the two story lines, but it was confusing and awkward the way I wrote it. So, while it was a good exercise, I'd change it if this were work product.

2) The story leans way too much on dialog. I can hear the conversations in my head, and I know who is saying what. I am not reading my own work for the first time, and while there's some nice dialog in there, there's too much of it and it's confusing. 

3) This is a constant problem of mine: Stop trying to shoehorn a 10,000 word idea into a 2,000 word story. I'm very pleased with the ideas behind the story. However, the execution was a compromise between what was asked in the assignment and what the ideas really needed to be fleshed out properly. The story may have had an ideal length, but 3,500 words most definitely was not it.

4) Make sure the idea actually involves a story. I love writers like Warren Ellis and Larry Niven who can take one exceedingly weird idea and spin a story out of it. Simply having a good idea isn't enough. Again, I am very pleased with the way I combined the ideas of "Snow Crash" and "American Gods," but I'm not sure I actually wound up with a story.

5) Finally, this is supposed to be flash fiction. It might be a good idea to treat it as such rather than agonize over it all week. Writing quickly and instinctively rather than working it all out in advance is an opportunity to work on a different skill set and it's one I'm going to need in a few months.

I know these assignments (and really, there's not assignments, but it helps me to think of them that way) are really just suggestions to get my creative juices pumping. I'm not required to follow the rules and I don't mind going way over my word count if the story requires it. I'm writing these for myself as practice, and if the story requires more space, then I'm going to give it more space. What I don't want to do, though, is to stretch or truncate something to make it fit. That's the biggest problem I see with "Texoma by Torchlight."  Let's see if I can do better, or at least avoid this particular pitfalls, next time.


Why I Write

Note: This is in response to Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge from last Friday. This week's challenge has nothing to do with fiction; instead, he's challenged folks to write about why they write. That felt more bloggish than storyish, which is why I'm putting this in the "journal" column. Now, on with business: 

"Why do you write?"

I'm an oblique fellow. I like to sidle up to things rather than address them head-on, but this was a direct question, so I'm going to give you an uncharacteristically direct answer: The only thing that I consider meaningful is doing things to make other people's live better and this is the one creative tool I have in the toolbox which gives me any hope of doing so.

I've been working for American corporations for over thirty years now and I have long since made peace with the fact that I'm not going to find meaning or purpose in my work. I get to help people out, and that's the part of the gig I enjoy; the rest is bullshit.  My job is mechanically important to the business, but if my position disappeared from all companies tomorrow, the world would be no poorer for it.  I don't hate my job, but it is a job and it provides me a decent living and some, but not nearly enough, time away from work to do the things that are important to me.

I'm in awe of people who can make things. I've tried my hand at more creative pursuits that I can describe and stick to the thousand word limit for this challenge. I've tried my hand at both piano and guitar. I've done a little painting. I have some marvelous old Soviet-era film cameras which I'll dust off and lug out into the field from time to time I am a dilettante in both the worst and the best senses of the word. I've pursued these things right up to the point where they became difficult, up until the point I noticed that people who were not jut better than me, but better than I would ever be, were playing in cover bands on Wednesday nights at tiny bars. 

It's different with writing. I can read writers who are so much better than me that I cant even really judge how much better they are, and instead of discouraging me, they inspire me. Reading enriches my life* and I can't talk about writing without talking about reading any more than you can exhale without inhaling first. Books, like any good art, contain a hint of magic in that they can change your, can literally alter your perceptions, without you being quite aware of how they managed the trick.

Have you ever read John Steinbeck's East of Eden? If not, you probably ought to do something about that. The first time I read it, I didn't sleep for two days after finishing it because it messed me up so badly.  Steinbeck destroyed every excuse I'd every used for being less that decent to other people, and that was more self-awareness than I was prepared to deal with at the time. Somehow, Steinbeck managed to smack me like that and still write an entertaining story, which seems like one hell of a stunt.

Once you've read it, the next thing you need to do is pick up Journal of a Novel. There were, of course, no blogs or laptops or anything like that in Steinbeck's day. Instead, he wrote his novels in longhand on the front side of large sheets of loose paper. On the backs of those sheets, he kept a journal, and the journal is almost as amazing as the novel itself. The journal was his warm-up for the day's writing. He'd write about personal things, about the weather, or the his family, or somesuch. He'd also write about what he was planning for the novel and that's where it gets really interesting. He'd write about what he was trying to accomplish during the day's writing, and how he would accomplish it from a technical standpoint ('This next section is extremely action-packed, so I need to remember to use short sentences, just subject-verb, to accentuate this) and I remain impressed by how aware of his craft his was. His books read as though they  "just come naturally," but the truth is that he knew exactly what he was doing and how to accomplish it.

On a broader not, he saw East of Eden as his legacy. It was the sum total of everything he knew, passed down in the form of fiction, to help his children deal with the obstacles life would throw at them. It was his road map for future generations, written in hope that they wouldn't make the same mistakes he had. 

If you want to understand why I write, you have to understand how incredibly powerful Steinbeck's goals for East of Eden were. I'm under no illusion that I'm "destined" to write a novel as great as even his lesser works. I'm going to work as hard as I can, as well as I can, and improve as much as I can, and I hope that something I write will help someone or someones get through something they might not have navigated successfully otherwise. I want to do this and, at the same time, write entertaining and maybe even fun stories.

This is why it's important to me. This is why it has meaning. This is why I keep practicing, even when it gets difficult. This is why I write. Thanks for asking the question, by the way. It's not a bad thing to have to remind yourself why you're doing it from time to time.


P.S. I also aspire to write something as goddamn beautiful as this: Oliver Sacks: My Periodic Table. The world is going to be measurably less awesome without Sacks in it. He's a brilliant scientist who also has the ability to write in a way that somehow conveys the awe-inspiring contents of his mind in a deeply touching fashion. Oh, and he was really, really hot too.

* Fun fact: I don't really dream when I'm not reading. When I am reading regularly, I dream vividly every night. I'm unsure as to why, but it's a remarkably consistent.

The car drove great, but it wouldn't take me anywhere

Last night, I tried something a little different. I cleared my head, cleared the space around me, and  decided to just start working on a story cold. Just sit down, pick a title, and write.

Two hours later, I'd knocked out several pages of work that I feel was pretty darned well written...and the story was complete garbage. I felt like I was on a roll in terms of telling it, but the story itself? It just didn't work. It's bad enough that I'm not sure there's anything I can salvage. It's sitting in the drafts folder, just daring me to delete it. 

This being for Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenge this week, the title was the name of randomly selected song, and it was a good one, although maybe a little too leading. There was really only one place the story could go, and it was too obvious right from the beginning. (Can you tell I'm working through this as we speak?) Of the top of my head, I can think of two rescue strategies. I can either figure out a way to twist it, to make it take a unexpected fork, or I can go all Treasure of the Sierra Madre on it and make it about foreboding.

Or maybe just roll the ol' random number generator again and see what it gives me. Like I said, I liked everything about the story but the story (which is a very significant "but"). I'd still deem the operation a success. Pity about the patient, though...

Holiday Horror

Our writing homework this week is to write a holiday-themed horror story. I've been struggling with this one for a week and was about to write a half-hearted piece about the abomination that is the Elf of the Shelf. In a weird little coincidence, teacher decided to write on the same subject this morning. Normally, I would be deterred, but in this case, I'll try to turn adversity into opportunity. Or, it could just be that I didn't care for the story I was working on in the first place.

So, as I prepare to write the completely-different story, I'd like to pass along this little tidbit: I really don't care for the holidays. I don't care for the food, I don't care for the forced travel, I don't care for the gifts (giving or getting), and I really, really, really don't like the obligatory everything. My time off is precious to me and having all manner of social requirements heaped on me wears me out. I enjoy seeing a few people, and even my family, but I don't get any joy out of an obligation being discharged. "Relief?" Yes. A lot of relief, but it isn't worth the stress that I get prior to it.

So, yeah, "bah humbug" to me. I get it. I don't begrudge anyone their holiday merriment. Just please be kind if my smile seems a bit forced and I excuse myself from the party early.