My hope from a novel

I want a glimpse of the author’s soul. That’s all. For me, structure and other aspects of writing technique are mere tools for discovering, between author and reader, a common language. I believe the concept of genre is merely a deeply flawed system devised by publishers to aid booksellers in deciding where to shelve fiction, as well as aiding editors in guiding authors into convenient and effective marketing pigeonholes (and embraced by academics eager to explain and disdain popular fiction). The notion makes sense for non-fiction. There’s a fairly clear distinction between cookbooks and biography (though hardly absolute). Fiction is far more problematic. Is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian a “Western?” Is it “Southern Literature?” Is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness an “Adventure?” Are any of Jodi Picoult’s many novels “Literary Fiction” (Barnes & Noble shelves them thusly)? Will James Patterson be showing up on the same shelf (shelves, really) sometime soon? Will the “P” shelves collapse under the burden?

James Wood, in his non-fiction book on literary criticism, How Fiction Works, makes the argument (though I don’t believe he ever says it exactly thus) that “Literature” teaches the reader new language. Stephen King, in his “Second Foreword” to his non-fiction work on writing craft, On Writing, makes the admission, “[f]iction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.” I agree with him to the extent that I believe, most of the time, the creation of “Literature” is a happy accident. Glimpses of the author’s soul are provided inadvertently (and I believe, more often, are hidden deliberately). And an author who sits down determined to write “Literature” is much more likely to create an unreadable abomination than a masterpiece. Thinking about metaphor rarely produces a compelling story.

I applaud authors who share something worthwhile that’s heartfelt. The fourth chapter of James Lee Burke’s Burning Angel begins: “After you’re a police officer for a while, you encounter certain temptations. They come to you as all seductions do, in increments, a teaspoon at a time, until you discover you made an irrevocable hard left turn down the road someplace and you wake up one morning in a moral wasteland with no idea who you are.” I’m sure it’s sentences like these that caused him to be called “the Faulkner of crime fiction,” not unlike Elmore Leonard being called “the Dickens of Detroit.” Hyperbole unfair to everyone, particularly if they start to believe it, but clearly illustrative of the marked tension between creating and marketing. Marketing wins, most of the time.

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2 Responses to My hope from a novel

  1. Lively thoughts as always, John. I am with you — and I think that most readers are, whether they have thought of it this way or not, on the glimpse of the author’s soul that good writing offers.

    I also like to have a glimpse, or more, of their mind, their intellectual and philosophical approach to the world as revealed in and through the stories they tell. Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, come to mind as good examples of this.

    Nice post.

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