Thursday, September 13, 2007

Good 'til the last page

There are, one can assume, a finite but really freaking huge number of stories floating around in the universe, waiting to be told. Some people argue that no matter what the subject and plot, the best ones are nothing more than echoes of our subconscious; fading shadows of a primal existence. That there are archetypical tales we don’t even realize we’re adhering to when we start writing.

If that’s true, there must have been some remarkably dull times back when we still slept in caves. How else do you explain James Fennimore Cooper? Oh, no! Suck on that, Bumppo!
Where is your literary God now, Natty?

But what about the good ones? The great ones? What makes a story stick in our consciousness and—as the best writing does—affect the way we view the rest of our lives? There are many theories. They’re probably all right in some way, and I don’t want to get in the middle of a literary slap-fight.

So I’ll just say that I have my own theory. Which is indisputably right in my own head. Here it is: The best stories transcend genre—they exist outside of themselves. Take, for example, "Canticle for Liebowitz," which I recently began reading for the 100th time and instantly got swept away in.

Yes, it’s set in the distant future. Yes, there is terminology—and later technology—that play a role in understanding the story. But at heart, it’s just about the human condition, about what man does to himself and why he keeps doing it. It’s moving because... well... it’s truth. And our minds can recognize that in a story.

Other stories tell us what we already know, deep inside, about war... love... death... sacrifice... hate... towels... and they resonate, stick, become popular and make their authors fabulously rich.

So as a writer, make sure you’re saying something besides what’s plainly on the page. I realized after I finished "From the Depths"—thanks to an assist from my dad, an extremely literate guy and a hell of a photographer—that the subtexts I had worked in, purposefully or not, had given birth to an allegory about what warfare does to humanity.

Which, let’s face it, makes me look a lot smarter than I am.

What books or stories have in some way imparted some spin on your life?

1 comment:

Lisa said...

He looks like Mitt Romney.