Saturday, July 5, 2014

Storytelling as the Art of the Hard-to-Express (On Fiction: Part I)

My 2011 blog posts describe how I discovered my philosophical question, and how I searched for and found answers to that question. But they fail to really express those answers, to convey the essence of my philosophy of life. My struggle over the last 4 years has been trying to find a way to do so.

How do I explain my struggle to express my philosophy without first expressing my philosophy? Let me try a metaphor. My wife has finally made me watch "The Fall," and I highly recommend it. Most critics rave about its imagery. I think its strong point is the touching friendship between the two hospital patients, a stuntman and a little girl, a friendship based around a silly fantasy story they make up together, a story which carries so much more meaning for them than it could possibly convey on its own, even with the best special effects in the world. Within this fantasy story you've got manifold symbolic elements charged with wonder and possibility. One of the characters is a heavily stylized version of Charles Darwin, who wears a colorful fur coat and in an emergency consults his pet monkey. He's searching for an extremely rare butterfly called "Americanus Exoticus" -- it is his life's dream.

When he finally finds the butterfly, it's dead and pinned, and he grieves. It's a silly scene, filmed comically, but it's got the essence of the tragedy of storytelling.

Let's think about what this butterfly must have been like when it was alive. To behold it is to experience a kind of beauty that is impossible to fully describe. For someone like our fictional Darwin -- who's been chasing it his entire life, and understands how it weaves its cocoon, how it drinks only from the purply-orange orchid "Fragilus Exquisitus", how it lays its eggs only by the sweetest of spring pools, how it's broadly tapered and trailing wings have unique aerodynamic properties -- the experience of beauty multiplies with one's scientific knowledge. On the other hand, if you were merely to describe its diet, habits, size, color, shape in coldly quantitative terms, the beauty is lost. Seeing it dead bears no comparison to observing it as it flits among the jungle ferns.

If you could film it as it flies, you might capture a good part of its aesthetic beauty. But even if Darwin had access to a movie camera, he still needs to somehow explain what the butterfly has taught him about ecology, evolution, and life itself.

The philosophical answers that I found are like Americanus Exoticus. Their significance can't be explained by art or science alone, but only by both together. If I were to explain myself scientifically, the meaning is lost, it becomes too technical. Expressing beauty is very difficult. All you can do about a lovely sunset is say, "Come look!" If you must describe it you might name the colors and talk about the shapes of the clouds, but how do you capture the subtlety and emotional impact?

So I've been trying my hand at painting the butterfly, that is, writing fiction that illustrates my philosophy. Since reading Chretien de Troyes's medieval romance "Perceval," I've been inspired by an alternate vision of the Apocalypse, one where it is the darkness and struggle for survival itself that must shape the seed of virtue for a new Golden Age. Since late 2008 -- for 6 years in fact -- I've been attempting to write a more romantic, more hopeful, more evolutionary kind of apocalyptic science fiction.

I am trying to write stories with a meaning and a message. Modern literary critics will tell you that this is a very bad idea.

These days, most fiction avoids having a meaning or a message, because modern writers are terrified of being too preachy. That's why most bestsellers are thrill rides and spectacles of sex or violence, and why most critically-acclaimed novels are obscure, unnecessarily complex, or hip and superficial. Whether high- or low-brow, modern novel writers are seeking to evoke pure pleasure, because that's what critics ask for. And critics ask for pure pleasure because they've grown tired of resisting a publishing industry that chases profits above all else. And because critics themselves want their readers to agree with everything they say, and it is much easier to agree that, "This novel is a thrill ride, a fast-paced page-turner that will keep you up at night," than to agree, "This novel is a thrill ride, a fast-paced page-turner that will keep you up at night, but ultimately promotes a set of values that will damage the moral conscience of this nation."

Besides, it's the first part of the quote that will be printed on the dust-jacket.

Don't get me wrong. I want people to take pleasure in my stories. It's essential. But the craft of writing must enhance the meaning of a work, not obscure it. If you look at the classics that have stood the test of time, they all speak with a clear voice and a solid meaning that is powerfully there but cannot be easily or fully explained without telling the story. You can say this about Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, Jane Austen, H.G. Wells -- and almost any writer famous for more than 50 years. If all James Joyce had written was Finnegan's Wake or even Ulysses, no one today would know who he was. It's the clear, philosophical prose of Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man that makes Joyce worth knowing.

If you look at bestseller lists from more than 50 years ago, you'll see that instant popularity does not ensure any kind of lasting value. Here are the U.S. bestselling novels according to Publisher's Weekly from 1932:

  1. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  2. The Fountain by Charles Langbridge Morgan
  3. Sons by Pearl S. Buck
  4. Magnolia Street by Louis Golding
  5. The Sheltered Life by Ellen Glasgow
  6. Old Wine and New by Warwick Deeping
  7. Mary's Neck by Booth Tarkington
  8. Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas
  9. Inheritance by Phyllis Bentley
  10. Three Loves by A. J. Cronin

Do you recognize any of those? Let's look at the number 1 bestseller for each year in the 1920s:

1920: The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey
1921: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
1922: If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchinson
1923: Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1924: So Big by Edna Ferber
1925: Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
1926: The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine
1927: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
1929: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

We all know "All Quiet on the Western Front," not because many of us have read it, but because we've all at least heard of the movie. If you recognize any others, you're probably in a university literature department. I'm guessing that even your best read literature professor will know nothing of these in another hundred years.

Neither critical acclaim nor bestselling status will guarantee immortality. Nor both together! Sinclair Lewis's 1922 "Babbit" was the 9th bestselling novel in 1922 and perhaps his most critically acclaimed work. You'll notice that Sinclair Lewis wrote two #1 bestsellers during the 20s, and he also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. From this data alone you might conclude he was the most important novelist of the 1920s. But most people today have never read any of his books. I remember picking up Babbit at the library five or six years ago -- it failed to hold my interest.

For a novel to be great it must explore timeless values. Sinclair Lewis was too hip. Most of his novels were satires of the middle-class American life. But middle-class America of the 1920s was full of superficialities that are rare in any other time and place. In Main Street he wrote about a woman who was "too educated" and "too liberal." He didn't realize that feminism was a trend that would grow immeasurably in our culture. And, on the other hand, it's a trend that's been special to Western culture and is not as common in other places and times.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby satirizes the same time and place as much of Lewis's work. But because it develops more eternal themes -- obsession, love, materialism -- Fitzgerald's work has lasted.

It is worth noting that The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, received mixed reviews, and that Fitzgerald was deeply disappointed by its meager sales. One of the most famous critics, H.L. Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore," called it "no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that." Of the bestselling Babbitt, the same critic wrote, “I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America."

Not to conclude that genius is always misunderstood, either! Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) was critically acclaimed, the #6 bestseller, and has been famous now for over 100 years. It's possible to speak both to the present and to the future, though it is very rare.

My point is, novels like The Jungle or The Great Gatsby that have clear allegorical meaning, meaning that could not easily be expressed in nonfiction, meaning that touches on our eternal values: these are the novels that become a lasting part of a culture and make it what it is.

We need to stop being afraid of "having a message."

(Next week, I'll talk science fiction and tell how I came to write my novel-in-progress: The First King of Montana.)

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