Saturday, January 22, 2011

Literary Fiction: Tastes Good and Good For You!

Where do story ideas come from? What sparks a story? Obviously, there's no single answer, or even class of answers. One challenge writers of fiction face is the fact that there are infinite possible stories. The trick is to cut down the numbers to something more manageable. That is what a good story spark does: it narrows the possibilities. An image, a few suggestive words or a phrase, a "what if", a name or face of a character, some simple action out of context. Through training and creative openness, any of these may suggest a story line, even if vaguely. The rest is discovery, like mining for gold.

To serious writers, that gold is meaning. I may tell a million stories and none of them be worth the time it takes to type them. Better for everyone if the story that emerges has some significance, some resonance to the reader, some reason for being told. It may instruct or entertain or tickle memories or ideas in ways that leave readers a bit more willing to explore the question of who they are as humans.

Stories about real people, then, are important. Stories about our peculiarities, our habits and culture and the assumptions upon which we try, sometimes feebly, sometimes with confidence, to build our identities.

Drama is a useful tool for this end. Small or large, conflicts which our characters succeed or fail in overcoming always teach us something of ourselves. Vicarious beings that we are, they are also highly entertaining, especially if they are believable. Situations you or I might actually find ourselves in, and the struggles to survive or thrive when our needs are threatened, that's the stuff of good stories.

Literary stories differ from others only in that the drama, while still present, is dampened down to a level closer to our daily reality, while character choices and actions result in multi-level revelations about those characters. Minimal or moderate drama, along with layered truths, often subtle, doth good literature make. None of us are simple creatures, though few of us are blessed (or cursed) with insight to our true natures. The power and importance of a story increases as it reveals more complex truths about us. Literary stories seem to emerge from a great stew of knowledge and experience. They give us glimpses of truths about ourselves we would rarely experience otherwise. They do so, however, at the expense of being less entertaining, at least to most readers. The exceptions are skilled readers who are broadly educated in the liberal arts and psychology, and who are, as a result, erudite, reflective, critically self-aware and philosophical. Such readers, familiar with the work of the world's greatest thinkers, have access to a broad range of values and ideas, and are well equipped to synthesize concepts, see patterns, and see through bullshit. To these readers, great stories are not only deeply meaningful, they are also highly entertaining, in ways that simpler stories cannot be. Great stories not only taste good, they are truly nourishing.

Unfortunately, to less well trained readers, this may seem elitist. No one wants to feel judged for her skill level, especially regarding something which seems trivial and no more than light entertainment. And quite right. Light entertainment has its place in our culture too. It may be useful to remember that skilled readers know better than to judge others, and similarly, deserve no judgment from others. Some love sports, some soaps, some talk shows, some Star Trek or fantasy novels. And some love the chewy intellectual challenge and literary delights of a Nabokov or Dostoevsky or Huxley or Graham Green. And some love both high and low culture equally. It's all good.