Long ago, way before personal computers and the Internet, there was a young woman I knew who, from an early age, collected quotes from books on 3×5 index cards. Even though only in her very early 20s, she’d collected hundreds of these quotes. Almost all of them were from fiction. Although I’ve never had the persistence to accumulate such a storehouse of quotes, from time to time, I noted some passages in fiction that affected me deeply. They expressed a truth about life that resonated with me.
Here’s an example: “As Hagrid had said, what would come, would come…and he would have to meet it when it did.” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling.
I just “Googled” that entire quote for the heck of it and discovered that it was listed on goodreads.com J.K. Rowling > Quotes > Quotable Quote page. Someone else had found it meaningful also.
The older I get, the more slowly I read, the more I return to re-read books I’ve read before, and the more I savor those bits of truth I find. I’ve certainly read my fair share of self-help and applied philosophy books, but I’ve never found as many helpful truths in those books as I have in fiction, for as Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
Similarly, never have I found as many helpful truths in literary fiction as I have in genre fiction.
Stephen King’s 2003 National Book Awards acceptance speech is terrific. Not only does he talk about the truth in in the life (fiction), more importantly, he takes to task the academic (“literary”) fiction network and bias. I highly recommend his speech: Stephen King, Recipient of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, 2003 (http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_sking.html).
In an old blog I had, I once posted, “If I were able to write a novel, the kind of novel I’d hope to be able to write is the one I just finished reading, The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont.” The reason I felt that way was because of the underlying truth–a truth that is true for any human being–that was the premise of the story. It affected me deeply because events in my own life vibrated in sympathy with the tones struck in that story.
There are two other authors I’ve been reading recently I want to mention in this regard (meaningful truths in fiction). One is Stephen King and the other is Anne Rice.
Now, those two authors are such giants I hardly feel qualified in any way, other than as a reader, to speak to their books, but I think that’s part of what makes them so great: they write for the reader. They must have the capacity to experience their books as we do and that inner perception must inform what they write.
An aside: In the field of professional music the best musicians have a knack for hearing what and how they’re playing from the audience’s viewpoint, as part of the whole. They don’t just play their part from their own viewpoint. The best composers have a way of doing something similar: they are able to experiencing what they’re writing from within time–just as a listener experiences it–not just from their viewpoint outside of time as a composer looking at the whole. In both cases, the musician/composer is performs/creates for the listener, not for the informed critic. This has always been true. Most people forget that Bach, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven were all writing for the masses, they weren’t writing for the intelligentsia.
I also believe that the best musicians, be they performer, conductor, or composer, write/perform what they do for the benefit of the audience, not to aggrandize themselves.
Another aside: this blog is just a personal blog about things I like. That’s it. I don’t even care if anyone reads it. I just write about what I like and I usually, completely ignore what I don’t like–there’s enough of that kind of negative stuff out there. So, all that said…
I recently finished reading Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. After reading it, I liked it so well, I bought a second copy so I’d have a copy I could mark up and study to try to learn something. A creative writing teacher could use this perfect little book as a complete textbook for a creative writing course. It is so pure, the arc so direct. I’ve seen seasoned pool players take shots like this–a seemingly effortless running of the table. And the truth in this little book is universal. I recognize that the effect of a truth is partially determined by the circumstances of the reader’s life at that particular moment. But, I can’t imagine that there’s any reader, of any age, who hasn’t felt themselves lost in the woods of life. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. (If, after reading it you’re in the mood for more of the same, King’s Duma Key: A Novel should be your next stop. Want some more? He’s also the best short-story writer I know. Try his Just After Sunset: Stories. Want some classic King? Pet Sematary is a book that is so scary, I had to stop reading it and wait until it was daytime and there were people around to finish reading it. There, too, is truth again. Every decision the protagonist makes in Pet Sematary is a decision we, too, would have made. Inexorably, the trail of those decisions leads exactly to where we, too, would finally arrive if we were in that initial circumstance. That’s truth.
I also just finished re-reading for the first time since their publication the first three novels of Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire (Vampire Chronicles), The Vampire Lestat (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) (The Vampire Chronicles, Book 2), and The Queen of the Damned (The Vampire Chronicles, No. 3)).
I loved them when they came out. Now, if there were a word stronger than “love”–adore?–I would use it. They are monumental. Part of it is the language itself. Her style is at once accurate and concise but also baroque (in the way Couperin is Baroque: highly ornamented; that Bach is Baroque: intricate, mathematical relationships that spin through time; that Handel is Baroque: stark, intense, dramatic passion; that Domenico Scarlatti is Baroque: surprising, startling, weird twists and justapositions–I love playing Scarlatti!).
But aside from that, the style, it is the fact that her books are really about spiritual truths that makes her so great. It’s what puts her above all the later-day vampire muck. It’s what puts her in the same league as the early authors of horror and the supernatural, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. I realize that’s high praise, but I mean it. There is a strong truth at the core of every book. Metaphors abound.
One trivial one (there are many more in her books that are much more profound) that’s always struck me–and it’s a battle I fight constantly–is whether to be a meat-eater or a vegetarian. My body’s thrifty gene and inability to properly metabolize carbohydrates demands I be a meat-eater, but my spirit constantly wishes I could be a vegetarian. I learned the hard way I must honor my incarnation as a carnivore. Mrs. Rice gets a lot deeper than that, of course, but that’s just one example of even small details in her books having relevant meaning. (I don’t want to give spoilers, so I won’t explain how that example relates to her books.)
She could easily write fiction that didn’t feature the supernatural, and she has! Currently, I’m re-reading Cry to Heaven, which is about an 18th Century Italian castrati. Sitting on my bookshelf right now is the book I will re-read next, her The Feast of All Saints, which is about les gens de couleur libres (the free people of color) in ante-bellum New Orleans. If you’ve never read any Anne Rice, but don’t think you’d enjoy “horror” genre books, then please read these two books. They are “about” castrati and free people of color, but only as a vehicle for deeper truths. It’s those deeper truths that the books are really about. It’s what keeps the reader coming back.
For genre writers it’s all too often as Rodney Dangerfield said, “I don’t get no respect!” I encourage you to read King and Rice as you would John Steinbeck or Thomas Mann or Henry James or André Gide. Hey…come to think of it, they “just” wrote damn good stories, too, didn’t they?
— Hilton Jones