When I was becoming a fiction writer about 20 years ago, I was made aware of some notions about the craft that were well-established and, in my opinion, wrong. Of these two were paramount: The first was that one should greatly restrict any reference to politics. The second was that poetry is a removed and almost inaccessible form of writing. These two things, we were told, did not belong in the fiction writer's bag of tricks.
If you wanted to write short stories, if you wanted to write novels, you'd be best off concentrating on character and character development, or on the emotional overlay, or on a plot that twisted now and then to surprise and delight the reader. And if you wanted to be a literary writer, you were supposed to supply an epiphany -- a moment at the end of your very human tale from which almost divine understanding arises.
The epiphany needed to have a poetic element to it, but the fiction writer's job was to make this user-friendly. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. . . . Tis a far, far better thing I do. . . . Other than this one nod to poetry, fiction was a meat and potatoes job. It dealt with beginnings, middles and ends; it had a story and many, many readers.
The message was hammered into us: Readers buy books, and the last thing a writer would want to do is alienate the audience. As a novelist you wouldn't want to make the poet's mistake of being so smart and insightful that no one outside of a small group can comprehend your work. Similarly, you don't want to write anything that might make a liberal or conservative uncomfortable. Both liberals and conservatives buy books, after all.
Fiction writers, we were led to believe, should avoid all forms and content that would throw the reader off the path to the bookstore: no explicit sex, no long, dry speeches, no images that might seem unpatriotic or politically incorrect.
Of course, no one actually said that writing in these off-putting forms was an economic issue, but the inference was clear. Stay away from high art. Stay away from unpopular ideas about the world we live in, because that might alienate a potential publisher or a cash-carrying reader.
I believe these opinions about what should go into fiction are wrong about the aesthetic questions but probably very right about the economic reality. It's true that people who read don't want their stories derailed by bits of arcane knowledge or by threatening convictions about politics and society. Readers want to have a good time. They want to identify with a central character who is younger, taller, braver and luckier than they are. They want love and passion, revenge and justice. Stories and novels are entertainments that help us cope with the intense pressures mortality brings.
The advice I was given by all those well-meaning people made sense if my goals as a writer were to develop a large audience and make great gobs of money. There are many writers who have these goals.
But the truth is: If you want to make money, go into real estate. The most successful writer's income is nothing compared to the wealth of a modern-day land baron. One office building in Soho could buy the careers of at least half-a-dozen successful writers.
The acquisition of wealth should not be our primary goal. Nor should greater and greater numbers of readers. The foremost goal on our minds should be to create a story that is true to its own world view.
Words, sentences, paragraphs -- these are our basic tools and ultimate means of gratification. Metaphor, similes, rhyme and meter, symbols and line-breaks, even the elusive epiphany -- these are the instruments of a writer's success. And of a poet's.
During my three years in the graduate writing program at the City College of New York, I took a poetry workshop every semester from the late, great American poet William Matthews. Bill's credo was that the only thing you could not ask of the writer was silence. He taught us how to see a poem. He taught us how to edit out what was unnecessary, redundant and wrong.
I can't write a serviceable poem to save my life, but I learned my lessons in those six workshops. I learned that poetry is the nexus for all writing, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, screenplays or plays. Maybe some poetry lives in a rarified atmosphere that leaves most readers a little dizzy. I don't know, but I do know that a fiction writer must be able to breathe that air.
The mastery of language is our duty. We enter this world by placing one word after another in comprehensible and unique ways. And then, of course, there's what the author is willing to talk about. When politics enters our writing, we are often asked by our representatives, our teachers, and sometimes our audience to step back from outspoken and controversial opinions about how this world works. Many times I've been told by people I respect, "There's too much emphasis on race in this book," or "The government and the police aren't really like that."
I am asked not to stand down but to stand back -- behind the line of good taste.
"Books are entertainments," I am told. "No one wants to hear your ideas about how the world works or what's wrong with America."
Of course they don't. The job of the writer is to take a close and uncomfortable look at the world they inhabit, the world we all inhabit, and the job of the novel is to make the corpse stink. If writing was always only a good adventure with a teary or cheery ending, books would not be worth the effort to read or to write.
Novels are about the world we live in. No one is suggesting that they should be propaganda for oil companies and fast food concerns. Or there to justify unjust wars or the American Way. Nor should they be apologies for anarchic maniacs who seek in their distress to destroy an entire world. But to the extent that these things are in our world, we should write about them.
It comes down to this: Writing novels requires an obsession with our truths. Those truths are not put into novels for witnesses but for co-conspirators. The good novelist knows that Truth is always accompanied by its silent partner: Guilt. She knows that our humanity makes us responsible for events that transpire in this world. She knows, too, that we're not willing to accept the blame. We don't see our culpability even though it's our dollars being spent, our God we prefer above all others, our own image in that silvered mirror that becomes our standard for beauty and innocence. The novelist has the potential to shine light on these blind sides. But she must do it deftly, with a sharp beam. Blindside a reader, and you forfeit everything.
For me there is no such thing as fiction without poetry and politics. If you excise either one, you have taken the heart of us all. You won't get rich following my advice, but you may come up with something close to true. *