In a strange coincidence both the New York Times and the New Yorker published within two days’ time (Dec.8 and 9) two thoughtful and resonant essays by top literary critics about fiction, its whys and wherefores, its challenges and attractions, for readers and writers. I recommend both if you are the sort who thinks about these things.
True to say, most people who are engaged habitually and perhaps somewhat compulsively, in these activities do so simply for enjoyment. People love stories and telling stories, because, well, it’s enjoyable (fun!). Few give these cosmic questions any consideration whatsoever. But perhaps it’s no accident that our greatest writers and most careful and discriminating readers are occasionally afflicted by wondering about the how and why and look for maybe some “unified field” or ultimate answer, sort of the god particle in the process. These folks, myself a much lesser most lowly light in the company, are courting migraines, of course, and often end their examinations and disquisitions on the subject with reflections on the brevity of life and the eventuality of death.
For all stories, whether implicitly or explicitly, address our mortal foibles, failings, that is, our “mortal coils.” We are human, after all, and each life, fictional or “real,” has a transit, a story arc, a beginning, middle and end. Some plots are tighter than others, have more suspense, sex, blood and gore, some characters possess more wisdom, beauty, kindness, even sanctity, than others, but bottom line, as old Ecclesiastes said thousands of years ago,
There is nothing new under the sun…
And whatever the case may be, whether for an instant or an age, we already know the ashes to ashes, dust to dust ending.
Or as Charles McGrath said in his marvelous essay (cited above), wondering at his own chronic susceptibility to the power of a good story, “I already knew what little there really was for fiction to teach us. Human beings are flawed and do foolish things, especially when love and money are involved. O.K. I think I’ve got that.”
He goes on to say that a great book “performed that special trick of fiction, the one that never gets tired: it lifted me out of myself, my grumblings and self-pity, and in language just like the language we use every day, only better, dropped me down in another place and among people far more interesting, who had more on their plate than just a stack of books.”
He nailed it, as far as I can tell. For fiction, in spite of it’s being not a true story but in fact a truer story, a universally applicable, if you will story, offers us some sort of reprieve, an anodyne, or as Aristotle might have said, a catharsis for our individual yet universal sorrow, grief, and despair, because all good stories involve an overcoming of our human limitations in some way, an heroic effort that in itself is a salvaging of our hoped for dignity in having lived, striven, fought the good fight, and perhaps acquired some measure of joy and self-respect. In the characters’ lives in a good novel we find a release, a transport, a kind of redemption, if only momentary, from our seemingly paltry ordinary troubles. A great story somehow enlarges us and makes us defiant in the face of what is an unavoidable fate.
What’s more, great stories impart a kind of ineffable wisdom that is strengthening, however miserable the fate of the hero or heroine, whether a Captain Ahab or a Madame Bovary, and we close such books with a kind of grim satisfaction at having acquired a beneficial insight, we leave them with a sense of affirmation, that says essentially, Yes, that is how it is. Wow. Yes.