Friday, May 30, 2008

A Beast Worth Knowing

Good writing means addressing serious themes conscientiously, with sober thought and clear phrasing. It need not be grim. Even the gallows humor of Vonnegut has a light touch and can make us laugh aloud just as the absurdist paranoia and madcap insanity of Thomas Pynchon evoke smiles and nods while making weighty points.

What is not good writing? Any words that evade truth, duck important issues, and obscure realities. Work that coddles readers or offers half truths, lies, diversion, and misdirection.

Politics make for bad writing.

Any axe-grinding, special pleading, or bias tilts writing toward the bad.

Lecturing, teaching, or professing bloats writing into being bad, or worse.

True believers write badly. So do the faithful and the gullible.

Good writing favors the cynical because they tend to think for themselves. They reject received wisdom, which is all bad writing. They know that a fact marks the place where thought stopped. They investigate further and question more. They end up disliked, too, because few want the truth.

You can’t handle the truth, as a famous actor once said in a popular movie.

And most don’t. Most choose escapism. Genre fiction offers lots of it.

Not all genre fiction is escapist, though. Philip K. Dick wrote serious fiction in popular form. He brought philosophy to science fiction. What is human? What is reality? How can we know? Those were his questions.

Yes, most genre fiction asks general questions. Horror wonders about death, Romance thinks about love, and Fantasy considers dreams and other worlds even as Mysteries ponder law and order. But most genre fiction evades heavy wrestling. It would rather cop out with a happy ending, or zigzag past all the ugly facts as it rushes toward a selective conclusion.

This is why most genre fiction fails the good writing test. Academics to one side -- they are untrustworthy because their careers depend on promoting their ideas -- fiction is assessed almost always by what it means to readers, especially across generations. A story that continues to speak to people decades or centuries after it was written has some serious human relevance.

By contrast, there is nothing wrong with pure escapism. We all need respite. Enjoyable daydreams escaped into for awhile help keep us sane, or at least balanced and functioning. And yes, pure escapism can be good writing, too. The vital themes need not be absent, nor truths flinched from, for a story to offer an appealing nonreality to contemplate.

Good writing and good prose are distinct things. Excellent sentence, paragraph, and scene construction can be present but put to bad purposes, such as thwarting a confrontation with a major human theme, or deceiving readers with false logic. Some of the absolute worst writing is written well at prose level, even as it lacks the heart and soul of writing that should last.

If we recognize ourselves in writing, it will be startling, hard to take, and sometimes unnerving. Mirrors and voice recordings, film and other ways of seeing ourselves as others do unsettle us, especially when we first come upon them.

Yet a soft focus can not only blur details, but flatter. Such an indirect, wheedling portrait might entice. It might show us as a hero, a demigod, even a paragon. It might make us feel smarter, stronger, or braver; more beautiful, more desirable, or more amazing.

Such lies may cajole, and fool us into thinking this or that bit of writing must be good, it makes us feel so elevated and fine. And yet, it will be a lie.

Beauty And The Beast is about the contrast between a virgin bride’s innocent view of husband, love, and marriage, and its harsher, harder, stronger reality. That it ends with reconciliation and accommodation brings maturity into the mix.

Good writing is a beast, but one well worth knowing.

When we’re young and silly we want comforted, validated, and reinforced in our prejudices. If we manage to mature we realize that, while nice, such things don’t help but harm and hinder us from engaging life in a complete and fulfilling way. Sadly, society allows many of us to remain immature and in mental and emotional hiding. We are even, via advertising, encouraged to remain eternal youths.

Such is a corrosive lie, one only the beast of clear thought and earnest grappling with the core of the human experience can vanquish. Birth, death, pain, love, war, peace, the very conundrum of existence is the stuff of humanity, and that’s what good writing addresses in as honest a way as possible.

Anything less is betrayal.

Good writing is a beast worth knowing well because it is, ultimately, us.

/// /// ///

No comments: