Friday, November 7, 2008

Writing Dies, Too

Writers die. So does their work.

Yes, some work achieves a kind of immortality that lasts at least as long as the culture that produced it. And it’s not always the best or most deserving or most representative work, either. James Fennimore Cooper and L. Ron Hubbard prove that, for differing reasons.

Yes, popularity plays into it. Partly that may be due to sheer numbers. There are so many Stephen King books in print that they have a better chance of being discovered by second and subsequent readers, and generations.

Popularity can lead to discussion, too. Critic chat is not as influential as academic regard, simply because works chosen as school texts are kept in print longer. This doesn’t endear works, though. Catcher In the Rye by J. D. Salinger is forced down the throats of high school kids and this only makes them gag the stronger, both on Holden Caulfield’s whining and on reading as enjoyable entertainment. Another bizarre choice, no doubt approved by Cotton Mather’s horny ghost, is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel paid-by-the-word-and-bonus-for-convoluted-sentences Hawthorne.

No child left to its own devices, in short.

And no book approved by Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, either, apparently. Or only books they kicked, chosen as torture.

Some of us were allowed to find our own reading. Most of that group ended up liking to read. Many of us even came down with writing joneses.


Rather than pity the afflicted, enable them by buying some of their stuff, wouldja?

Some prominent writers have died lately, and not just Vonnegut. Michael Crichton, Studs Terkel, Janwillem van de Wetering, Gregory Mcdonald, James Crumley, and Tony Hillerman, to name a few offhand, in no order and for no collective reason.

We note their passing often by grabbing up their work. Freshly dead writers often experience a sales surge. Would’ve done them a lot more good had it come before they left, but their estates are appreciative, not to mention their publishers, who can then start the perennial exploitation dance.

Will their work last?

Some will, yes. For reasons touched upon. Some won’t, for unfathomable reasons.

Some work goes away, then comes back.

Tolkien did that. His work was obscure in my lifetime. He published most of it in the 1930s. Thirty years later it experienced a resurgence that saw it, in another decade, become hugely popular and influential. In part this was due to Lester del Rey coming up with the Fantasy Trilogy gimmick, to feed the Tolkien jones once people had read him. A sales trick became a sub-genre and it prevails to this day. Why sell one book when you can hook readers into at least three?

Much talk has wasted air over whether this “trilogy” nonsense has ruined fiction or stretched storytelling to some logical limit. Maybe it’s just reader patience being stretched.

It seems, now, that Tolkien’s work will last as part of Western Culture. We would not have guessed this in his lifetime.

Which brings us to the rub. That’s the narrow part you have to squeeze through. The part the fat can’t do, be they fat-headed or otherwise burdened and slow.

The rub? We can’t know what writing will last.

A quick and dirty scan tells us to bet on storytelling over style. A good story well told has more chance of lasting, people being generally the same through history. Style changes in a way similar to fashion. Many factors come to bear on style, so that one generation prefers indirection and discretion, another demands the harsh and the blunt.

All that falls away, though, when a story proves robust enough to jump languages and cultures. That is when the story itself, and, often, how it’s told matter most. Basics count in writing as in all things. And story is the basis of writing.

And of course often the books we might choose as ones to last are themselves recapitulations of classic stories. Retelling a standard well, or in a new voice, is the same as singing a standard song. If a new version, take, interpretation, or voice appeals, it is likely to work.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman comes to mind, it being a new take on The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, themselves in part based on Indian folk tales absorbed by Kipling. Patterns repeat.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier was, as were many books since, a retelling of The Odyssey by Homer. Homer is a mysterious figure whose tales were not even written down for centuries, so who knows how many refinements and alterations came and went during its oral tradition phase. And yet the basics remain intact. They are recognizable even in American Civil War guise.

Beowulf, oldest known tale in English, is a monster of a horror story, a heroic adventure with lots of violence, action, and drama. It is pulp. It is penny dreadful. It is genre. It is baseline appealing to humanoid primates.

Fiction delivery systems tend to remain true to the human voice. Someone tells a story, others listen. If it’s got certain elements it fascinates. Listeners are hooked and come back for more as the camp fire dies low and shadows move in the dark around us.

Writing dies along with writers, sometimes, but fiction is along for the ride with us. As long as we’re hear to receive it, to crave and need and rely upon it, then fiction will sustain us.

Our stories are our lives.

That is what will last, maybe even longer than we do.

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