Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Stretch

Books are written for two purposes: to entertain and to educate.  Most books fail to achieve either purpose; and if we compare all the books ever written with those few that managed to achieve both purposes, the result of the latter is statistically nil.  The only reason we've heard of any of these latter books is due to their being shared around and carefully stocked on shelves.  We build libraries for them, we design classes to discuss them, we browbeat children into reading them.

Most books begin in the hole because they try only to entertain or only to educate; this happens because the statistical total of writers perceive one or the other as unworthy or undesirable.  Writers fail to realize that the reader won't notice if an academic book is entertaining or if an escapist book happens to educate, if the book is written well.  Part of this prejudice comes from the belief that all entertaining books are escapist and all educational books are academic - ie., either silly or boring.

The pretense to writing a book for one or the other purpose then obscures the deeper value in writing a book:  to create readers.  Whether the reader is entertained or educated is a matter of taste, not success; neither has much to do with whether or not a book is necessarily good.

Then what makes a good book?  This has been on my mind lately, for good reason, as I am on the hook now for creating a good book and I very much want to do that.  Towards that end, I'm limited by my experience with other books, good or bad.  Once upon a time, if I had written this essay, I would have gotten entrenched in discussions about plot, character, theme and whatnot, very much the sort of literature anyone can read on the IMDb user reviews page about what makes a good film.

More and more, however, I find myself thinking in these terms: what makes a good chair?

It is far more obvious to the average person what elements must exist to make a chair function as it does.  It must be of a certain height for its purpose, it must have a certain comfort, it must endure, it must support weight, it must fit into a given space and so on.  A comfortable chair may be too heavy or large for the room where it lives; a kitchen chair may be too low for the table; a swivel chair may turn too fast or fail to adjust sufficiently.  Everyone inherently understands this because everyone spends much of their day sitting on some kind of surface.  Terms like "character" or "theme" are too abstract to be understood - and are therefore useless in conveying a sense of what makes a good book.

I feel that too often writers tend to get wrapped up in story.  Not that a story - a sequence of events leading to a result - doesn't have merit, but because "a" story is not enough for a novel.  If the writer sits to tell the tale of one story, the reader will feel as much interest for the book as you or I would if our friend spent eight or nine hours relaying the tale of his recent "adventure" to Morocco (this is why travelogues are death).

The reader should not presume that I am therefore saying that a book should have three or four stories, as I have often seen argued with respect to both books and film.  Three or four stories are not enough.  Ten stories are not enough.  The failing comes where we perceive that "stories" are large singular pieces that somehow fall into a line from the beginning to the end of the book.  As I age and write and gather my senses together regarding the principles of writing, I begin to see how a book is a literal cloud of stories, thrown together into a pile that seems haphazard and indistinct until a moment comes in the work where the reader suddenly grasps that we have been making a chair.

I will try to explain this using two metaphors.  The first is the chair itself.  The craftsman does not begin by making a "chair"; the first step isn't even the making of an arm or a leg.  Instead, the wood itself is selected from a forest of wood, the particular element being sought after being a complete mystery to any of us who will one day buy the chair.  If we imagine ourselves walking alongside each craftsman selecting the source wanted, we will see different things resulting from different craftsmen.  If we don't know what the craftsman does; and if the craftsman fails to educate us with words; compelling us to observe and learn by degrees as we follow the process of wood to object, object to shape, shape to composition, it will take some time before we realize what sort of craftsman we have met - or indeed, what sort of chair has been formed.

The writer does not have the benefit of there being set dictates and traditions for what sort of book may be written.  The practice is far, far less stringent than making a chair.  Therefore it is up to the writer to decide how much peculiar stretch should be put into the writing itself - and it is in this 'stretch' that I code the value of the book.  It is in this 'stretch' that I perceive the plenitude of stories that are there to be told.

To express this, consider a scene where a constable goes to a cottage to interview the resident there.  We might expect the writer to write the scene thusly:

"The constable arrived and went to the door, knocking upon it."

Or we might write the scene from the viewpoint of the resident who is interviewed:

"Sitting in a chair, the resident heard a knock on the door."

We might remove the door from the scene, enabling the character to see the constable approach and to have the constable see the character:

"As the constable approached, he raised his hand to the resident; the resident waved back and together they approached each other."

This feels a bit better and the reader will find writers stretching for this sort of greeting all the time.  Unfortunately, it is also common, both to the writing of books and the experience of readers; so we might add to it by altering the environment or the character's reaction to it:

"The constable strode forward through the snow, brushing it away as he approached; the resident held his hands in front of his mouth and blew upon them, to warm them, before raising his hand in greeting.  The constable waved back."

The stretch gets better as we consider more and more elements in the environment:

"To reach the cottage in the deep snow, the constable had resorted to a donkey.  The donkey plowed through the snow towards the cottage, its snorting drawing the attention of the resident, who was busy with an axe chopping wood.  The resident put down the axe, wiped sweat from his brow in the cold air and watched the donkey and the constable approach."

Step by step, we slowly understand how the small events of this one moment in the book becomes a story unto itself.  Both characters are engaged; both characters are revealed a little by what they are doing that morning.  The more we add to what they are doing, and why, and how it affects them, the better the small story becomes; and the better the small story frames itself in the minds of the reader, who will remember this miniature tale as the greater book progresses.

Thus we come to how I have described the scene for my novel, the Fifth Man (taken out of context, so I have inserted a word or two that wouldn't be in the paragraph):

"When I stopped in my labour, the silence between the [distant chantry] bells strained the patience of my ears as I listened for an approach. When it came, after chopping wood enough to see us through until the dead of winter passed, I saw a figure. It came along through the trees with a steady call to a beast; I knew from the voice that it was not my father. It was Chaulders. Unequal to the task of climbing the track to our cottage, he was instead mounted upon a donkey that breasted its way forward. He knocked at it with a stick, swaying in the saddle like a sailor on a spar, threatening to go over one side or the other into a bank. Instead, he made progress towards me, until he saw me there and lifted a hand to give greeting. This sent him askew - and for a moment his bulk wavered on the precipice. He quickly knotted both his hands in the donkey’s bridle and mane and held on. The donkey brayed in anger and mortification. A false step might have sent them both off the trail and tumbling down the hill, but the donkey earned its provender; with courageous effort, the constable righted himself. He flashed a grin in triumph and I doffed my hat to him."

As long as I can provide enough stretch as I write forward, the book I am writing will be a fine book, and it will not depend if I have embraced a philosophy of entertainment or education.  I have embraced a philosophy of making a good chair.

6 comments:

Lance Duncan said...

I have long held the opinion, at least concerning fiction, that there are a few elements essential in a great work of literature: story or plot, themes,and writing or use of language. The mastery of any one of these elements can create a great book, but the inclusion of all generates a real masterpiece. Great story engages the reader and exhibits certain timeless qualities(which has given rise to the popularity of the "hero's journey"). An example is LotR, with a truly epic story; which has proven so engaging that the majority of fantasy fiction for the last 50 years has imitated it in some way.Great themes cause the reader to stop and think about this world around them, and about topics previously unconsidered. Examples are the works of John Steinbeck, and many other required reading in highschool or college English courses.Great writing(or use of the English language) should be fairly self explanatory; Shakespeare being the prime example. Not all of Shakespeare's work has good stories or themes, but all his work are examples of superb writing and manipulation of the English language.I think there was another element that could make a work great, but I can't remember what it was.

Anyway, this post made me reevaluate these ideas. Specifically that books entertain or educate or can do both. Immediately I think of a series of children's books, the Animorphs, which I read in grade 4/5. They are not great books by themselves, but they are entertaining (for a 10 yr old) and educational. I learned a huge amount about a large variety of animals, and was urged to learn even more on my own because I read those books. As a child I thought that was a great series of books. So why should I scoff at and have a poor view of those books now? Maybe I need to take "great literature" off of its high pedestal, and consider whether a work fulfills it's purpose: entertainment and education.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ah, I would argue that your examples all do that. LOTR, though I have troubles with it, is intensely educational - though perhaps you leave the book with an education that is very different from what a university might offer. Steinbeck is profoundly entertaining - remembering that catharsis and empathy are simply a different sort of entertainment from the norm. Shakespeare has profound stretch; not only have we gained greatly from the spirit of the works themselves, but they have educated the world on how literature works and how it is built, like a chair maker teaching how to build chairs the world has never seen.

What's needed is a different understanding of "entertainment"; a different understanding of "educational"; you and I, Lance, both know what an elf is, don't we? The world knows what an elf is. Why? It gives us reason to consider how educational that book really was.

Ozymandias said...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorial_intent

I am reminded of the intentional fallacy: "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art." (Of course, I do not mean offense here. Please bear with me...)

I came to understand this fallacy by way of analogy. A craftsman sets out to make a chair. He puts a lot of thought and effort into the item, and the end result is a spectacular thing. He is approached by a customer; they strike a deal; the chair is sold. Later, the craftsman visits the customer's home and is dismayed to see that the customer is using the chair as a bookshelf. He says to the customer, "What's wrong with you? How could you use this chair as a bookshelf?" The customer simply says, "I didn't buy a chair. I bought a bookshelf. That's what you made, wasn't it?"

I bring this up because of the similarity in the analogies. In your case, you seem to be talking about the process of making the chair (whereas the intentional fallacy refers to the interpretation of the end result). During crafting, you go through many steps where you select the wood, strip the bark, cut the wood into planks, cut those planks into pieces, smooth the pieces as necessary, glue or peg the pieces together, smooth the pieces again, repeat the process for more pieces, glue or peg the many pieces into a larger object, etc.

But in the end, did you make a chair? Of course I have no doubt that you will be successful there; but to me, it's just interesting to look at the whole process, from the micro to macro, from beginning to end, to pick it apart and see what we can see.

Thank you for the insight.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Marvellous, Ozymandias.

I am content to make chairs for bookshelves.

Jeremiah Scott said...

I am a miserable snob when it comes to literature. I read nine-hundred and ninety-nine paperback adventures and on the thousandth one I thought to myself, "I've read the same damn book a thousand times." I still read such books, but I seldom consider them good. Just pure escapism.

Other than the obvious, for me the best literature has two attributes:

1. It is polyphonic. I love Roland Barthes's take on this and I haven't gotten it out of my head since I first read S/Z.

2. In it, the author tries something new. That is, after all, why it is called a novel. The attempt at novelty, however, often manifests as gimmickry. But when it works it is sublime.

I like your chair analogy. Good luck building your chair. I can't wait to--er--sit in it. (Or stack books on it!)

Doug said...

I am amused (in a good way) about your comment "What's needed is a different understanding of entertainment. . . ."

Indeed. Your work on your world, as you've said before, is a difficult undertaking. And yet, it is entertaining to you. You derive satisfaction from it. You've also educated yourself, whether about historical events, good design principles, or psychology.

A few million more people deciding that entertainment involves engaging that gray matter between one's ears would be a good thing.