Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tell Me a Story, but Tell it Well


As part of a writing-improvement campaign, I've been reading authors from around the globe, including major prize winners. I've been surprised by two things — unimpressive writing and the lack of compelling stories. It probably doesn't help that I'm reading these at six-thirty in the morning, but I've read other work at that hour and been riveted. I was surprised by the importance of these two basic elements of writing — style and story — but maybe I shouldn't be. What would we do without salt and sugar? The culprit in these works was a certain distance in the writing that translated into a distance between the work and me as the reader. In cases where the work was compelling, I didn't just read the words, I felt what they were saying — big difference.

John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, comments on what makes fiction art. "Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all, what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are." What's compelling about Gardiner's observation is that he validates the writer's daily struggle to make good fiction with eloquence and the appropriate zeal.

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