Thursday, August 21, 2014

Class Notes from the Garden of Ideas: Writing the 'Good Read'

       Here are the class notes, somewhat abridged, for the one-day course I taught at the Cape Cod Writers Annual Conference earlier this month. 


                          COURSE DESCRIPTION:  
            Writing that offers a good read is like a door with a big sign saying "Open Me." We can't resist. We can't wait for a break in our day to read another chapter. Compelling works of both fiction and nonfiction "hook" us with a strong premise, a brilliant setting, a character that engages us in that deep, inward place and won't let us go. Or a voice that makes us want to hear more and more, and keeps on whetting an appetite the next sentence fulfills. What's the "hook" that seals the deal in your writing? 

                                    INTRODUCTORY THOUGHTS: Great Reads, Strong Hooks
                I've reviewed a lot of books. More important is that I've loved some of them. I think looking carefully at what turns us on in the books we love can help us find the best in ourselves as writers. We write with our soul; we read with it, also, when we are reading for what is commonly called 'pleasure.' Reading great writing satisfies something deep in us. It leads us deeper into ourselves. The tunnel of 'deep reading,' the dreamlike state that is akin to active creativity. A relationship of nourishment obtains. As writers, we do it with words. Where do the words come from?
            Most of us need to have processed a lot of words, experienced a lot of language, before we can effectively express the thoughts, ideas, emotions, stories and points of view that wake the desire to write. It's an appetite. We must feed it.
            So smell the flowers. Open your senses. Breathe the mountain (or ocean) air in the realm of imagination and in the spirit of intellectual play.
            This is what we want when we turn to a book. We want the stimulus of mental travel; escape but not just any escape. We do not want to go to another shopping mall, another bar, or another website that's anything like what we're used to. It's stimulus for the mini-me inside, the voice, the commentary, the reflection, the inner debate team, that we're hungry for. 
            Books that provide a great read are irresistible. We can't wait for break time to read another chapter. We hope no one really needs to talk to us tonight so we can have more time to read. It happens; something has grabbed us -- inside, where it matters, and won't let us go. In journalism that something is called the hook.
            In works of compelling fiction and strong nonfiction as well the hook is a premise, a setting, a voice, a character that engages us in that deep, inward place and won't let us go.
            The 'hook' is a journalism term, but most everybody knows what it means. It's a metaphor for making the connection to the reader. In this one-day session we're going to look at some hooks in books that have fed my appetite for 'great reads.' The books I'm prepared to talk about include some of my favorites, some are recognized classics, others are books that I've read recently -- books that serve the purpose of assuring our hungry hearts that great books are still being written as both fiction and nonfiction. In some cases I've written about these books. In a few I've talked to the authors. (If you're a journalist writing about the arts, people are interested in talking to you. It's one of the few surviving advantages of the profession.) One of the things you can learn from the author is the origin of the story. In general, these talks confirm one of my intuitions on what makes for the 'good' read: go after something big.
            Some of the hooks in 'writing the good read' I'll focus on are great first lines, opening scenes, establishing the narrative voice, characters who tell us who they are, big subjects and big ideas.
 
            1. Great First Lines: How of us remember the opening sentence of "Pride and Prejudice"?
            "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
            If you're a Jane Austen reader you probably do remember it. You recognize that knowingly ironic, superior, intelligent, often satirical voice, respond to it, and that hot-wired mental connection is enough by itself to keep you reading for all six novels.
            A strong first line draws readers to identify with a narrative voice.
            The voice in this sentence in P&P tells us the truth but also makes fun of attitudes behind this truth.
            The other hook, planted early here and developed throughout the novel, is the premise, the vision, that people who really need to find each in life really can do it. This one of the most hopeful book in the English language and perhaps the greatest love 'romance' in literary fiction.... Other great love stories are tragedies: R&J, the Great Gatsby. The ending of comedy is a marriage. It's a kind of story that appeals to us for a reason. People have to find one another in life.  
            The sentence is not only a beautiful expression of a certain tone -- 18th century grandeur and rationalism mixed with ironic knowingness -- it captures the premise of the entire book: upper-class families want their daughters to marry well. 'Well' means money. (The world has surely changed much since Austen's day, but the sentence still cozies up to a 'universal' truth.) The sentence has a Neoclassical style, its diction, "a truth universally acknowledged." Cf, in a serious vein, to 'we hold these truths to be self-evident.' That's also an 18th century Enlightenment way of thinking.
            This sentence tells you everything you need to know about the society Austen's characters lived in; and she got it into one sentence.
            Many attempts at appropriation, imitation, parody.... Here's one: “It is a truth well sniffed in the four-legged world that anyone taking a walk in the woods must be in want of a dog.”
            P&P’s opening sentence has heft. Other great openings have a very different tone. Sometimes opening sentences succeed in attuning our ears to a certain style of speech.

            Great fictional openings establish a voice (...some more openings)
            In "Huckleberry Finn," it's the establishment of a different kind of voice. " You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer... which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers."  
This tells us a lot about the kind of book we've just begun. It's a message: pay attention, brain. The vernacular here is as far as you can get from Jane Austen. Not an educated voice, it's rustic and boyish; but savvy.... To 'stretch the truth' is a common enough phrase in HF's vernacular to call for a noun form: a 'stretcher.' But also 'smart' in that the narrator addresses the fundamental artifice of fiction (a meta-fictional device): we take it on faith that somebody is talking to us. This is not, of course, 'true.' Our willingness not to be bothered by artifice is often called 'The willing suspension of disbelief.' … How do the best writers get us to suspend our skepticism and willing go along with their stories? The answer in many cases is the charm of the narrative voice.

Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" 
establishes a voice from the first few sentences, through the narrative standpoint of third-person indirect narration, with some direct expressions of interior monologue: This narrative is what the central character would be saying if her mental voice was trying to explain what's going on in her consciousness. Of course that's not how consciousness works. It would drive you crazy to do that. It's also an artifice. But as a narrative standpoint, it catches enough of how the person [ie 'the character'] uses words, thinks and speaks, to give the reader a sense of what it feels like to be her. MD's opening sentences:             "Mrs. Dalloway [note title; a courtesy title, that's who she is in the world] said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
            "What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air..."
Part of the brilliance here is that Mrs. Dalloway is an unaffectedly happy person. Stories usually begin with the premise somebody’s unhappy about something: the problem… MD is fortunate -- privileged, but also fortunate. 
Who’s Lucy? The context tells us she must be the servant. 
When MD enthuses ‘What a lark!’ etc. – these exclamations are her own voice. (A 'lark' is something that makes you want to sing)... Then the narrative goes right back into third-person; ‘it had seemed to her...’
A century later something like this is almost the standard default for literary fiction. Third-person, not 'I,' not told by an actor in the book. But told in a voice that mimics your main character's mental processes. Some direct statements but without quotation marks. ... I think of it as third-person ideal observer: the voice that lives in your brain, or right outside it; or sits on your shoulder giving a real-time report from your consciousness.
 
           Here's the first sentence of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
            The sentence catches a quality of the language: the marvelous -- an Arabian Nights fairy tale exoticism, very far from the previous examples -- that persists through this book. It anticipates some of the 'magic' in 'magic realism,' a phrase used to describe Marquez's style that won a great success in the world. Imagine a world in which you need to 'discover' ice. It references the idea of childhood's magical 'discoveries.'...The combination of the public event, a firing squad, with the merely personal, 'his father,' a childhood moment, sums up the book’s vision. The subtext is that a place -- not as ‘setting’ but as the book's true subject, the town of Macondo -- is way off the beaten track. Extremes of nature, climate, and character are intensified here, inbred in a way, because of the town's isolation.
            The diction and tone of this first sentence: "Colonel... " (this formal heavy name) catches the flavor of both the local language and formal Spanish, long complicated and idiosyncratic clauses, strong modifiers, strange epithets, but also something of the classic formality of Spanish  literature.
            My 'imitation' of this opening gambit: "After my roommate fled to Canada to avoid being prosecuted for evading the draft, he got a job teaching French to the unruly children of fishermen on Fogo Island."

            Other famous first lines. The first three words in "Moby Dick." I bet we all know that one. But does anybody know any other sentence from this book?
            My take: how about, 'Call me skeptical.'... In a newspaper story I wrote about a community reading program in which everyone was asked to read Moby Dick: "Call them optimists." What connotations does the name ‘Ishmael’ carry to readers? It's the name that makes the sentence work.

            The first sentence in Tolstoi's Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
            One of the most famous first lines in all fiction, in part because it's easy to remember. It's a universal claim about a universal subject, family. As an opening it's less about voice. As a generalization, it's an arresting proposition, though we can debate to what extent it's true. It's importance is giving us something to think about. The hook here is the sentence sounds like objective wisdom.
            My own take on Tolstoi's line... "The place where you grow up is always the most boring place in the world; the place you leave behind is a source of endless fascination."... (Too subtle? But where does 'nostalgia' come from?)
             Many other candidates found here: http://americanbookreview.org/100bestlines.asp

 
2. Opening Scenes. Great scenes. (Another way to talk about 'hooks') 
Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
            McCann begins this recent National Book Award winning novel with an unforgettable public event. It's big public moment -- front page headlines. In August 1974, the twin towers haven't even been opened. An eccentric genius aerialist decides to string a line between them and walk back and forth, dancing around, just to show he can do it.
            Then we go into seemingly unrelated stories about people living in New York City. An Irish visitor, a member of a religious order, on an unusual mission to a Bronx housing project. Young artists getting away from the city. A woman grieving over the death of her son in Vietnam. Connect the dots between them all and you have a picture of "things" in a certain place and time. That's the esthetic premise behind James Joyce's 'modernist' ground-breaking novel 'Ulysses.' This book is far more accessible.
            McCann's hook connects with the reader by making you feel you are there in lower Manhattan in 1974 when something amazingly incredible happens, re-awakening a city's sense of wonder. Notice all the concrete details.

Kafka On The Shore  by Haruki Murakami. The opening scene tell us the book (like life) is about the journey, not the destination.

"So you're all set for money, then?" the boy named Crow asks in his typical sluggish voice. The kind of voice like when you've just woken up and your mouth still feels heavy and dull. But he's just pretending. He's totally awake. As always.
I nod.
"How much?"
I review the numbers in my head. "Close to thirty-five hundred in cash, plus some money I can get from an ATM. I know it's not a lot, but it should be enough. For the time being."
"Not bad," the boy named Crow says. "For the time being."
I give him another nod.
"I'm guessing this isn't Christmas money from Santa Claus."
"Yeah, you're right," I reply.
Crow smirks and looks around. "I imagine you've started by rifling drawers, am I right?"
I don't say anything. He knows whose money we're talking about, so there's no need for any long-winded interrogations. He's just giving me a hard time.

            Who's talking? A first-person narrator. Who's Crow -- any description? What's going on? What's the money for?... A great deal is implied, suggested, hinted here. It's a mystery. It employs an age-old classical literary device, beginning the story 'in medias res' (Latin for in the middle of things.) Like 'The Iliad.'
            In the opening scene of Kafka On The Shore the first-person narrator, a teenage boy, talks to his apparent friend, a boy like himself but a little older -- and wiser and 'tougher' (a word our narrator uses a lot) who gives him confrontational pep talks. ("Are you tough enough?" he asks a little later on.) The narrator, we soon realize, is about to run away from home. It's a hundred pages later before learn, if we haven't guessed, that the "friend" is an invention of the narrator's mind. By then the novel has so much going on -- so many hooks (plot hooks, character hooks, metaphysical hooks) -- that we may have forgotten how that tense, terse initial dialogue dragged us inside to what proves a very big room.
            Notice that the diction, unlike the first lines we have looked at above, is not particularly important. The narrator’s voice is contemporary, ordinary, rather colorless. The author is Japanese, but nothing here says this is 'not America.' Christmas? The idiom is supra-national. I'm thinking of this as a 'world-cultural novel.'
            The routine ordinary stuff of life, eating, sleeping, traveling is recorded in this novel. The grounding in ordinary concrete detail given to us by our first-person narrator helps us go with (or 'suspend disbelief' concerning) the novel's super-real, frankly fantastic, and unconventional events.
            In this first dialogue what clues do we have of what our narrator is about to do? We're not told yet he's 15, but we infer he's young. We hear about a lot of money for a kid (though not enough for a grown-up). But there are clues that prepare us for what's to come.
            This hook works by dropping us straight into a 'scene,' a key point in the action and planting both clues and questions in our mind. We know enough already to be interested in what we don't know, and what we can only find out by reading the book.

[NOTE: CF to 'mystery' genre fiction. The set-up and the un-raveling of clues to a mystery, generally a crime, is what we enjoy. The 'solution' to the mystery is almost always disappointing; unbelievable, forced, or trite, anti-climactic. The real 'mysteries' are the ultimate questions of human life.].


'The Tiger' by John Vaillant. The narrative stance is third person omniscient. This is nonfiction narrative writing. The writer didn't see this scene; he reconstructed it imaginatively. Writers do it all the time. Storytellers of all sorts do it. Not always this well.


            PROLOGUE: "Hanging in the trees, as if caught there, is a sickle of a moon. Its wan light scatters shadows on the snow below, only obscuring further the forest that this man negotiates now as much by feel as by sight. He is on foot and on his own save for a single dog, which runs ahead, eager to be heading home at last..."
            We learn how cold it is. "It is so cold that spit will freeze before it lands; so cold that a tree, brittle as straw and unable to contain its expanding sap, may spontaneously explode.... As they progress, man and dog alike leave behind a wake of heat, and the contrails of their breath hang in pale clouds above their tracks. Their scent stays close in the windless dark, but their footfalls carry and so, with every step, they announce themselves to the night...."
            Here, we ask ourselves who are they 'announcing' themselves to? (I so do not want to be there, except in a 'good read.')
            "Together, they hear a rumble in the dark that seems to come from everywhere at once."
            The book's opening ominous note draws us in. The hook works in perhaps the most common age-old way storytellers have always worked: It makes us have to know happens next.
             A point to make here about scene-setting here. The scene setting here is identical to that of a murder mystery. We're at scene of the crime. But since this book is nonfiction, can you use fictional story-telling techniques in nonfiction? Yes you can. In fact you should. The more narrative writing (storytelling) you get into your nonfiction piece, the more you expand your potential readership. Successful nonfiction writers have also told me that to hook readers on a nonfiction subject you have to 'find the people' to tell the story through.


           
3. Go Big
            The subject of The Tiger leads me to the hook I call 'Go Big.' If you've got a 'tiger in the tank' somewhere, make us feel how big it is. In this case, the book's subject is 600 pounds, longer than your bed, it sleeps in the snow at 30 below. It can kill an animal several times its size. It's a worldwide sex symbol. The first Viagra was initially called 'Tiger.'
            A subject with a high profile makes a connection with lots of readers. We all know something about tigers, but this book shows us how little we probably knew. Fear and curiosity, natural responses to this subject, are part of the appeal.
            There are other such "big" hooks, waiting for us to find them.
            This book's subject is also one of the weirdest places on earth, the Russian Far East, where you get both crocodiles and moose in ths same environment; the author calls it a 'boreal jungle.' Contradictions, exaggerations, amazement and extremes are part of a subject's attraction. The tigers we're concerned with here live in a bizarre piece of the Russian Pacific coast with a scarcely believable climate and ecology.
            Go after big game in your own writing.Hunt for the tiger, the bear, the whale. Tackle the big picture, the universal, the meaning of life.
            (NOTE: This is opposite the advice often given to anyone seeking commercial success. Publishers want (and agents will often tell you this directly), something that's very like something that's been a huge success in the marketplace. They ask, when you pitch, what other books do you see this is like?)
            Good reads connect with us by raising the big questions. Other examples. What the world it might become if we're not careful: Orwell's 1984. He wrote a novel about the dangers of totalitarianism. Ideology, thought control, tendencies in 'the state.'
             Writers can tee up on common genre approaches (thrillers, romance, scifi, fantasy) and still take a swing at the big questions of life, producing books that transcend their apparent genre.
            Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" imagines a different way to organize human society. This book, which looks like science fiction because it takes place in 'other worlds,' begins:
            "There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
            Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on." 
                        In the passage above, LeGuin's storytelling plants deep questions about the notion not only of national borders but of the reality of states and all institutions of political authority by her statement "But the idea was real." Ideas are real only because we believe them. The laws and social norms on one side of this 'wall' are completely different from those on the other side of the wall. That's why she describes the wall as 'two-faced,' a word that connotes hypocrisy.
             LeGuin's hook is asking the big question of 'how should our society be organized?' -- a fundamental question since the time of Plato's "Republic." 


4. Characters Are Made of Words
            What characters say about themselves, and their worlds, speaks to us. It helps us realize what we say, or think, about ourselves, our lives, our societies really matters. A strong character who teaches us, shows us, or wakens in us something important is an important hook.
            Let's go back to "Pride and Prejudice" for an example. Why do readers identify with the character of Elizabeth Bennet? (Why do we identify with any character?) Because she is smart, self-assured, fortunate, obviously superior to most of the people around her.
            At her story's start Elizabeth Bennet is young. Below, she is pretty sure of herself. Does she 'think well' of herself? Does her attitude say 'I'm better than most other people'?  
            "There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.”        
            Elizabeth learns from experience, after a misunderstanding with Darcy, that her 'prejudice' against him has blinded her:
            "How despicably I have acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly... Till this moment I never knew myself."
            Vanity means you're in love with yourself. Like Elizabeth, most of us learn self-knowledge the hard way.
             Here's the end of a dialogue I call "Lady Catherine Is Displeased." Elizabeth stands up for herself here, but on firmer ground than youthful egotism. She is mature, cool, reasoned -- we'd all like to be this good in this kind of confrontation.
            The other character in this scene, completely defined by her language, is Lady Catherine, Darcy's older female relative. Her self-importance is Everest. Characters 'hook' us by telling us who they are, what they are like, so the author doesn't have to 'explain' it.
            Lady Catherine: ``You are then resolved to have him?''
            Elizabeth: ``I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.''
            ``It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world.''
            ``Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude,'' replied Elizabeth,  ``have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern -- and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.''
            ``And this is your real opinion! This is your final resolve! Very well. I shall now know how to act. Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified. I came to try you. I hoped to find you reasonable; but, depend upon it, I will carry my point.''
            In this manner Lady Catherin talked on, till they were at the door of the carriage, when, turning hastily round, she added, ``I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet . I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.''
            You want to put a pillow over this lady's head. But she's a brilliantly drawn character, convicted by her own words... Her diction at the end has a classic ring; like a Shakespeare character in a different idiom. The parallelism of successive sentences; a rhetorical device, it builds emphasis. Three 'denunciations' leading to the unintentionally comic conclusion. The duel of strong characters is also about the exercise of power of the upper class; an implicit criticism of a social system, which in Austen is all we get, but all we need.

            Characters at sea: The 'historical fiction' of  Patrick O'Brian. In this series of books set in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, the two main characters are seagoing friends Doctor Stephen Maturin and Captain Jack Aubrey. As in the previous example, we are 'hooked' by characters we identify with because they are intelligent, sympathetic, and seek to do the right thing. Beyond that they're both intriguing and amusing. They are voices who make us love them. Here they are talking, knowing they will be overheard by the crew. What you say conceals truth from the crew, but reveals aspects of their characters to the reader. This excerpt is from
            The Wine Dark Sea by Patrick O'Brian.
            STEPHEN (a medical doctor): 'As I was leaving Peru because of the unjustified suspicions of a military man who misunderstood my examination of his wife - a deeply stupid but very powerful and bloody-minded military man - ' This was an explanation for some of Stephen's more bizarre movements that both of them understood perfectly: it was calculated, and very well calculated, to satisfy the minds of the seamen, who for a great while had looked upon the Doctor's licentious capers ashore with an indulgent comprehension. ' - a confidential friend came to see me by night and ... he gave me an account of three American China ships sailing in company from Boston ... no sooner had I reached Valparaiso than I received word from my friend's correspondent in the Argentine: the ships ... meant to traverse the Straits le Maire and to carry on, skirting south of Diego Ramirez by the end of the present month ...'
            What has the 'Doctor' really been doing? That he has to cover it up with a fictional tale the crew will swallow because they are prone to believe, wrongly, that indulges in 'licentious capers'?
            In The Far Side of the World (book 10 of the series), Captain Aubrey wants to avoid stopping for water so he can pursue a 'prize' and has the doctor examine whether the rainwater captured aboard the ship would be safe to drink. Maturin and his friend Martin (another nature-lover, and a clergyman) prefer making a stop for water because they want to see Brazil. Here they discover dangerous parasites in the rainwater:
            Stephen: "Will you look at this, now? Perhaps the finest conferva soup I have ever seen; and I believe I make out some African forms."
            "There are also some ill-looking polyps, and some creatures no doubt close kin to the hydroblabs," said Martin. "I should not drink it for a deanery."
            "Pray tell the Captain that it will not do," said Stephen, "and that he will be obliged to bear up, bear down, bear away for that noble stream the Sao Francisco and fill our casks from its limpid, health-giving billows as they flow between banks covered with a luxuriant vegetation of choice exotics, echoing to the cries of the toucan, the jaguar, various apes, a hundred species of parrots, and they flying among gorgeous orchids, while huge butterflies of unparalleled splendour float over a ground strewn with Brazil nuts and boa-constrictors."
            Martin gave an involuntary skip."
            (Why do people 'skip'? They can't helps themselves, they're so happy.)
            That long entirely spontaneous sentence by Maturin, playing on the nautical terminology he is never very clear about -- can you imagine being so casually, brilliantly verbal?
            These books can be seen as a 'genre' -- historical fiction. But each is also a fully realized literary novel that doesn't depend on your having read the others. The two central characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, could not be more different. Captain Jack is old-family British gentry, sent to sea as a child for a career since the family doesn't have much money. Stephen is half-Irish, half-Catalonian; Catholic, political radical, hates Napoleon for betraying the revolution; a physician, amateur natural scientist-- the only kind there was then; a genius in many respects, and sometimes a fool.
            Again, a big subject helps hook the reader. Life in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars -- a difficult, intense, often scary time for the Brits, but they trust the navy. So there's drama, sea stories, sea battles, international intrigue -- but all sorts of character studies as well. It's Jane Austen in a men's club; but when women appear, they drive the action. ... The way O'Brian's characters think, behave, and speak tell us who they are.


5. The World is Made of Words
            Good reads connect with readers by depicting elements of our own world, our own experience of life, that move us. The 'world' of the book gets inside us because it conjures up pieces of our own world. It takes us 'out' of ourselves by taking us deeply into ourselves.
            'Realism' in fiction is a term widely used for books that depict a recognizably 'real' time and place. Often that time is our own; the book's 'society' feels much like our own. Some critics have spoken of 'The great tradition of the English novel' for realistic fiction by Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, George Elliott, the early Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and others. The subject is real people in 'our own' society.
            Realistic fiction by 20th century writers such as Lawrence hooks us by evoking central experiences in our own lives. In the passage below from D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, his sensitive adolescent characters Paul Morel and Miriam, friends from childhood, are experiencing the changes, the awakening, we all go through. It's too simple to say they're 'in love.' They're experiencing the world, the universe, nature, other people, themselves in a new world -- suddenly open to the strangeness, wonder, awe, agape [universal love], terror, and beauty of existence.
            Here's a moment the two characters share: the world and the nature of human experience seen through the 'mirror' of a wild rose 'tree.'
            “It was very still. The tree was tall and straggling. It had thrown its briars over a hawthorn-bush, and its long streamers trailed thick, right down to the grass, splashing the darkness everywhere with great spilt stars, pure white. In bosses of ivory and in large splashed stars the roses gleamed on the darkness of foliage and stems and grass. Paul and Miriam stood close together, silent, and watched. Point after point the steady roses shone out to them, seeming to kindle something in their souls. The dusk came like smoke around them, and still did not put out the roses.”
            Part of the effectiveness of this for me is that -- 100 years later, in a different time and place -- flowers actually do gleam in the dark. Early dark doesn't 'put out the roses,' it makes them shine. That's part of our world, part of why we love it. 





             All the world's a stage, Shakespeare said, but what kind of world created William Shakespeare? A literature scholar, Stephen Greenblatt provides some answers in Will in the World. Shakespeare is one of those eternally big subjects -- a sure hook for people who care about literature. I didn't think enough was known about his life to write this kind of book, but Greenblatt hooks the reader by matching what we know about the world of a 'commoner' in his day with everything Shakespeare has told us about his world through his plays and poems.  
            Here's the author's summary of his subject's 'hook' in the book's Preface:
            "A young man from a small provincial town -- a man without independent wealth, without powerful family connections and without a university education -- moved to London in the late 1580's and, in a remarkably short time, became the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time."
            Can't do much better than that for a first sentence. After reading it, we're likely to want to know more about both his subject, Shakespeare, and his subject's world.

            Tom Reiss's book about a forgotten hero of the French Revolution, The Black Count, takes on a big subject -- the revolution that permanently changed the face of Europe and western civilization -- and reveals that time and place, France in the tumultuous 1790s, to readers who (like me) may not know a lot about it. A second (and greater) hook in this book is providing the back story, a 'new' story to even the best informed readers, about the creation of some of western world's all-time popular novels, 'The Three Musketeers' and 'The Count of Monte Cristo.' We may not read these books today, but we know their names (and we certainly may have 'seen the movie'). Reiss told me that not only did he read these books, they were his own childhood favorites and favorites of family members who fled Europe during the Second World War. The author of these popular 'swashbuckling' adventure stories is Alexandre Dumas. That's why Reiss tells us in his book:
            "The original Alexandre Dumas was born in 1762, the son of 'Antoine Alexandre de l'Isle,' in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue [Haiti]..."
            The 'Black Count' of his title is the son of a runaway French nobleman and an African slave in Haiti, where sugar cane workers were routinely worked to death by French slave-owners. He is sold into slavery himself, temporarily, and then brought to France, where he becomes a believer in the Republican ideals of equality and democracy and one of the most effective military commanders in spreading the revolution through Europe. But his success provokes envy in a powerful man, Napoleon, etc.... This story still gives me chills.

            Finally, some good reads seize our attention and hold onto it tightly by addressing the fundamental mysteries of life. I'm going back here to Murakami's novel Kafka on the Shore, whose opening scene I discussed above. Called "an insistently metaphysical mind-bender" by a reviewer in The New Yorker (I couldn't top that), the book's subject is the nature of human existence. Not as a philosopher would examine it, but as a storyteller unfolds it. A depiction of the whole, including the purely inexplicable.
            Lots of stories go 'way out,' but the inclusion of fantastical or speculative elements doesn't necessarily send readers to the moon. They don't grip you in the interior place that needs to be addressed. They don't grab the inner voice inside your head and make you talk to them. They don't nourish your soul.
            "Kafka on the Shore" does, at least in part because the characters are nuanced and sympathetic and both their outer and inner lives are directly portrayed. In the 'world' of this book, which is 98 percent recognizably our own (with a mild Japanese accent), stories and of dreams are described with the same concrete clarity as a bus ride from the city to the shore. Sometimes they are more real than the humdrum on the street.
            The book's 15-yr-old hero, who can sit in a library and read books -- fiction, stories -- all day, answers questions from the sympathetic librarian about his namesake's bizarrely prophetic work, 'The Penal Colony' by the early 20th century writer Franz Kafka. The story is "talking about the details" of a bizarre execution device, the boy named Kafka says. "What I mean is, that's his device for explaining the kind of lives we lead..." 
            After the conversation ends, the first-person narrator tells us: "I wasn't just giving some general theory of Kafka's fiction, I was talking about something very real. Kafka's complex, mysterious execution device wasn't some metaphor or allegory -- it's also here, all around me..." 
            Murakami's own 'idea of the world' -- in which stories, metaphors and the world within yourself are as real as physical facts -- connects with readers who ask themselves 'what's it all about?'  It leaves me with this final thought, formulated by one of the book's characters: "The world is a metaphor."
            
            Brilliant stories, brilliant books, are all around us. And they are 'very real,' Not the same as the 'real' physical facts of the universe; maybe not the same kind of real. But still very real. That's why we make room for them in our lives.