[Post title inspired by my sister and her somewhat questionable method of throwing grammar out the window when she’s trying to make a point. “Bad grammar used for emphasis” is not a technique they teach you in persuasive writing, but, going by the extreme reluctance of anybody who knows better to engage my sister in argument, I’m going to say it works. Hopefully.]
[Post itself inspired by one Megan wrote a good many months ago. She didn’t say the thing that annoys me, she just put me in mind of it.]
People often say things I don’t agree with. Generally I’m quite good at not minding.
Sometimes people even say things a LOT that I don’t agree with, and I still don’t mind. Like, “Pure water has no taste.” (I don’t have proof or anything, but I think they’re wrong.) Or, “I didn’t like it because I couldn’t relate.” (No, you didn’t like it because it was BAD WRITING.) Or, “Teens always make stupid decisions in real life so they should always make stupid decisions in books.” (Please. Also, why have I actually heard people say this? PEOPLE.)
There’s things where you disagree. And there’s things where you disagree and are lit from within by the burning flame of your desire to say NO SIR YOU ARE WRONG, LET ME DRAW YOU A DIAGRAM OF YOUR WRONGNESS WITH EXPLANATORY FOOTNOTES.
This post is about one of those second things.
This post is, in fact, about a very simple thing that no one has ever gotten muddled about because it’s so simple (hence why I am qualified to write about it): the nature of truth. And to be more specific (because this is a blog post with a narrowish focus, not a theological tome that will probably break all your toes if you let it slip from your grasp), the nature of truth as encapsulated in and conveyed through stories.
Presupposing that writers have the responsibility and the goal of purveying truth through their works (which is a presupposition that needs its own post or perhaps tome to support, but never mind that for now), that means a writer needs to know what truth is.
Or at least a bit of what it looks like. The jolly thing about writing is that nobody expects you to have a sermon for them, and they’ll approve all vagueness on the grounds that it’s artistic.
(And of course it isn’t just writers who need to know what truth is. People in general are preoccupied with that question.)
Anyway, lots of people have lots of ideas about what truth is. One of the more annoying ideas I often hear is that it’s…well, h’m. It doesn’t get put into so many words. But let me give you an example to show you what I mean.
Suppose there’s a book. Imagine its author in the mold of James Joyce or William Faulkner or some such fellow. Suppose it’s a very “realistic” book, as you would naturally expect from such an author, the kind where everyone is depressed all the time and absolutely fails at communication, and a lot of long words are used in an order that makes even people who know a lot of long words squint, and there might be a plot but it’s a bit hard to tell under all the…sogginess, and everything ends horribly. Not tragically – tragedy is too elevated and noble-sounding a term to describe what I mean. Just horribly. Sordidly.
You can hear the accolades, can’t you? I can, anyway. A brave book, one that does not shrink from depicting our world as it is. This author has dared to strip away the trappings of our culture’s simplistic hero-story narrative and write a story that is honest about what it means to be human.
What the critics mean by “what it means to be human,” of course, is “what it means to be petty and listless and selfish.”
All of which traits are, I admit, pretty universally human. But they’re not the only human traits. The real world is not the world where people always destroy themselves or others and the only endings are tragedy and disillusionment.
I hate it when I hear people look down on hero-stories, happy stories, and fairy-tales for not being real. I hate when they say we should be writing stories that are real, implying that the only ones that are real are those that are dark and gritty and sad and show ugliness to its full extent. And it isn’t so much because they’re being snobs I hate it as because they’re wrong.
Look around at the world. Right now, wherever you’re sitting. What do you see? I see light-bulbs it’s hard to imagine life without, framed by grubby convenience-store ceiling tiles but themselves a warm flush of brightness. I see a faded Baskin Robbins sign. I see a homeless man huddled in a coat (which doesn’t look warm enough for twelve degrees – not that I, over here in my hoodie, can talk), smoking his cigarette at the edge of the sidewalk. I see gas prices that have most annoyingly jumped up twenty cents, and I see a sky of freshly-washed blue with cobwebby clouds clinging and drifting across it.
Later on I’ll see the slow muddy wrinkle of the current, a rusted-out barge anchored next to pavement crumbling into the river, a fat squirrel nibbling an acorn on a nearby branch, a spatter of mud on my shoe that looks almost human, and a young doe unsure whether to eat her plant or run away or stare some more at me.
Ugly and beautiful things. Sometimes more of one. Sometimes more of the other.
That’s life in general too. Sometimes it’s lonely; sometimes it’s overrun with small children chasing butterflies, large dogs chasing squirrels, and fried chicken. Sometimes you lose a friend; sometimes you stay out on the dock till three a.m. talking to one. For every cathedral, there is a decrepit building that guards a pothole-pocked parking lot in the kind of neighborhood you don’t want to frequent after dark. But even so – for ever sickly river flowing between banks that bloom with factories, running brown and oily with their waste, there is a clear stream babbling its way through goldenrod-and-bluebell meadows.
We have the social commentary novels to open people’s eyes to injustices, abuses, and evils, which is of course very good. I think, though – aren’t there probably just as many people who need to have their eyes opened to wonders, loves, and beauties?
I mean, from the perspective that realism is what matters most in a story (which is debatable, but, from that perspective), it’s kind of silly to say that a gritty realistic novel about losing your job and finding out your wife’s cheating on you is somehow better than a light, happy middle grade about kids playing in the woods and exchanging innocent secrets. Isn’t it? Both those things exist.
And yet you’d think, to hear some people talk, that the latter didn’t.
Because why exactly is ugliness more real than beauty? Why is ugliness more true than beauty? Or than wonder? Or even than whimsy and silliness?
Rhetorical questions, those. I propose that it’s a skewed view of reality that sees all the negative things as more true or important than the good things. Even that it’s a skewed view of reality to see all the serious things as more worth considering than the silly ones – because I don’t mean just stories that go dark places but end in eucatastrophe. I mean Alice in Wonderland is as eligible for the distinction of being Great and Worthwhile Literature as is The Idiot. And to frame it in Christian terms, sin is real…but so is grace.
In fact, besides just being incorrect and kind of pitiable, I’d argue the idea stories must be dark and gritty to be true often (not necessarily in every individual case, of course) betokens a type of snobbery, a contempt for people who are happy. They can’t possibly be happy unless they’re simple-minded. Anyone who thinks deeply about things will perceive at once that reality is nothing to be happy about.
Not to be oversensitive, but I don’t like being looked down on for my happiness. Or being told I only possess it because I’m not bright or brave enough to look at things as they are. Maybe I have looked the facts of life in the eye. Maybe I have become acquainted with those things we’d all rather not be acquainted with: corruption, loneliness, grief. Maybe I have considered all these things deeply and come to the conclusion that I’m happy anyway.
And maybe I’ve read some of those happy, innocent little stories where nothing really bad happens, the kind that aren’t real enough to be worthwhile, praiseworthy literature, and closed my eyes and hugged them (while I’m in my room and no one can see me being ridiculous) and loved them for how real they are. And read them a hundred more times.
In fact, I’ll bet you anything I’ve done that. Even my mom wouldn’t disapprove of that bet, because it’s not gambling to bet on certainties.
And that is my long and impassioned opinion on why novels tackling heavy subjects are not inherently more literary or culturally valuable than lighter works. I’m aware this is more an explanation of my point of view than a justification of it, so…yeah. Do you agree? Do you agree partly but partly disagree? Maybe you think The Idiot actually is, by virtue of its subject matter alone, more worthy to be called Great and Worthwhile Literature than Alice? Do tell me your opinions. “I want to know, Anne.”