“No story is terrible if…”

Does fiction have to be important? There are always jokes about the “great american novel” or “the book to end all books” when you are a writer. I look at the books I’ve been reading lately: Hemingway, Robison, Cunningham, McCarthy, and more. Were their books important when they came out? Or is it only that we see them that way through the hazy lens of time, the way the pages of old love letters yellow and fade so beautifully. They may say nothing more romantic than “I miss you” but when they are crumbling and illegible they are a sort of testament to love. Time cannot make bad writing good. In fact, I think it can only serve to emphasize the flaws as age deepens lines and gravity takes its toll. 

But, if it is a good story, if someone enjoys it and it captures their attention, their imagination–is it any less important than something by Hugo or Fitzgerald or Kerouac? Does everything we write have to be some sort of commentary? A stand for or against something? Can there be beautiful writing and captivating characters that serve no other real purpose than to reach out with their golden tipped fingers and pull you in saying, “Come with me to places you’ve never been”? 

William Faulkner said, “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” 

The Hemingway of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris said, “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”

I tend to agree with both. Some people would perhaps say this is too narrow a stipulation, too confining. But what could be less so? The human heart in conflict with itself is a thing of endless possibilities. Endless humans (or non-humans if you will) and endless conflicts. The truth of a story is also subjective–it doesn’t mean the story had to have happened to you or happened at all. But if the story contains truth, reveals truth, prompts a search for truth–whatever that truth may be–how can it fail to be worthwhile?

The original question in this post was not rhetorical. I think blogging has become voyeuristic in so many ways. We read, we watch, we peer into the lives of bloggers, but we never interact. So I will repeat my question: does fiction have to be inherently important?


10 thoughts on ““No story is terrible if…”

  1. A good story, well told, should be enough. A lot of it has to do with preference, and there my hipster snob comes out — if you look at the bestsellers list, it is full of trash — trash that will not stand the test of time. There will be no 50th anniversary edition of Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. But people still read Agatha Christie, and she pretty much wrote dime store mysteries — but she wrote THE BEST dime store mysteries.
    H.P. Lovecraft was, for the most part, ignored during his life, but he created a legacy and influenced modern horror writers so much that his fingerprints are all over the genre.
    Fiction is, by definition, a pretty lie. An escape. So no, fiction doesn’t have to be inherently important, but good fiction does have to be human. The characters have to be unforgettable, the plot new and exciting (or at least feel that way) if it is to stand the test of time.
    I say these things as if I know how to do this — I don’t, and I don’t think anyone really does. I think you tell the best stories you can and create the most wonderful (or awful) characters you can and you try to entertain, and if you feel like imparting something important; something poignant or profound, well, then, you go ahead. Because only time will tell. F.Scott Fitzgerald had no notion that nearly 100 years later people would still be in love with The Great Gatsby, and I’m sure there are a thousand writers of the same era that wrote equally wonderful books that we have just forgotten.
    I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to it, sometimes. People call Life of Pi a modern classic — I call it boring as hell. Just my opinion.
    I just hope that people continue to write (and read) good fiction, and that this trend of considering fan-fiction as something worthwhile to read passes. I hope the standard for good writing doesn’t drop so low that one day Suzanne Collins will be considered the Virginia Woolf of her time, and that people will find Ray Bradbury too obtuse (though they won’t use the word ‘obtuse’ because they won’t know what it means).
    Am I rambling? I’m rambling, aren’t I? Dammit, I need an editor. Ahem.

    • You’re rambling but your rambling is just so delightful that I can’t very well tell you to stop. I actually was thinking of Gatsby and wondering if it had anywhere near the reception at the time it was written that it does now. I’m assuming the answer is no for most of the writers I mentioned. It WOULD nice to be appreciated before you’re a name on a tombstone, but we just can’t always get what we want.

      The downfall of education is a whole other post that I’m not sure I have the energy to delve into. I learned from a friend that works for an educational publishing company that many educational materials are going to be converted from text into audio and video. And the downfall of American continues…say farewell to literacy.

  2. Wow, she does go on… and on… and on.. doesn’t she? My advice? Always be striving to write something that no one else ever has (and I’m not talking about absolute originality, because that particular beast doesn’t exist). Rather, try to write develop a voice that stands out, so that you can have that voice say anything and people will listen. If you can do that, everything will seem new and interesting to your reader.
    You do a fantastic job with this — I miss Evie already!
    But I didn’t answer your question. You asked: does fiction have to be inherently important. Quick answer: No. There will always be room for entertaining storytelling. Star Wars, as a story, isn’t inherently important — but it will live forever.

    • Ah well, we can’t all be succinct and meta like you…how is John by the way? It’s all about the twist, isn’t it? I miss Evie, too…she was so spunky. I suppose I’m starting to feel outclassed by some of my peers in what I read/have read. I’m sorry I’m not going to pick up Moby Dick for some light reading and I haven’t actually read Catcher in the Rye, but I read books that I enjoy and there’s a reason I have shelves full of books that are falling apart. I suppose it comes down to what you want your “legacy” to be. Do I want to be on Oprah and Leno and the NYT Bestseller lists? That would be nice. But I would rather have a loyal readership who loves my books and gushes about them to people–who may never choose to read them. I would rather see my books falling apart on a handful of shelves than filling bookstores with shiny, hardback copies that are selling because some talking head said they were good, and then they join the pile on the nightstand.

      And you think Helena goes on and on…

      • I have a friend who owns a used bookstore, and she jokingly has a shelf of what she calls “bookshelf books”. Now, before you shake your head and ask “don’t all books go on bookshelves?” let me explain — these are books (and she particularly likes getting special editions, etc..) that people buy because they like to put them on their shelf to display how intellectual they are. The books that they think they should probably read. Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick, Tess of D’Ubervilles, The Satanic Verses, Siddhartha, Love in the Time of Cholera, anything by Charles Dickens…. They’re “hey look at my impressive library” books. I say read what you want. My backlog of books I want to read and books that I think I SHOULD read gets bigger every day — I’ll never be at a loss for something to read. I suggest to my daughters (who love to read, and sometimes read junk and sometimes read good stuff) that you should read what you like, but that you should sometimes challenge yourself to read something a little difficult. I compare books to food, and say that you can eat hamburgers every day, but every once in a while you should have a steak. I’m reading a hamburger book right now — a Richard Stark novel called The Hunter — you may have seen the movie with Mel Gibson called Payback — anyway, it’s a lot of fun, but when I’m done that, I might decide to read something by Margaret Atwood, or that beautiful copy of The Satanic Verses I’ve got on my bookshelf to show how sophisticated, subversive and intellectual I am. (ha ha)
        Same goes for writing. Write some popcorn, but challenge yourself to write steak once in a while. Variety is what makes the world the cool place to hang out (like we have any other choice!)

        John’s… well… I’ll get around to it.

      • I get to cheat since I’m in school and HAVE to read challenging books and stories I wouldn’t normally pick up. My backlog of books I should/need/want to read is getting out of hand. Being Human is sitting at the top, though!

      • That’s cool. The book on the top collects the most dust, and I find a nice layer of dust sets off the cover artwork nicely! =P

  3. I think the feelings you induce are all that matters. Is something is gained – knowledge, understanding, happiness, escape, connection – than the reading was worth it, and the writing was valuable. That’s why I love poetry – my favorites are frequently about the beauty of very small, everyday moments, examined with love. They’re utterly unimportant, but there’s the stuff life itself is made of. A great question. 🙂

    • An excellent answer! And a great point about poetry–as someone who often doesn’t feel like I “get” poetry, I agree that the simple beauty of everyday moments can make some of the most poignant verse!

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