Thursday, August 2, 2018

Crowbar Beats Hammer

Zestful Blog Post #275

Not long ago I was corresponding with friend and Zestful Writing subscriber Anne D., and the subject was current fiction. She said something that really struck me: “I don’t pleasure-read to change the world; I pleasure-read to escape it.”

There are implications here. I’m fond of quoting the distinguished author Cynthia Ozick, who, in conversation with Robert Birnbaum in 2004, said, of writing fiction: “And there is a conceptual underpinning and it’s invisible and so no one seems to know but the one who put it there. It’s got to be invisible, because as I said a moment ago, if the concept is going to be visible you have written an essay. You have written a tract of some kind.”

We are talking about pressing ideological points in fiction. I’ve preached against this before. I emphasize there’s nothing wrong with using, or messing around with, or preferably exploring, the current cultural, religious, and political zeitgeist in one’s fiction. But if you do it with a clear agenda, “the concept is going to be visible.” And some readers will be solidly with you, and others will be alienated. Readers prefer to come to their own conclusions. This is a delicate and subtle subject. We agree war is hell, we agree pollution is bad, we agree incest, prejudice, and abuse are wrong. All that is obvious. I love that Ozick used the word ‘tract’, which suggests religious proselytizing. Many of today’s ideologues pursue their points with condemnatory religious fervor.

Memoirists and essayists have it easy: They can and in fact must be transparent about their agendas, or nobody will know what they’re talking about. You can’t write a book that makes a case for something while beating around the bush.

[I rummaged in the garage and came up with a hammer and an anti-hammer.
Yeah. We like a tool that pries open instead of pounds shut.]

I think what my friend Anne meant was, “I don’t want to be hammered with ideology when I’m reading fiction.” Because in general, one reads fiction for pleasure, and one reads nonfiction to learn things—and possibly even to be preached to.

A fiction writer can go to all those interesting sociopolitical places successfully. All you need is an open mind and heart. That way, your characters’ paths will not be predictable, to you or your readers. Because there’s a difference between declaring something to be wrong—or right—and exploring the nuances and contradictions of the human mind and soul. There’s usually a lot more there than an ideologue would admit. Moreover, the best authors let their characters do the thinking.

Have you ever opened a wooden packing case with a crowbar? So satisfying, because you're not only releasing something you've never seen before, you're destroying, at least in part, the status quo of that packing case.

How fabulous is this journey!

Hey, before signing off, I want to give a shout-out to friend and ZW subscriber BJ Phillips, whose new book, Changing Seasons, is available from Desert Palm Press on Amazon. Check it out by clicking HERE. It’s her third book and it sounds intriguing. Congratulations, Beej!

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  1. Once again you’ve made an important distinction between fiction and non. In fiction, most people don’t want to be preached to. We can be lied to (the nature of fiction) but don’t beat us over the head with something. Love the hammer vs crowbar. Very appropriate! And thanks for the shout out, by the way!

    1. You got it, BJ. You're welcome, and thanks as always for stopping by!

  2. This is one of the most important writing lessons that I learned from you. Thank you.

  3. I just finished reading John Grisham's The Street Lawyer. A high-powered corporate attorney listens to his moral beliefs and sacrifices his status in society to help the homeless. It's not preachy, it's a real page-turner, the reader stays with the story because we all know in our hearts, we would not likely sacrifice our own well-being for some homeless person. So we read to find out what happens. The book moved me to a new understanding of the homeless. Yes, the concept was subtle, but the impact was a real hit on the head.

    1. I haven't read that one, but it sounds well done. Thanks for telling us about it, Patricia.


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