Sunday, April 27, 2008

One thousand to one


It's quiet right now, except for the space heater coming on to take the chill off the room. The birds chirp, singing up the sun, and outside the light is an ethereal luminous blue like a full moon on snow. My nose runs and I'm running out of tissue, but the running should stop soon now that I'm up and moving around. The gem lights in the distance fade slowly as it lightens outside and suddenly the birds quit singing, hushed as the sun wells up in the distance. All is silence except for the ticking of my fingers on the laptop keyboard and the soft hum of the fan. Now the heat comes on after being off all night. It never made sense to me to leave the heat off during the night when the nights are so cold, but that will change soon.

Lines and dialogue chase around in my mind as I search for the right combination for a story I need to finish by 11 a.m. It's still wispy in places, darting out of sight as I near to catch them and string them together. The idea's still not clear, but coming closer, clearer, brighter. After chasing around in my dreams all night the story should be a lot easier to catch in the light, but it is shy of the light, playing coy and hard to get. Maybe if I focus on this post it will think I've forgotten it and will leap out at me, fully dressed and ready to speak, because I'm not paying attention so I can grab it by the vowels and consonants, commas, periods and quotes and coax it into the light, or at least onto the page.

After a short discussion with about Great Literature and the Great American Novel and how serious writers look down on genre writers, I am reminded of conversations I had with Andre. She was shunned and slighted early in her career for being just a YA writer. Although she already had more than 100 published books to her credit, she was still just a YA writer. Never mind that she was never just anything or that, although her characters were young, her stories transcended labels; she was just a YA writer.

From where did all this snobbery and arrogance come? The classics didn't become classics in their day but the stories they told have withstood the test of time. Edgar Allen Poe's tales are still literature despite being what would now be considered genre. Does that diminish what he wrote or the characters and stories that are instantly recognizable: the raven, Lenore, The Tell-Tale Heart or Fortunato? Homer wrote down stories that had been told for centuries about Odysseus and the Trojan War, Achilles, Paris and Hector. They too were genre stories, tales of adventure, magic, love and folly. Michael Montaigne wrote about every day things, domestic trials and joys, random thoughts, society and passing thoughts he caught and wrestled to the page, little moments of life in simple language. Guy de Maupassant did the same and so did O'Henry and Twain.

These stories aren't great literature because they're laden with beautiful (and sometimes tortuous) language but because they resonate with the human experience. The words are basic and uncluttered and so are the descriptions but few can forget them; that's what makes Great Literature. It's not about high flown language or over wrought similes and clich├ęd metaphors; it's about telling a story that touches the reader in some way with truth or emotion or fancy or laughter. It's the kind of literature that leaves you feeling as though you have traveled somewhere and met people that will always remain shadow companions. It's the kind of literature that makes you want to return over and over again, stories that are familiar and yet just a little changed because you are changed by life and experience. It's Heidi and Harry Potter, Arabella and Aragorn, Red Chief and Tom Sawyer and Carrie and Christine Daae.

Don't get me wrong. I like great literature, and sometimes I even understand it, but I love genre stories because they are so much easier to relate to. Dostoevsky simply wrote stories about dysfunctional families and poverty and guilt. Henry Miller's wife, June, lamented that she thought she had sold herself to another Dostoevsky and thought Miller's work was lousy, not even as good as Anais Nin's stories, but Nin isn't remember as much for her stories as for her diaries, the simple, every day recounting of what she did and thought and felt. That, too, is literature, great literature, and so is Henry Miller.

It isn't the minute examination of a May fly moment that has no beginning, middle or end, but the books and stories that sprawl or quickly sear, chronicles of fact and fantasy, that make literature. The guilty secret of writers of great literature is that their favorite books are often genre. Laugh at J. K. Rowling's facile sentence construction and simple language or Stephen King's fantastic horror and flights of fancy, but at the end of the day it's about how many people remember the characters. It's the difference between selling one bottle of perfume for a thousand dollars versus selling a thousand bottles of perfume at one dollar.

That is all. Disperse.

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