Lacking Philosophy

An interesting question came out of a book club last week: what is the difference between commercial, mid-list, and literary fiction? The basic premise is easy enough to explain. The more the book is concerned with exterior events, the more commercial it is. That’s why a good thriller, for instance, contains lots of plot twists. The more the narrator’s thoughts predominate, the more literary it is.

Yet a deeper question underlies the distinction: should you try to be literary just because those are the types of novels you enjoy reading? I tend to sound a note of caution on this subject, for several reasons. The first is any person’s ability to make deeper sense of our existence. Such thinking goes beyond an older person’s accumulation, over a lifetime of experiences, of knowledge about how the world works. I am older, and I don’t believe I have ever elicited someone dropping their jaw about a profound remark I’ve made. Most forms of wisdom are practical, not of the sort that makes you remember a novel.

The second reason is also commonplace: a writer’s belief that they are special and thus have special things to tell the rest of us. I see this with virtually every lawyer-cum-writer I have ever read, to give an example of this cocksure quality. The fact is, success makes a person regard the world as their oyster—when that success may be based on an entirely plebeian advantage, such as selling buttons with a new number of holes. Using a novel as a soapbox does not mean it achieves more depth, but merely self-satisfaction.

A third addresses a quality that most writers would give their eye teeth for. That is the ability to write limpid prose. We all love to read books whose words flow effortlessly, that contain terrific metaphors and juxtapositions. I always think of John Updike in this regard: how could his every sentence have such clarity? In this province of authors lies most literary lights. They flat-out have more talent purely at writing, whether taught or bred in the bone. Yet many of these authors write mostly second-rate books. The mill churns as a career winds on, and shallow books like Updike’s Brazil are the outcome. Perfect pitch but where’s the soul?

Many young writers bemoan their lack of true hardship in their childhoods, and as trite as that reasoning is—just write if you’re going to do the damned thing—it contains a kernel of truth. Many good writers are deranged. They are damaged human beings. The ability to go beyond and find a truth that truly shocks us requires the journey. How did you get so whacked out you went there? That willingness to discover belongs mainly to what the I Ching hexagram would call: Youthful Folly. It’s no wonder that writers become alcoholics. They spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture the brilliance of a world they could still mold.

“It was one of those evenings when men feel that truth, goodness and beauty are one. In the morning, when they commit their discovery to paper, when others read it written there, it looks wholly ridiculous.”
—Aldous Huxley

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.