Monday, February 25, 2013

Story as Artifact or Junk?

What gives a book staying power?

I started wondering the other day what makes the difference between a book that has staying power and one that will fade away and not be remembered several decades from now.

Many years ago I came across a young boy selling sculptured clay whistles at the pyramid ruins near Mexico City. They were quite clever and I bought two.

As I looked at them sitting on my desk today, I began to wonder what makes them any different from the primitive sculptures in the museums around the world, other than they were not unearthed at a dig and are not very old. They are made by indigenous people—in this case an inhabitant near the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, where other artifacts that have been unearthed now sit in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City and elsewhere around the world.

They are charming and I treasure then, but a hundred years from now, will these clay sculptures be deemed worthy of being called artifacts—apart from the fact that they were not laying in the ground waiting to be dug up—or junk? I see them as being every bit as wonderful as some that are in museums, and in many cases, better.

Merriam-Webster states of artifacts: something created by humans usually for a practical purpose; especially : an object remaining from a particular period <caves containing prehistoric artifacts>

I guess my whistles satisfy the definition of artifacts; whistles of twentieth century Mexico City.

Not meaning to be cute about this, I know a toaster from the twentieth century will one day be an artifact looked upon fondly as a representation of a simpler time in American history.

So, moving on to books, I asked myself what makes a book last and be remembered one hundred years from now?

When I come across old books in a second hand store that no one really wants now, I wonder what made them fail while we remember a book like Huckleberry Finn with its use of the highly inflammable N word and racist attitudes of another time.

I am not going to dissect it (I leave that to the experts) but it left me wondering. Does it transcend those issues because of its tenderness of simple friendship, a simpler time and perhaps its innocence of childhood that its author transmits? 

What was normal and accepted then is not now, but we still find the heart of the book good literature. Its intent was not to be mean, or separatist or hateful. In its simplicity, innocence and humor—it stands out and is remembered by two generations, now. Why?

And will the books you read (or write) today be remembered one hundred years from now, or end up lying forgotten on some dusty shelf in a second hand store? And, if on e-reader only, be erased completely and forgotten?

Maybe the answer is how deeply the writer pulls from her personal experience.

As a writer, do you write a nice, clever, not ruffle any feathers—safe story?
Or do you dig deep to tell the real, gritty story, the one that dips underneath the surface to reveal the artifacts of another, deeper life? The one that makes you bleed to tell it.

Readers really want to immerse themselves in a believable experience that they may or may not want to go through themselves, but do want to feel as if they had experienced it. 

They want to learn what it would be like to successfully (or unsuccessfully) navigate that world you have built, without having to go down that hard (or impossible) road themselves. 

They want to end up understanding themselves better for having gone through the experience—vicariously learning through the hard-fought lessons of your characters.

As a writer do you dig deep enough to provide that type of experience?

As a reader do you read for other reasons?

Is the book you are reading now, providing you with an experience you will remember many years from now?


Patricia Gligor's Writers Forum said...

I've often wondered the same thing and, like most writers, I hope that my books will stand the test of time. That's our dream, after all, isn't it? I guess the best we can do is write honestly, from the heart and leave the rest to fate.

john M. Daniel said...

Good post, Cora, and most writers do want to be remembered for more than writing an entertaining read. What sets great literature, such as Huckleberry Finn, above mere entertainment, is that it deals with important issues, love and death, the plight of humanity. Universal principles, timeless truth. What's memorable about Huck Finn is not the N word, but the novel's defiance of an unjust social system, and a young boy's respect for his companion's dignity. Memorable literature is story that matters.

Unknown said...

Great write up Cora. I strive to write well enough to have my books last forever, but it takes something very special to accomplish this. I think writers have it in them to write a timeless novel, but are a bit timid to tackle difficult social issues or open up themselves to criticism. As John said, Huck Finn is a classic, which will always be. The author of that book chose to tackle issues and write what he did because he could care less what others thought about him personally, it was the message he wrote about that interested him. And, he was a pretty good story teller.....

Marja said...

Great post, Cora! I have mixed feelings. My books are generally just for entertainment, but once in a while they touch on a social issue. As a reader, these days I read all kinds of books, but my favorites are those which leave me with a smile on my face when I put it down. I've kinda had my fill of real life drama, and sometimes books remind me of the things I'd rather not think about.
Marja McGraw

Cora said...

Thanks for your comment. I wonder how many writers think about their writing standing the test of time when they write.

Cora said...

Thanks for chiming in, John. Very thoughtful comments about universal themes, timeless truths and higher principals being elements that create stories that matter.

Cora said...

Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation. I'm building my checklist--writing about difficult social issues, being a good story teller (that's another whole issue) and not giving a diddly squat about criticism. :)

Cora said...

I know what you mean about not wanting to deal with heavy drama issues and needing a break and just reading for entertainment. Don't you think Mark Twain accomlished both with Huck Finn? Maybe the secret is the heavy stuff with good story telling skills.

Sally Carpenter said...

What constitutes "literature" is so subjective. In the 1930s-1940s the Stratemeyer Syndicate published hundreds of juvenile adventure books. Of these books only two series "survived": Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. Why those titles and not the others? And these books are strictly entertainment with no great social messages. Yet many of the "great literary" books are still in print only because teachers assign the books for students to grudglingly read and not for popular demand. The best books are the ones that both have a message and are enjoyable for the reader.

Cora said...

Thanks for weighing in Sally. You bring up good points. I lean heavily on the side that a book be enjoyable to the reader. That gets into engaging the reader by the writing ability--involving the emotions. But a book can be enjoyable for the moment and then next week be set aside and forgotten. Good point about Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys.

Cora said...

Comment by Kris:
Good post. I think you are on the right track to describe what makes a book, a story, stand the test of time. A story so real at the core, each word an echo from the beat of the author's heart. My desire is to write such a book some day - one that will last like Harper Lee's immortal To Kill a Mockingbird, or even M.M. Kaye's touching The Far Pavilions - which I think of as a fusion, to use a culinary metaphor, blending in this case, women's literature and a bit of chick lit on the way to being a definitive picture of social, political and historical events. Will I ever write something so wonderful? Only if I read and write, and write and read, and . . . picking up along the way a bit of courage to write from my heart. Kris

Ellen Gregory said...

I wonder about this too, Cora. Wuthering Heights is one classic I just don't get. But I suspect the 'X-factor' in books is something indefinable -- a combination of factors that include uniqueness and timing, in addition to all those writerly aspects such as grand themes and stunning prose that induce a strong emotional response in the reader. I don't think being a "good read" precludes a book from being a classic -- but I'd argue the reverse was not true.

As for me, at this stage in my career, I'd be happy for someone to read and enjoy. :-)

Cora said...

I think one of your points is part of it--timing. I agree that not all classics are good reads--that might be part of the fact that in its time it was great, but now, not so much.