A Commonplace Blog sets me to thinking, as usual, this time about literary style and its relation to genre and, by implication, to the whole point of writing and reading. D. G. Myers laments the profusion of slapdash Web chatter, likening it to street noise haphazardly translated into prose. In this I concur. But in promoting the self-conscious artifice of good writing, he claims that fiction is the "permanent home" of the best prose. It is an assertion that may come as a great surprise to many poets and essayists, among many others.
What does good writing do, and wherein is its appeal? I always come back to Horace's claim that the point of art is to delight and to instruct. Both are necessary, neither sufficient, although different genres and styles may call for more emphasis upon one or the other. The "instruction" of art involves education about the world as it is, whereas "delight" entails the delectation of perception and expression for their own sake.
Good writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, enhances our understanding of and attachment to reality, but by means of desire and acceptance, not mere resignation. Good writing is ultimately about attentiveness, about getting reality right, not in itself (as if we could know what reality is in or for itself), but crucially with respect to human needs. As a basic level good writing is an ode to the world as beloved; this involves both accurate appraisal and enthusiasm.
Fiction does hold a special and honored place because for (self-)conscious creatures, "reality" is forever in flux and in question; it is an amalgam of what is the case and what could potentially be the case. And technically of course, there is in fact nothing outside of reality. The vast realms of fiction are--or at least began as--mere annexes built upon a prior reality. They become candidates for more or less embraced realities themselves.
What about virtual reality? Consciousness is itself the original virtual reality. There is only reality, but therein are countless regions that are more or less hospitable to human thriving and happiness. That is how we judge narrative, whether in the form of writing, film, or video game; does it either depict or stipulate (depending on whether its focus is more realistic or fantastic) reality in a way that is stimulating, enlightening, and favorable for human experience, such as it is? And of course human experience, being historical, has itself been shaped by previous depictions and stipulations. This implies that human sensibility could change, whether biologically or culturally, such that favored narrative styles may alter profoundly over time; the question is how elastic "human nature" ultimately is.
The psychologically interesting thing, of course, is that writing and reading are not like air or food; some seem to need or crave them, particularly in fictional form, far more than others do. For some, perhaps, reality that is "unenhanced," one might say, is merely dull and difficult to love, such that it is imperative to "make it new," as Pound put it I think. This may reflect a certain critical restlessness of temperament. Others may be connoisseurs of reality, so to speak, who revel in nuance for its own sake. What these two groups seem to agree on is that reality is no settled matter. What then is bad writing? It is writing, I suppose, that either gets reality clumsily or wrong-headedly wrong, or that proposes an alternative reality that we ultimately cannot love or learn from.
As I wrote a couple of posts ago, I have found it harder to enjoy fiction in recent years, and it has been hard to pin down why. And this is particularly true of contemporary fiction; the older I get, the number of books I find indispensable continues to shrink, and the attraction of the latest Pulitzer Prize winner grows ever dimmer. Perhaps in thirty years I will be down to Shakespeare alone. But then again, maybe current life circumstances will moderate such that the central preoccupations of literature--the fine-grained, yet speculative appreciation of how things stand with respect to human beings, as well as subtle suggestions of how they might or ought to be different--will again beckon as open, urgent, and interesting questions.
By the way, farewell to 2009, a year stranger than any fiction.