“To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.”
― Anne Rice
“My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”
― Joyce Carol Oates
The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.
— Ursula K. Le Guin
Is there a through-line connecting these quotes from three great writers? (I refuse to use the condescending first-part phrasal adjective “female” or “woman” in this instance. If we don’t routinely wall off male writers into a genitalia-defined ghetto when referring to their words and/or works, why would I perpetrate such a wince-inducing, overt-labelling job here re: “women writers”? Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin: great writers all. Period, the end. So why remark on their gender in this extended parenthetical thought? To address head-on the cynical, tiresome suspicion from some quarters that I chose three women writers to comment on in order to demonstrate how feminist/woke I am. :::sigh::: What a time to be alive and posting on “teh internets”. Well, that’s the kind of post this is going to be: one part stream-of-consciousness, one part thoughtful musing, one part—hopefully—synthesis of disparate elements into a unified whole. Tell me if I’ve failed, won’t you?)
Let’s take Anne Rice’s quote first: ““To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” Notice that she doesn’t insist the writer must make a fool of themselves; merely that one risks making a fool of themselves when they write. What could Rice possibly mean by this?
Your interpretation may vary, but mine is as follows: There are a million, myriad ways a writer may face-plant in public. Errors of fact; mistranslations/misuse of foreign words and phrases; a question of style: writing that strikes one reader as “too flowery”, another as “too minimalist”; a theme that resonates with the writer and not the reader; vocabulary that is deemed either too high- or low-brow; metaphors that misfire and/or characters that seem eminently plausible, relatable and realistic to one set of readers, whilst striking another set of readers as wildly implausible, unrelatable and unrealistic. One simply cannot satisfy all readers all the time; not all art appeals to all people—for all time. (It might, but oftentimes—let us face hard facts here without flinching—doesn’t.) As an artist we must accept this discomfiting fact and therefore write with our “ideal reader” in mind—whoever we imagine they might be. But if we push boundaries with our art—if we dare to question certain perceived “eternal verities” of politics (political thought that falls outside the Overton window), sex (outside the heteronormative) and/or religion (especially as regards atheistic or agnostic thought—though this is rapidly changing: “unaffiliated” or “unbelieving/unchurched” constitutes a growing body of the American electorate) then we embark upon a steep uphill climb re: widespread acclaim and/or acceptance of our work. Or as Joyce Carol Oates has put it: “Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.”
Which brings us to another quote of Joyce Carol Oates’: the second one referenced at the beginning of this piece: “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” This echoes Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Now, the quibble with such assertions is this: We’re not always in the mood for a paradigm-shattering, psychologically transformative piece of art, are we? Sometimes (most of the time?) we want our reading to be the equivalent of comfort food: nourishing, tasty, familiar, filling. (We’re being honest with one another, yes?) However— I think we can agree that the best interpretive literature (to use Prof. Laurence Perrine’s term) expands our storehouse of life-lived experience and thus has the knock-on secondary effect—if the writing is psychologically astute, richly drawn and compelling—of working to increase both our understanding of the internal and external worlds. Fiction is not a lie that tells the truth: It is the concretized (black letters) fossil record (captured on paper or electronic storage device) of transfixing hypnogogic visions (author’s imagination/subconscious) that allows others, upon reading (a remarkable, semi-mystical experience in which both hemispheres of the brain fire in tandem) to embody alternate lives (viewpoint characters) and thus witness at one remove (sensory impressions received, albeit not from phenomena in the real world) the result of various played-out stratagems and the consequences of certain thoughts, impulses and actions (plot). What we make of all the aforementioned constitutes theme + meaning.
Fiction is not a game. Not for man, the story-telling animal: It is a critical practice by which one person communicates to another something of compelling import and/or momentary divertissement/amusement. (“Once upon a time . . .” “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .” “Call me Ishmael.” “You’re not gonna believe what happened! I’m just sitting there, minding my own business when . . .”)
Lies? Truth? Irrelevant, as regards evaluating the efficacy and impact of well-wrought fiction (unless you’re a Victorian moralist). Nabokov had it right: What makes a writer great is the spell-binding quality of their prose: that ability to enrapture, enchant, seduce. A critic once remarked of Anne Rice: “You surrender to her, as if in a voluptuous dream.” Exactly right. Interview with the Vampire, Servant of the Bones, Pandora, Vittorio the Vampire, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy. Story after story from Joyce Carol Oates has found me perched on the edge of my chair: terrified to discover what might happen next to her characters if I continue reading; too breathless and engrossed to stop. Her writing raises my pulse rate—while I marvel at the assured confidence and deftness of her prose, and the probing intelligence behind it. Ursula K. Le Guin: a national treasure (now deceased; alas!): the kind of writer whose seemingly effortless prose and command of narrative compels reading of her fiction; whose formidable intellectual gifts of analysis, insight and plain speaking glossed by a lifetime of lightly worn learning (her essays) elicit wolf-whistles of awe and appreciation. God, I wish I’d written that! Thought that. Felt that. (But you didn’t—till you’d first read Le Guin.)
And now we arrive at Ursula K. Le Guin’s quote: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
In a single pithy observation this quote of Le Guin’s (with its attendant subtext) encapsulates the terror and the glory of fictioneering—to say nothing of the alternating cycles of hyperbolic mania and melancholic despair a psychologically unmoored writer might fall prey to.
I was going to write another thousand words unpacking what I meant to convey in the paragraph above, but for brevity and concision Le Guin’s quote really cannot be improved upon. The challenge facing the writer is to provide the telling details of their story in expertly paced and vividly concretized fashion so that the reader may—insofar as is psychically possible—inhabit a close facsimile of the world the author envisaged; moreover, the writer should have a tale worth telling (almost all do), to have something to say about it beyond the mere fashioning of plot (many don’t), and the hard-won mastery of craft acquired through a lifetime of practice in order to tell their story well (the difference—oftentimes but not always—between the professional and the amateur). The challenge of the reader is to have read as widely and deeply as possible in order to engage with story on its own terms: neither willfully misreading, nor misconstruing, a text into what it is not. If this process fails what are we left with? Miscommunication or hopeless muddle, mere “black marks on wood pulp” signifying nothing.
In sum: The writer indeed risks making a fool of themselves when he or she sits down to write—especially if the chosen subject matter, characters described and/or over-all theme is decidedly iconoclastic or otherwise at variance with received wisdom and popular attitudes. And what a pity that oftentimes proves to be!—that great work, from great artists, oftentimes goes misremarked [sic], undervalued and genre-ghettoized until such time as an artist’s ideal reader rises up with the passion and critical acumen necessary to articulate the areté (ancient Greek: excellence in kind) of a given writer and their works.
Author’s note of 09-12-22: Since originally posting this article–to my sorrow and regret–Anne Rice has also passed away. Thank you for the books, Ms. Rice! And the warmth, generosity and incisive wit of your iconoclastic soul. You were here—you counted—we took note.