I’ve been working with creative writing students for the past ten years, sometimes at Cumbria University, sometimes with the Facets of Fiction groups that meet at my house. We’ve talked about, and experimented with the ways and means of creating characters, the methods and purposes of creating the locations in time and space in which stories sit, the development of appropriate narrative voices, and the stringing together of those sequences of events that often seem to be what stories are about.
We’ve looked at Beginnings, Middles and Ends, even though some people insist that they don’t exist. We’ve tried out ambiences and atmospheres, dialogues and monologues, and story threads that rolled forward, flashed back, and twisted themselves like anxiety ridden guts! But one element has received rare attention, though it’s hovered in the background of all our discussions. That is the issue of what stories are for – why they are written, and why they are read.
As a tutor I’ve always taken the view that no-one should be telling anybody what they ought to write about, but that doesn’t prevent discussion of what they have been about, and what they could be about. The whys of writing, and of reading, follow in that train. This might seem to be an issue primarily of fiction, but non-fiction too, and even more obviously, suggests reasons for writing, and reasons for reading.
Talking of poetry, the late Norman Nicholson vehemently asserted that ‘enjoyment’ was the primary function, and that ‘trying to understand a poem without enjoyment’ was absolute ‘rubbish’. My instinct is to concur in the case of fiction too, yet, there are fictions – Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Outer Dark’ springs to mind – to which the word ‘enjoyment’ seems a strange attachment. I read that grim novel with a sort of compulsive horror, and felt at the end that I had learned nothing useful or even revealing about the people around me, though I’ve no doubt there are people such as the novel envisioned, and probably nearby too! What sort of enjoyment could it give though? Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man, one of my five best books to come out of World War Two – and probably top of that list – is a grim read too, but its final chapters are uplifting far beyond the horror of the jourmey to get to them.
The clue to why good fiction is worth reading might be found in that non-fiction memoir. Here’s a true story of redemption; of the victory of the human spirit over the dark side of human behaviour. Fiction can seek to replicate that, or to challenge it. For many years I worked as a bookseller specialising in military history books and during that time read almost no fiction. How could a fiction, I questioned, stand against accounts like Lomax’s?
It is clever writing that evokes emotions through words, yet, even off the page, emotions are regularly evoked by words, and by the voices that utter them. The words carry meanings for us, whether they are fictional, or factual – and by factual I include the lies that are passed off as truths; by fictional the truths that are passed off as lies. The English short story writer, A.E.Coppard, was wont to describe his art as that of the liar.
Just as a bricklayer might construct a wonderful arch, a writer might construct a wonderful story. We might value the skill in the arch, the technique in the writing. Yet, we will value the arch more, I suspect, for its place in the structure it is part of, and its uses, than for the skills alone. Whether or not we do something similar for the story is not quite so clear cut. In fact, the apparent uselessness of stories, and poems, their obscurity, seems often to have become the element in them that is valued most. Most, that is, by those who mediate that obscurity for the rest of us. A.L.Kennedy, in a video showing as part of the Jack Vetriano retrospective exhibition at Glasgow recently, made the point that Vetriano had been despised by the ‘Art Critics’ precisely because he did not need such mediation. The critic is empowered as the ‘lay’ viewer is disempowered. If this is a process that has taken the (visual) Arts, it is one that has assaulted the written ones too. ‘Short Stories’, an introduction to a collection of them says, became popular when poetry became ‘too abstruse’. Short stories, I often think, are going the same way. The bricklayer’s arch is becoming baroque. We stare at it in wonder, not understanding how it stands up, or what purpose it might serve. The bricklayer thinks building houses beneath him, and besides, he would not know how to.