I have begun a literature module with The Open University this month, and the first part attempts to address the question: ‘What is literature for?’
The first text is Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It’s my first experience of Chekhov and I was quite nervous so I read about him and his life in the introduction and thought he sounded like my kind of writer: a rule challenger. A bit of a maverick.
I have wanted for ages to write a proper discussion about writing ‘rules’ because a lot of them frustrate and irritate me enormously. It seems, often, that people can follow every so-called ‘rule’ in the many how-to books out there, only to ignore what to me is the most crucial step: to make your writing understood by constructing sentences properly and spelling and punctuating well – or at least getting someone that can to do it for you. Properly. I see link after link to posts about how to write and the rules of writing. I studied creative writing for 2 years and read about some of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. It seems we must twist and bend, and force to fit a formula, our beautiful bubbles of creativity that pop from our minds and not share the whole creation if they don’t follow the rules.
Here’s an example:
One of my short stories for my tutor last year was about a coach crash. I wanted to show how incidents involving a great number of people will have several different stories. I knew that I would have trouble getting a reader to grasp several different view-points in a short space but if I could picture it and describe it well enough I could have more than one main character. I don’t always think the good versus bad, or a main protagonist to sympathise with, works. Sometimes things haven’t happened the way we thought we saw them and sometimes there are several wrongs or several rights or several positions that have us scratching our chins. Life is like that.
My tutor’s response was understandably: ‘Just whose story is this?!’ I was expecting that. Even if she liked it the rules were, that in a short story, I should stick to one main point of view.
Imagine my delight when upon reading The Cherry Orchard I found that there was no main protagonist to sympathise with, lots of different characters – each with their own strong story and lots of names and confusion to get our heads around.
I liked this passage in my course book so much, I wrote, ‘Good for him!’ in the margin:
‘None of the characters seems to stand absolutely condemned, or absolutely supported by Chekhov.’ Hooray, hooray, hooray! I may even have clapped.
I think if you want light-hearted entertainment, escapism, something to help you drop off to sleep at night, you never want to re-read a passage because it’s all clear. If you want to have a sense of all loose ends tied up and a feeling of finality when you turn the last page, the message delivered to you by the author, then that’s what literature is for.
If you want to be made to think about stuff, consider complicated characters, feel as if you have dropped from the sky to visit a world that will carry on once you’ve gone, leaving you wondering what will happen after the final page, have to re-read the odd page to see if you’ve understood correctly, make up your own mind about stuff, then that is what literature is for.
Sometimes we are left thinking about a book after we have read it and have more questions than when we started. I want to write that kind of stuff. I’m so glad I’m delving deeper into literature than I did when I was younger and realising that it’s okay to challenge a few rules and play around with your writing.
If you like obvious beginnings, middles and endings, and baddies, heros and villains that fulfil their conventional roles, then you may not always like my writing. I can write to a formula. But I’d really rather not every time.
My mother said next time someone demands, ‘Just whose story is this?!’ I must reply firmly, ‘It’s mine.’
13 Oct, a later addition. Here’s a brilliant guest post by Mike French on Elizabeth Baines’s blog about the ‘thirst for instant recognition and complete comprehension’: Fiction Bitch – What’s the Story (fiction as art)?
NB I realise the question of what literature is for goes much deeper and people have been discussing it a lot longer than I have – so I shall be continuing to find out more.