Diane Ackerman, don’t kill me for quoting this huge chunk of your book, please.
Reading changed society forever. Solitary contemplation began to emerge as commonplace, and readers could discover in romantic and erotic literature what was possible, or at least imaginable. They could dare controversial thoughts and feel bolstered by allies, without telling anyone. Books had to be kept somewhere, and with the library came the idea of secluded hours, alone with one’s innermost thoughts. Lovers could blend their hearts by sharing sympathetic authors; what they could not express in person they could at least point to in the pages of a book. A shared book could speak to lovers in confidence, increasing their sense of intimacy even if the loved one was absent or a forbidden companion. Books opened the door to an aviary filled with flights of the imagination, winged fantasies of love; they gave readers a sense of emotional community. Somewhere in another city or state another soul was reading the same words, perhaps dreaming the same dream. [Emphasis added.]
His case was that modern books were significantly less deep than classical ones — an opinion cemented by months of being plunged into Dante’s Divina Commedia, with Dr. Dumol as his Virgil. To be exact, his stand was this:
My stand is Modern authors don’t do literature justice, because literature is supposed to say something about humanity, not JUST tell a story, because stories themselves are but WAYS to discuss humanity…Modern authors lack the originality and experience to write such works because the majority of them have turned life into this big cliche, when humanity is NOT cliche. Humanity is diverse; it is NOT limited to a single aspect: vampires, unrequited love, clicques, chic lit, forbidden love…the fact that modern authors don’t dive deeper into the human being, for me, destroys the very point of literature.
But despite the beating said ego has taken — which would entail for someone as self-important as I am a complete denial that the discussion ever happened — I can’t help musing on what little discoveries I’ve made whilst having my faith in modern literature cut to ribbons by a brilliant and ruthless best friend. I’m in college to learn something, and that something isn’t necessarily to come from a teacher or a textbook. In this case, I’m learning a bit about a theory on why we read and why we write.
I remember a video I watched of my friend attending a Neil Gaiman event, during which he read aloud his poem “Locks,” which is about telling a story to his little girl. The poem begins with these lines:
We owe it to each other to tell stories,
as people simply, not as father and daughter.
It appears that this echoes my friend’s points, that there is some intrinsic tie between humanity and the telling of stories. And he’s right. Stories were designed, since time immemorial, to be a way to discuss humanity: its origins, its values, its longings and losses, and the reasons behind its multifaceted experience. If one looks at things from this broad and noble view, then a lot of what we write indeed falls short. We are not Austens. We are not Shakespeares. We are not Dantes. We are, to be frank, more like Meyers and Browns and von Ziegsars than anything else — potboilers, overnight sensations, flashes-in-the-pan. It’s a truth that’s a bit disenheartening, especially to someone who lives for writing love stories with no apparent examination of the human condition beyond the many flavors (both literal and figurative) of true love’s kiss.
It is a point to be conceded that modern literature — the flashy, glamour-fiction of the late 90s and 2000s — wilts in comparison to eternal beauty that is the classics. It’s why to be viewed as a truly educated reader, the world demands we must have read the classics. We must have skimmed Austen, scanned Flaubert, and be able to do comparatives, however elementary, between Shakespeare and the Greek Playwrights. But why is it so? What’s happened to modern literature? And what keeps us reading and writing in spite of it?
These are questions I just had to ask, because I must be shamed into admitting that despite the bad writing and the sickening plot, I finished reading Twilight and hoped for my own whirlwind romance. And so, to guide my thoughts, I must once again turn to Master Gaiman.
One day your mouth will curl at that line.
A loss of interest, later, innocence.
Innocence; as if it were a commodity.
“And if I could,” my father wrote to me,
Huge as a bear himself, when I was younger,
“I would dower you with experience, without experience.”
And I, in my turn, would pass that on to you.
But we make our own mistakes. We sleep unwisely.
It is our right. It is our madness and our glory.
The repetition echoes down the years.
When your children grow; when your dark locks begin to silver,
When you are an old woman, alone with your three bears,
What will you see? What stories will you tell?
Here is why I think we write: the intrinsic tie between humanity and stories is not just one of head, but one of heart. And this is the “heart” part: we are not just passing down reasons for why we are — we are also passing down who we are, and where we have been. Literature is our beautified version of history, but it is a telling history all the same. In “Locks,” Gaiman longs to give his daughter “experience without experience,” a goal he tries to attain by telling stories.
To echo the sentiments of the Ackerman quote which started this post, I think stories fulfill our need for someone who understands (i.e. “emotional community”). It’s why readers and writers both use fiction as a means to escape, because they are escaping into the willing arms of a sympathetic companion. No matter how shallow or silly, a story is a whisper in the ear across time from a person we can imagine to be our friend — a friend who advises, who chastises, or who makes the mistakes for us so we do not have to make them.
(After reading Twilight, I also realized I did not want to make the mistake of bestiality or necrophilia.)
Stories connect us. Gossip Girl fans bond over the new scandals inside every sequel in the salacious series (I dare you to say that ten times really fast). Twihards debate passionately (if a bit pathetically) over Jacob and Edward. Readers of Ilustrado have pow-wows with their dictionaries in tow, asking each other why in the world Michael Syjuco had to use “terminus” instead of “end.” Stories enfold in us a shared experience. And if I may, I think that is part of the point of literature: not just to impart little nuggets of wisdom about the human experience, but to share in it with someone else.
To shamelessly rip from the exam notes of one of the literature teachers in my university (Hope you don’t mind, Sir Leon.), “…through literature we acquire an indispensable education in the art of compassion.“
And so we read, and so we write, and so we try. Stories are about empathy, about aching for beauty and aching to be understood, about linking arms with someone across literary space and time and find that we are not alone, because someone wrote something that sounds just like how we feel. We read and write, swimming through the drivel and the muck and the grime, in order to catch or convey the barest whisper of a friendly voice in a willing ear.
Reading and writing involve us in the human experience by connecting us with the rest of humanity that we would never get to see beyond our walls.
Why are our modern efforts falling so short? Probably because a lot of our authors don’t read enough. Author Gary Shteyngart, in an interview with my favorite public radio station Studio 360, described himself (in jest, I’m sure) as a damn good writer (“the best”) but a horrible reader. We can’t create things that connect with people if we haven’t connected ourselves. We can’t give what we don’t have, and what we don’t have is enough empathy, so we bank on cliches, spin shallow fantasies, because that is what we think everyone else out there wants.
We can’t write good stuff if we don’t read good stuff, and we most certainly can’t write good stuff if we don’t read at all. The crime is not so much that we are not answering that need, as we are not answering it well enough. We’re connecting, yes, but only on the most puerile level.
So what’s the solution? What is this long-winded digression coming to? If we want to write good literature, we have to read good literature. We have to fall in love with reading again. So few of us actually do, and that’s why our current novels are reflecting the numbed sensibilities of viewers of the boob tube and Google. Otherwise…otherwise we’re only going to see more bad stuff on the shelves.
But despite this, literature, like love, will ever die out. Because no matter how bad it gets, we still have a need to connect to satisfy. It may be numbed out, but it’s still there, and it is to that sense that we write, that we coax to share in our dreams.
I’m finding difficulty in seeing a point in this entire blog/essay, but as I’ve stayed up until an unholy hour to write it, I can’t bring myself not to post it (a perennial problem with me as a writer: I can’t seem to “murder my darlings.”). So I’m giving this to you, blogosphere. Attempt to make sense of my florid prose, which I swear got increasingly four-syllabled and vaguely Humbert Humbertish (blame the fact that I’ve been rereading Lolita lately) in its “fancy prose style” as the hour grew later.
I hope that there’s at least a drop of horse sense in this thing, because I’m pretty sure I was trying to make a point, and that point was a good one. My blog is sort of a dumping ground for half-baked ideas that may or may not become coherent trains of thought, and as it’s a blog and not required reading for some college subject (Philo-Anthro?), you don’t have to read it.
As anticlimactic as this sentence is going to sound, I’m going to bed.