Thursday, August 12, 2010

Craft + Heart + Truth + Philosophy

An exchange of comments on Jim Murdoch’s blog set me thinking about what I want to read and what I want to write -- about my own standards for “good fiction.” This is not a new subject of contemplation for me. When I was editing the literary journal Prima Materia, I established three elements that were required in the work I published: Craft, Heart, and Truth. In the years since, I’ve decided to add another one: Philosophy.

My definitions of those terms are, of course, my own. They are entirely subjective and are always evolving. You may have different definitions, or entirely different criteria. Whatever works for you is valid.

Craft: Skillful technique. Confident, effective use of the writer’s tools -- vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhythm, pace, structure, even punctuation. This is essential, bottom line.

Heart: Compassion for the human condition, empathy with one’s imaginary characters. An acknowledgment of the emotional component of experience, in balance with the physical and intellectual.

Truth: A sense of honesty or authentic communication, in which the author is not showboating or sacrificing believability for manipulative ends. This is not related to “facts” or “non-fiction.”

Philosophy: An underlying idea or worldview, especially when it feels like an enriching, exciting discovery. Best when under conscious control by the author, although frequently is a side-effect.

Somewhere at the intersection of these four streets is where I want to stand as a reader and as a writer, and where I tried to land with my collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility. Perhaps my reader-self can let go of Philosophy occasionally. My writer-self can too, but then I find myself wondering, why bother? Storytelling is fun, but I feel compelled to serve something greater. And I get creative juice from “deep” ideas, the more esoteric the better. I’m on a path that includes group therapy and a little light study of nondualism and quantum physics, and I’m often excited to capture in my fiction all the awesome stuff I’m learning.

The main problem with this Philosophy thing is that it can too easily slide into over-concern with Theme, or even into Pedantry (oh, the horror!). So I keep in mind the truths expressed by Thomas McCormack in this essay,‘Theme’ and Its Dire Effects (thanks to Mark Barrett of Ditchwalk).

Any ideas on the subject you want to share? I’d love to hear ‘em.


  1. I often add "unique" because while critics tells us there are only X number of possible stories, there are an infinite number of variations, themes, character combinations and styles. "Unique" could mean "bad," but at its best "unique" means new ground, a fresh look, possibly even an experimental style. If I'm going to read what's been done before, I want to be reading an old favorite, not something published yesterday.


  2. Thanks Malcolm-- Yes, unique is a good addition. I like "a fresh look."

  3. I think that’s where I am fed up with general fiction as opposed to literary fiction. I’m not really interested in hearing a story no matter how well told unless that story makes me think. That’s where some of the books of late have won out because they’ve not tried to do my thinking for me. I think also that’s where the omniscient narrator can work against an author because he has all the answers. I’ve just read a book where a young boy has three encounters with an odd misanthrope and that is all he knows about him what he witnesses with his own eyes; everything else we learn about the man is conjecture on his or on other people’s parts. These three meetings have a profound effect on the boy’s life but they’re not the whole story. He doesn’t know the whole story and so why should we? How a story is told is every bit as important as what is being told. In this case what we have is an adult story which is presented as a child’s tale changing our perspective totally.

  4. Jim, I'm with you on that-- just an exciting "page-turner" is not enough, despite the message to the contrary that is trumpeted everywhere. As a writer, I also like leaving much of the story to the reader's imagination. I resist plot resolutions. But I also like using an omniscient viewpoint sometimes because it gives me more freedom with language and ideas. I try to employ a 3rd person narrative persona tailored to each story, that is almost another character in the story, with its own attitudes. This also goes against much of today's writing "gospel" which says the narration should be invisible so just the story comes through. Bull-- that's like saying a painter's technique should be invisible so just the picture comes through. For that we have cameras.