There’s an age old conflict in the writing world. High art vs. low art. Popular culture vs. Cultural elites. Bestseller status vs. Critical acclaim. What’s the difference? Why does it matter, if it does matter?
At the heart of one side of that argument is the simple idea of story. When I teach, I ask my students, what is a story? It’s more complicated to answer than it might seem. Popular writers put story at the centre of everything. Story is compelling. Vastly, terrifyingly compelling. Watch people watching a popular soap opera. Whatever story is, it’s addictive. That’s why bestsellers sell. They aren’t just words on a page. They’re an addictive substance and we the reader are jonesing for our next hit.
The high arts of the “literary writer” a toying with something a little different. I don’t really want to give it a name, but because critics use the term so often, let’s call it The Human Condition. Critical acclaim goes to the books that say something truthful about being alive, in a body, as a human animal among other human animals. When literature hits its mark, its effects are powerful. Talk to a reader about the important books in their lives. The tone of awe they’ll tell you with is there for a reason. Those books illuminated and enlightened their life. They were, with no exaggeration, a kind of religious experience.
Storytelling vs. The Human Condition. Can’t the two co-exist? Of course. But it’s worth considering why they’re partnership is always an uneasy thing.
A story is never true. Even when it’s based on real events, it is at best a partial half truth, seen through the eyes of its teller. All narrators are unreliable, whether they know it or not. To get to the truth, we need to look beyond the story we’re being told. That’s why writing that shoots for The Human Condition is so concerned with things like subtext, theme, meaning. Flip it over. When we’re hunting the truth, the objective meaning of things, we’re not in the subjective experience. Story means being inside the skin of experience, seeing through the eyes of a character, smelling the stink of things, tasting the sweat of fear on our lips as we enter battle. Story is about sensation, action, events. The poles of Storyteling & The Human condition are hard to balance and hard, there, is an incredible understatement.
But seeing that the task is hard means you’ve turned the problem into an opportunity. This is the basic game the writer is faced with, how to, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, craft a story that hits the reader right between the eyes with both the addictive qualities of story, and the proto-religious experience of The Human Condition. Make a list of novels that utterly floored you. The ones you spent moths or years or a whole life in love with. I guarantee every book on that list is both a masterpiece of Storytelling and a insight into The Human Condition. Balance those beauties and your job is done.
So. Get to it.