There is a recipe for Good Literature (caps intentional)
I can remember when I was four years old realizing that people wrote the stories I read. It was one of those moments of profound realization one does not forget, no matter how ridiculously obvious that realization seems when you are nearly 39 years removed from it.
“I want to do this,” I thought, Cat in the Hat shaking in my hands. From that day forward, I’ve wanted to write stories. And yes, I lost my way once or twice, but I’ve always come back to it, I always feel a drive to write, not a need so much, but a drive. I want to do this.
As I went about my journey toward actual-factual writer, I earned several degrees, published poems, short stories, essays, journalism, and even a few novels, and, I came up with a recipe for Good Literature (caps intentional). Today, I’d like to share it with you….
Before we start though, three quick notes: Good Literature is such a powerful thing that it deserves to be designated as a proper noun, hence the caps. Also, no single ingredient is more important than any other. They work together, holistically, to create something moving, which, I imagine, is what all writers would like their work to be, regardless of genre, style, tone, or voice. And finally, I will eventually be going into more detail about each ingredient of this recipe as I continue this blog.
- JOURNEY ELEMENT: Christopher Vogler writes in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: “All stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies. They are known collectively as The Hero’s Journey” (xxvii). These elements, of course, were first brought to the forefront of our collective writing mind by Joseph Campbell and used by George Lucas to help develop the Star Wars mythos. Here are the parts: Heroes are introduced in the 1.ORDINARY WORLD where, they receive the 2. CALL TO ADVENTURE. They are 3. RELUCTANT and REFUSE THE CALL, but are encouraged by a 4. MENTOR to 5. CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where they encounter 6. TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES. They 7. APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold where they endure the 8. ORDEAL. They take possession of their 9. REWARD and are pursued on 10. THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World. They cross the third threshold, experience a 11. RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience. They 12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World. (Vogler 19)
- INTERTEXTUALITY: Alluding to, ripping off, or paying homage to past examples of Good Literature. Or, as Thomas C. Foster puts it so succinctly in his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor: “. . . all literature grows out of other literature” (57). But specifically, there are five different sources from which most Good Literature culls: 1.HISTORY, 2. RELIGIOUS TEXTS, 3. SHAKESPEARE, 4. FAIRY TALES/FABLES, and 5. MYTHS/LEGENDS.
- IMPASSIONED PREMISE: Lajos Egri says in The Art of Dramatic Writing: “A good premise is the thumbnail synopsis of your play [or book]” (8). “Until he [the author] takes sides, there is no play. Only when he [the author] champions one side of the issue does the premise spring to life. Does egotism lead to loss of friends? Which side will you take? We, the readers or spectators of your play, do not necessarily agree with your conviction. Through your play [or novel or work of creative non-fiction or etc, etc, etc.] you must therefore prove to us the validity of your contention” (9). Premise is also known as theme and I use these terms interchangeably. Here are some examples: “Bitterness leads to false gaiety, foolish generosity leads to poverty, honesty defeats duplicity, ill-temper leads to isolation, materialism conquers mysticism (Egri 8). Incidentally, all of these themes fit snuggly beneath at least one of these four concepts: LOVE, DEATH, TIME (or the lack thereof), and HOPE.
- REAL CHARACTERS: John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction: “The center of every Shakespearean play, of all great literature, is character . . . .” He also goes on to say: “in order to create good characters, no matter what they are, they must be real in the sense that we are real, “Dragons, like bankers and candy-store owners, must have firm and predictable characters. A talking tree, a talking refrigerator, a talking clock must speak in a way we learn to recognize, must influence events in ways we can identify as flowing from some definite motivation . . .” (21–22). In other words, a writer should make characters who act the way real people act because, “except as creatures of the imagination, characters in fiction do not exist” (45).
- PERSONAL CONNECTION: Good Literature must do a few other things though. Good Literature should have some universal elements that most people can relate to, while simultaneously being original. It should help you not only look at the world in a new light, but yourself too. And furthermore make you want to do something about it. It should be constantly changing and constantly changing its readers, even good literature written thousands of years ago.
Good Literature: [goo d] [Lit-er-uh-Cher] — noun: It is a journey of some sort, it borrows from past examples of Good Literature, it has an impassioned premise, and unforgettable, realistic characters. Good Literature is something you can relate to yet it is still original, it takes you outside of yourself and/or deeper inside yourself than you have ever been willing to go. Good Literature is writing that can change you. It makes you see the world differently than you did before you read it. It can call you to action. It makes you think, feel, laugh, cry, and realize that you are alive. You will feel passionately about Good Literature. As time goes by Good Literature is constantly changing and constantly changing its readers, even those pieces of Good Literature written thousands of years ago. Good Literature is power.
There you have it, condensed to its most simplistic form. This is what I use to decide if I like a book or not. Hope you can get some use out of it as either a reader or a writer or both.