Herman Hesse once wrote that the third dimension of history is fiction. And it is history which we are told to turn to when we are in need of sage advice, mistake-preventing insight and some wisdom from those who have gone before us. Would it matter if these were fictional stories? Does it matter that despite best efforts to strip something back to facts, there will always remain a small touch of embellishment? No, it doesn’t, which explains my fascination with literature – fiction, stories, make-believe, embellished histories – because they provide much from which I have learned; they provide, in the case of good literature, insight just as profound as if it were to have really happened.
Novel studies are profoundly hated by students because they seem pointless, so frankly why should they bother? They aren’t done for no reason, as education isn’t just some fun lark to keep kids of the streets. There is a depth of meaning, a purpose. The fact is, you learn from books. I have learned from books, you have probably learned from books – but only from good books. Bad books are like bad teachers: often exciting, often fun, but totally hopeless when it comes to imparting knowledge; you might remember them but not because of what you have learned.
In his essay Why I Write, George Orwell speaks of his deep, inexplicable motives for writing but makes it clear that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” Orwell adds that “writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some horrible illness.” Orwell hypothesises that the only reason such a thing would ever be undertaken is because a writer is driven by some unexplained demon. I think that the only reason anyone would ever embark on a book is because sub-consciously they have got something to lay out, in the hope others may learn.
It is readily apparent when a book does have something to offer and something from which the reader can learn. There are books written for different levels of learning, too; this is why children are enthralled by children’s books, but older readers returning to them find them full of obvious outcomes. While I have drifted away from young adult fiction, it is interesting to see my friends remain totally enthralled by it. Adult books still have an air of the foreign about them, in their eyes. But it is to adult books I turn when I’m looking for something edgier, more engaging – and, ultimately, more educational. This is not to say that I find young adult fiction to be bad; indeed, there is some high-calibre story-telling going on, but I find myself wanting more where my peers didn’t.
There is the right book for the right time. One of my teachers once told me to read Lord of the Flies by William Golding, but then stopped himself and said that I should wait a year before I did. Dutifully, I waited a year and then read it. He was right. If I had read it a year earlier I wouldn’t have understood half of what was going on. There was a lot that occurred in that year that I saw reflected in the novel, and there was, therefore, more I learned from it. One shouldn’t rush reading. There is time to get around to it, to build up to it, otherwise it becomes merely words – which good, educational literature is not.
I have read a number of books which I have learned much form. Among them:
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell;
- The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse;
- Eucalyptus by Murray Bail;
- The Plains by Gerald Murnane;
- My Brother Jack by George Johnston;
- The Chrysalids by John Wyndham;
- Accident by Nicholas Mosley; and
- Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
Of course, there have been others, but these are the examples that stick in my mind.
They are all novels interestingly, even though some are quite experimental.They are all very different – the subject matter varies wildly. There are also three Australian writers – Bail, Johnston and Murnane – which perhaps reflects my Australian heritage; and perhaps these authors would not have as profound an impact of readers overseas.
From these books I have learned about manipulation, beauty, love, absurdity, fortune, misfortune, desire, tragedy and blasphemy. There is so much encompassed in these books that I would offer the list above as a reading list – a difficult one, but one worth embarking on. (After all, there is always the urge to share books which have had an impact on you, hoping that the experience can be replicated and shared – producing a common bond.)
But what have I learned about writing? The styles of the books are wildly different. Some are punchier than others. The Glass Bead Game is much slower than Accident, but you could tell this from just looking at the books: The Glass Bead Game is nearly four centimetres thick, Accident is just one. These books, though, are the lengths they need to be: they are comfortable in their clothes, they’re well-tailored. This is the common thread. All of the books which have ever had an impact on me are well-tailored: they are all the right length. W. Somerset Maugham said that there were three rules for writing a novel; nobody knows what they are. Indeed, it would be difficult to define what the right length for a novel is, because it seems to be more like a feel you have to have. This is a significant lesson I have learned about writing: make sure it sits well in its form.
All of the books I’ve listed show that writing must be comfortable in its own form. This is the secret, I think, to good writing: it must be comfortable telling the story it’s telling.
When it boils down to it there is no way to tell if something really did occur before you were born. There are accounts of course, but it could be a pack of concerted lies. The German word for history is the same as the word for story. Where lies the difference? Fact morphing into fiction morphing back into fact. Fiction happens in the mind – just as history has to be conjured – and if you can enter it fully, there is much to learn, as I have always found. But only if the reader is willing.
This blog post is a part of the Teens Can Write Too December 2014 blog chain. The (thankfully open-ended) prompt was, “What works of fiction have taught you by example, and what did they teach you?” The other participants in the chain were:
10th – http://kirabudge.weebly.com/
16th – http://miriamjoywrites.com/
25th – [No posts today!]