A friend of mine recently said she hoped readers would view her latest novel as literary, not “plotty.” By that, I think she meant she hoped no one would discount the artistry in her work just because it served up a sexy story.
Hearing plot being pitted against artistry always rubs me the wrong way, but I had to admit she had a point. No one was going to say, “The son sleeps with his dead father’s mistress?! A literary star is born!” Plot, for whatever reason, seems to be on a par with skeletons in the physiology of literature—necessary, but not all that beautiful to look at. Words are the real thing—the flesh, the skin, the place where beauty grows. Maybe that’s why we slave over our sentences long after we’re done with our stories—cutting, joining, smoothing, polishing. Maybe that’s why, when we’re looking for the next Joyce or Marquez or Woolf or Homer, we don’t look for new stories; we look for new language—the words by which we will know them.
But what if we won’t know them by their words? What if, when all’s said and done, words aren’t really all that enduring?
Take a look at this famous specimen: Homer’s Odyssey. Weight: substantial. Length: 12,110 lines. Age: approximately 2,800 years. Features: dactylic hexameter, mythical heroes, monsters, deities. Origins: Ancient Greece—oral composition, then organized, edited & transcribed multiple times, then translated by everyone and his mother.
The bones of The Odyssey are mostly intact—give or take a few phalanges. We know the story, and it continues to thrill us, just as the bones of a T-Rex can thrill us. But the text itself? Dead and gone.
Now, before you tell me some of the most beautiful lines in Western literature come from The Odyssey, or bombard me with comments like, “The only thing gone is your ear for great poetry,” let’s do a little test:
1) How many of you can recite even one sentence from the original Greek version of the Odyssey?
2) How many of you can recite more than one or two lines from the Odyssey in translation (any language)?
3) Of the dozens of translations of the Odyssey, can you tell which ones best capture both the sense and lyricism of the original?
4) If I cut one out of every hundred lines from the Odyssey, would you notice? Could you tell me which lines I’d cut?
Okay, now I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no one was able to complete Question #1, only a handful of people were able to do #2, very few people could honestly say “Yes” to #3. As for #4, I’m willing to bet that excising 1% of the lines in the Odyssey would go completely unnoticed by most readers.
So what does this tell us about language? What if when all is said and done words really are just flesh—beautiful and powerful, but also fragile, mutable, connected by the barest tendrils of meaning and musicality? In time, they’ll settle and sag, right? They’ll decay. And maybe they’ll leave some fossil imprint of themselves, but how much of the original can we recapture from a fossil? Can we really tell if the words flew or crawled, if they had feathers or scales, if their imprint survived because they were among the greatest sentences to walk the earth, or because they were the only ones anyone bothered to record? * What does this say about our priorities as writers?
The problem’s not just limited to ancient texts. Remember the cake frosting scene in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours? Beautiful, right? But can you remember the actual sentences? And Ulysses—possibly the most famous language-fest of modern times. Joyce riffs on everything from Elizabethan English to advertising jingles, but out of hundreds and hundreds of masterful lines, how many can you repeat? Four? Five? Ten?**
So if gorgeous sentences don’t survive, what will? What makes a work like The Odyssey immortal?
Story. Structure. Setting. Character. Passion.
We remember the physical, just as the earth remembers bone. We record action and reaction, just as the earth records birth and death. I can’t quote you anything more than “Sing in me, Muse…” from The Odyssey, but I can tell you about Odysseus being tied to the mast, about the island of the Lotus-Eaters and Polyphemus, the Cyclops, and Penelope weaving and unweaving Laertes’s shroud. I can’t recite anything from Crime and Punishment, but I can tell you how Raskolnikov killed the pawnbroker and her half-sister, how he’s consumed with fear and guilt, how the detective Porfiry dogs him, and how Sonya saves him. And Shakespeare: Whether you remember anything more than “To be or not to be…,” you wouldn’t have much trouble recounting what happens inHamlet, would you—or Othello, or Romeo and Juliet?
Now, with so much talk about the death of the novel and non-fiction outselling fiction three to one, is it possible we’ve fallen too far into literary vanity? Are we spending more time touching up our faces than building up bone? Sure, there might only be seven basic plots in literature, but so what? With six billion plus people in the world that gives us over forty-two billion stories. Is Joey X.’s wife dying of breast cancer the same as Elizabeth Y.’s wife dying of breast cancer? Is Arthur B.’s war story the same as Claudia G.’s or Haroun T.’s? The details matter, just as it matters whether a hole in a skull is jagged or smooth.
Of course, a skilled hand will always make a story more enjoyable. And if you can do it in a manner that’s never been done before, all power to you. But let’s not fool ourselves. There will be stories told in the clumsiest, most conformist, even trite manner imaginable that will endure longer than most of our beautiful sentences. There will be tales we’ve heard a hundred times before that will thrill us simply because the circumstances are different, or the characters are new, or the times have changed. Maybe language will be part of that difference. But if not, it doesn’t matter. In the decomposition of literary bodies, words are the first to go. What’s left is the enduring beauty of story.
What do you think? Is there too much emphasis on the craft of writing or not enough? Does the temporal vulnerability of language make it less valuable or more?
* There is an assumption among literary historians that if someone bothered to record a text, it must have had great value. But since many ancient records were inventories and financial transactions, great value doesn’t necessarily mean great artistry.
** There are people who’ve memorized all of Ulysses. There are far more people who’ve memorized the theme song from The Brady Bunch.
Chris Abouzeid is the author of the Young Adult novel,Anatopsis. His short stories, poetry and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, Agni Magazine, The Literary Review, Epoch, Southern Review, New England Review, Other Voices, and Literal Latté. His awards include grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the St. Botolph’s Club Foundation, and the Somerville Arts Council, and Honorable Mentions from the Pushcart Prize and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.