The end/s of fiction

In the same interview I cited some posts back, Tobias Wolff scoffs at the idea, sometimes advanced in writing classes, that there are only seven stories, some of which have already been “used up.” There are as many stories, he says, as there are ways to imagine them; these, by implication, being pretty close to infinite.

Ned Beauman at The Millions is not convinced.  He suggests new writers can be paralysed not only by old stories, but also by used up ways to tell them. “There’s a remark somewhere by (I think) Martin Amis about how all young writers have to confront the fact that there just aren’t many new ways left to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. It’s like peak oil for lyricism.”

I have to disagree with Beauman, and possibly with Amis (if it was him). There are infinite ways to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. There will be no peak oil for lyricism because lyricism is another word for poetry and poetry is another word for making. How can there be an end to making? A limit to the number of things made?  Lyrics are a resource not external but endemic to the human mind. You might as well say there can be no new inventions, no developments in medicine or physics or genetics. Lyricism springs eternal in the human breast.

In fact what I love most about prose fiction is not the story, whether it's old or new, but the texture and detail of the prose, the ingenuities of language that describe the world in ways I couldn't have. Even a bad book turns up some new phrase, some new way of seeing or being, crystallised in two or three words. The best books do this on every page. It's why, though we know the story back to front, we go back to them.

Many will prophesy in my name

It's easy to be disheartened by the religious right, especially since they seem to get so much air time, and especially now that Michele Bachmann is a surprising frontrunner in the 2012 GOP field, bringing the extreme and the mainstream ever closer. Unlike Bush, whom Alan Wolfe calls ‘capable of finding God on his side no matter which side he was on,' the new breed seem less supple, with their sights on full blown theocracy. Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast employs the useful term ‘Christianist' to distinguish these advocates of a Christian jihad from followers of Christ. While Christianists are befouling and befuddling the air waves, I would rather find refreshment in other channels than give their nonsense the credit of rational attention. Instead, I'll be looking for thoughtful and literate commentary from people like Rowan Williams, who gave this lovely explanation of grace in a recent address to a conference on Christianity and literature:

“If the text of a native language is to be in some sense hospitable ... it must be a text with a shadow or margin, conscious of a strangeness that surrounds it and is not captured by it, a strangeness that interprets it or at least offers the possibility of a meaning to be uncovered, on the far side of questioning. And the paradoxical conclusion is that the person who 'inhabits' with integrity the place where they find themselves, in such a way as to make it possible for others to inhabit it in peaceable company with them is always the person who is aware of the possibility of an alien yet recognizable judgement being passed, aware of the stranger already sensed in the self's territory. To be, in the Augustinian phrase, a question to oneself is what makes it possible to be oneself without anxiety and so with the possibility of welcome for the other.”

Or from novelist Tobias Wolff, a Catholic, who described his own sense of grace at work:

“The things that touch me are not sectarian. What are they, then? Gracious, I guess. I respond to something gracious in the writer. That doesn’t mean nice, or kind, or consoling, though it can have that effect. It has to do with a certain courage and verve and even sense of play in facing things as they are ... To the extent that I can feel the presence of grace—the operation of some kind of grace in the world—I often feel it in music ... where the words God or revolution or even soul are not to be heard. And what does music accomplish, after all? Can it be said to offer a plan for improving us, can it be said to give us new political visions, can it be said to make an argument for this or that faith? No. It is a good purely in itself, and that is a sufficient justification for its existence.”