As a new year begins, folks become introspective. We think about the year gone by and wonder what the new year will bring.
I’m about half way through editing my first completed novel in more than a decade. And I’ve come to that point where I have to ask myself if it’s good. The answer to that is a resounding yes. It has strong characters, a great plot, and I think it brings something unique to the genre.
Is it art? Well, no.
My last novel was, well… “unpolished” would be a nice way to put it. Looking back on it, I see so many things wrong I can’t begin to salvage it. Yet it had one thing going for it: it had a strong moral message.
But you see, that’s the problem. In my younger years, I felt that writing should convey some truth, some deep meaning, that would elevate it from mere novel to “work of art.” These days, I’m not so concerned about art.
As I look back on the Great Works (capital G, capital W) of literature, I’m struck by two things.
First, writers like Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare were writing to make a buck. They wanted to tell a story that would captivate their audiences. They had no idea that their works would still be read centuries later. Dickens’ classic Great Expectations was written as a serial for his periodical All the Year Round. And Shakespeare just wanted to get butts into seats at the theatre. If not for a couple of his friends collecting his works into the first folio after his death, modern audiences might not know anything of Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing.
Not to diminish their work. Dickens and Shakespeare are highly regarded as literary masters for a reason. I’m merely pointing out that they were writing to pay the rent, the same as any professional author today.
The other thing that struck me about our Great Works is that they are more than a message. People read to be inspired, certainly. If that were our only concern, however, we would spend our days reading everything from cat posters to homilies and the scraps of wisdom in fortune cookies.
A novel or play needs a good story, filled with interesting characters, to carry the reader through it. Without these things, a novel won’t be read. And if it’s not read, it just gathers dust on a bookshelf and the message is lost.
My younger self didn’t understand that trying to fill a book with meaning is like trying to fill a colander with water. It can’t be done that way. But if you lay in a firm foundation and turn that strainer into a bowl, it can hold water quite well.
In my later years, I’m less worried about creating art. Like Dickens and Shakespeare, I want to entertain and tell a good story. I want readers to get lost in my pages. I want them to find adventure and get distracted from their everyday problems. I want readers who are excited to pick up my novel, and eagerly await the next one.
In 2016, I’ll be focusing on entertainment. Why? Because no one should set out to be remembered for centuries to come. Tell a good story, and the rest will follow.