Emerging from the fog of life, one gains insight on navigating the fog of literature. Since the fog is a labyrinth where committing a word--any word--to the page seems the ultimate in hubris, the act of the ego actually admitting its owner's humanity, I sought immediate escape from the maze of self into literature (sometimes books, sometimes movies, but usually various dramatizations on BBC 4 or 7--by the way, Douglas Adams' Dr. Who
program now "animated" is back online as are new episodes continuing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
series which just began today).
This is the most primary tool of literature: the wheel, the body with opposable thumbs. No doubt to the surprise of both camps, I place both language and plot here. Language allows reader immediate access into the transport while plot involves us with being transported. Language is the mood it casts us into through word choice for sound and feelings conveyed through the charge of connotation. Without language, it's hard to muck through to find the plot. Without plot, it's hard to stay interested in language. Both can also be embroiled in the creation of art but are more reliably the mechanisms which get us there.
The majority of readers only want to be transported, to be entertained, so most movies and novels dwell happily in this territory. Here they can bask in the limelight for a year, maybe, and fade from memory. Matthew Cheney says we're entertained by different things. Maybe so to a degree. But then, I doubt that it was mistake to describe plot in terms interchangable with sexual intercourse since the body in conjugal movement is a literary discourse of interest to most humans.
This is the heart, the fire in the belly, the fuel that burns and drives the wheels, the circulation system that delivers energy to the body. Can we believe the reality of these characters and setting and plot? How well rendered are they? This includes conjuring the right image as well as the telling gesture or object or observation or the sense of wonder.
Some might place imagery in the above category, but language as meant above refers to style while language used here is focused on the evocative because these may exist in opposition, competing for priority as the text demands. The language of image requires specificity, whereas the language of style may require that a less exact but more mood-conjuring term. I'll get to specifics soon, analyzing the results of Jay Lake's character description contest.
For more discerning fans of art, this is the most crucial tool: This is what they mean when they talk about art. It's hard to dispute. Myself, I hate to put emphasis on any one tool, lest another fall into disuse; but when I decide whether or not to invest valuable beer money in art, the heart of the work has to be probed. I'm willing to buy art that mostly plays with the mind (Borges), but I also want to feel. It is a mistake to think that this is all a work needs: Without transport, the believability stagnates; without thought, it is forgotten.
Transport to Thought
If plot is transport away from ourselves, the primary or cohesive art brings us back to ourselves, transformed--if only transformed back into the people and beliefs we were, albeit enlightened about that existence. Art is the mind, the thought, the nervous system, the thing(s) we dwell on after the last page is turned. By dwelling in thought after the last page, the story lives on as neurons align to form pathways to secure such thought, and invariably is passed on to others so that the thought can be discussed--for or
Critics sometimes look only for this factor, passing up both the transport and the heart of a work, praising dull, dead, and thoroughly dessicated prose without recognizing the need for the other tools of art. If the reader can't be transported away from himself, how can he come back? If the reader can't care about the character and his world, why should he dwell there?
No work of art walks on all three legs, equally. Even my favorite, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men
cannot be seen as a paragon of style--although it is presumably a crossbreed of the play and the novel. Shakespeare's Hamlet
, too, as close to perfect as a work of art may have flaws invisible over the distance of time.
Most weigh more in sone category or another. I, Robot
has little style, much plot, much thought, and some rightness. 21 Grams
has much style, much plot, some thought, and much rightness. Sky Captain
has much style, much plot, little thought, and some rightness. Federico Fellini's 8 1/2
has much style, some plot, much thought, much rightness.
Breaking apart stories in this way makes it easier to see whether one can measure one work of art against another. If two novels weigh heavily on plot or thought or rightness, they can be equitably be compared.
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