We live by stories, descriptions of people and events, real or fictional, that inform or entertain. Stories are ubiquitous as air, essential as a heartbeat, and as varied in the telling as there are humans to tell.
The story as a fiction art-form in prose has evolved over the past few centuries, but recently has declined as literature, a regrettable fact emitting from failure of contemporary authors to strive for “art” in their “creative” writing. What is lost? Imagined fiction and literature as written works considered to have lasting artistic value. The loss of written story as an art form distresses few and those enriched by fiction-story as art increasingly must reach back to past authors. So what makes a literary story so unique?
Virginia Woolf, in A Common Reader, helps sort out the values of literature as art; in essence great literary fiction is about understanding humanity. Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s books are Woolf’s prime examples, classics of English literature. Charlotte, when she wrote about Jane Eyre, said the passion of ” ‘I love’, ‘I hate’, ‘I suffer’ “, although more intense, was on a level of her own (Charlotte’s passion). Having quoted this, Woolf proceeds to point out the difference to Emily’s Wuthering Heights. In both books, settings carry emotion and “light up the meaning” of the books as powerful symbols of “vast and slumbering passions in human nature” that fulfill the needs of a reader better than words or actions “can convey.” But it’s humanity that dominates the telling, and it’s where Woolf discovers differences between the two sisters that are revealing of the process of created fiction.
Woolf considers Emily the greater poet and points out the stature of her talent. “There is no ‘I’ in Wuthering Heights. The love is not [just] the love of men and women. The urge to create Wuthering Heights was not her [Emily’s] own suffering or her own injuries. “She [Emily] looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel–a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely ‘I love’, ‘I hate,’ but ‘we, the whole human race’, and ‘you, the eternal powers …’ ”
Woolf is quick to point out “that it is not strange that it should be so; rather it is astonishing that she [Emily] can make us feel what she had it in her to say at all.” It is the “suggestion of power underlying the apparitions of human nature and lifting them up into the presence of greatness that gives the book its huge stature among other novels.” Emily “could tear up all we know about human beings and fill these unrecognizable transparencies with such a gust of life that they transcend reality.” An artistry that many contemporary authors of novels seem incapable of achieving! Woolf continues: “For the self-centered and self-limited writers have a power denied the more catholic and broad-minded. Their impressions are close packed and strongly stamped between narrow walls. Nothing issues from their minds which has not been marked by their own impress. They learn little from other writers, and what they adopt they cannot assimilate. “…a stiff and decorous journalism”, prose that is “awkward and unyielding.” And it’s not unreasonable to suggest to today’s proliferating plethora of writers of fiction that such deft thoughts (of Woolf) are the necessary nourishment, now lacking, of every contemporary teacher of creative writing, most of whom sequester in academics, and their students.
So there it is. A major void in the skill of creating great fiction that has, and is, marring the future of established value of literature in the written word as art. What do you think?
Thanks for reading.
William H. Coles
The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf, in the essay “Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.” ISBN-13: 978-0156027786