Blue Nights, despite some lovely writing, is finally a closed loop, a personal missive from a grief-stricken mother to her dead daughter that fails to make enough space for the reader to work as literature.
The recognition that literature promotes a special kind of perception illuminates the contrast between miscellany and integrity. Modern science generates a general intellectual tendency to subsume particular phenomena, under general laws. We acquire this disposition from an early age. When a child dissects a tadpole in a school laboratory, she is taught that the interest is not in that creature, but in coming to an understanding of the anatomy of tadpoles in general, of all tadpoles. Were she to rest with the thought that she has come to know something just about that particular tadpole, she would be seen to suffer from an intellectual defect.
Literature has no such aspiration. A literary person, were she to find a tadpole alluring, would likely visit her attentions upon that one creature. Love, a theme more common than God (and not always unrelated) in literature, is typically the love of someone. A poet may have general opinions she presents about the nature of love and about which qualities are lovable and which not, but when she is not in this way being a philosopher manqué in passing, when she is most doing what a poet does, her work is expressing or conveying the expression of the love that someone has for another. That is the link between the expressive aspects of literature that I began with and the inescapable miscellany of particulars that litter a literary work, particulars that in science or philosophy would be viewed as confusion, clutter, failure.
A good formula, well executed, can be a beautiful (and profitable) thing.
But for literary fiction, the fiction of discovery, formulas are death.
P.S. I’m glad you like my blog. I think I like blogging as much as writing poetry. I know many poets will think that heresy. I always see this sentiment that blogging is a waste of time and we should all get back to the “real work.” But to me it’s as real a form/genre as any: I’m trying to convey ideas artfully. I can do different things on my blog than I can do in a poem, which is why I want both outlets.
3. People will ask you what your work means and you will try to explain it to them, but you won’t really be able to explain it even if it sounds like you are saying something intelligent.
4. You should not be able to explain it. There should always be something ineffable and mysterious about it, even for you. If you’ve got all the answers, your work will not soar.
When I was growing up, one of my favourite writers was Madeleine L’Engle. And one of the reasons I loved her books was that they were so different. It seemed as if every bright idea she had, whether it was a contemporary teen novel or a time-travel sci-fi or a historical fiction or a spiritual memoir or whatever, she just wrote it.
Given how sympathetic [Jean] Thompson’s characters are, and how tenderly she cares for them, I found it puzzling that after a while, I was anticipating the epiphanic, redemptive plot turns with something closer to apprehension than to the relief and satisfaction I assumed I was meant to feel. … I kept putting down the book to ponder how the greatest writers, the Chekhovs and the Alice Munros, can make the quotidian seem transcendent, while others (not that Thompson is necessarily among these) merely remind us of the claustrophobia-inducing banality of the everyday.
Part of the trouble with “Do Not Deny Me” may be that the structure of these stories can seem more formulaic than organic. … Too often, she seems more interested in finding something with which the reader can safely identify … than in risking the searing, disquieting honesty that makes us (as we do, reading Munro) see and admit something secret and previously hidden about ourselves, our behavior and the world in which we live. It’s the reader, not the character, whose epiphany can make a story memorable.