Rewriting humanity

What is a book supposed to do in the world? What is your book supposed to do in the world? I know, I know, writers have enough to think about, and more than enough to juggle, as it is without raising such bothersome questions. And after all, isn’t a well told story justifiable by itself? By its mere existence? Does it have to do anything? And if so, what? Who says anyway? Ahh, leave me alone, I’ve got comma splices to fix.

We’ve all been there. The harrowing doubts that our story doesn’t work, that the characters don’t make sense, that they aren’t sufficiently motivated, that they aren’t sufficiently expressed. The writing is off, it doesn’t flow well, it lacks heart, it lacks beauty, it lacks depth. These are the issues we fret over; and rightly so, they are important and very worth every second we put into them. But still that first question this post raised lies there like a predator in the tall grass, eyeing us, ready to pounce. Few can look themselves in the mirror and say with a (non-ironic) grin that they are proud writers of pulp. Fewer still actually set out to write pulp in the first place. Yet what have I created? What does it do? That too is worth every second we put into answering it.

A book, I think – and most particularly a book like a novel – ought to challenge. It must. It is a creation, a product, of a living, breathing, growing, grasping, getting, striving, feeling, failing, singularly present being. It is an object that could never exist in the whole vast cosmos were it not for its author, for the unique and altogether transient voice of the one who gave it shape and form. To reduce the miracle of existing as a human being on planet Earth down to the piddling triviality of a purveyor of masturbatory letters is such a waste that it ought to be considered a sin. It might even be a sin in some corners; and good for those corners. What a book offers the world, what a book can offer the world, is another world.

A book is an extraordinarily well-equipped vehicle for ideas, and it is ideas that we need most in these empty and soulless times of ours. We have become trapped in the empirical, unable or unwilling to see beyond the measurable and the “objective”, incapable of finding or investing value in anything that is not dollars and cents. Even the very word investing has taken on so many stock market overtones that it threatens to strike the wrong intuitive chord every time it’s used. A book, and again especially a novel, is the antidote to all this, it is the antithesis of the conceptual cage we find ourselves in where truth is diminished to observable streams of lifeless data now marked out by the micron. (And I’m guilty of this too, see Chapter 5: “On the nature of truth” in my Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies. I would write that chapter very differently today if I were to do it over again.) A book can open a mind to what is only imagined, and what is only imagined is not a never-was but rather a not-yet. A book has the power to dance with ideas that are entirely unconnected with reality as we see it – a book deals with reality as we claim it. A book rips open the human soul and points now to this, now that, and then leaves tectonic shifts in its wake. A book has the power to reveal the possible, and absolutely anything is possible for we – the builders, conjurers, playful tinkerers that we are – are limited only to the extent that we limit our dreaming. And so why not dream more? Dream greater? Dream wider? What is your book supposed to do in the world?

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