William Boekestein, pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI, was recently appointed as the social media coordinator for Reformed Fellowship, publisher of the The Outlook. In his continuing task to help Reformed Fellowship build an online presence and engage meaningful internet discussion, he posted yesterday (October 20, 2016) a link to my article on Fiction’s Delight and Truth.
I wrote the article over a year ago, and it appeared in 2015’s November issue. At the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate, I felt then and I still feel it is one of the best things I’ve ever written. In my defense, I submit what Leland Ryken (longtime professor of English at Wheaton College) wrote after I shared it with him:
Your essay is what I call a moon shot in my classes. It is absolutely perfect as a complete coverage of the material in a small compass. Congratulations on work well done. You did it better than I could have.
Considering Leland’s prolific writings on the subject and his astounding output as an author, I take this as the highest compliment. And I give all praise and glory to God, the I AM who writes all our stories as part of His great and never-ending story.
Compressing everything I learned during my intensive Glen West workshop into brief blog posts seems impossible. But I can give you a taste through small samples.
Last Friday, I focused on the first day and wrote about beginning to write by writing. Two of the many literary terms we discussed on subsequent workshop days were intention and audience.
Our workshop leader Larry Woiwode didn’t seem particularly keen on the concept of authorial intention. “The critic never knows the writer’s intention,” he said. “The only person who can know your intention is God. Saying you know the intention of the author is promoting yourself.” He added, “Write to tell a story, not to convey intention.”
He wasn’t a big fan of writing for a particular audience either. “Don’t worry about who you’re writing for,” he said. “Do the best you can and it will find the audience.”
Do you see a pattern? Woiwode stressed expending your best effort in telling your story. “Tell the story properly,” he urged. “Do the best you can.” He described a well-written story as one that “has dimension under it,” saying, “We feel underneath it the thought that conceived it, compressed it.” He spoke of “the story beyond the story,” which “you want the reader to think about for the next week.”
I believe it’s accurate to say that, for Woiwode, story-telling trumps intention and audience.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a novel rise above the level of merely well-written fiction to become a literary work.
A novel can consist of technically flawless writing, but be as bland as a piece of white toast. So it must tell a good story. It’s also true that a novel can convey an engaging story in a mechanically accurate manner without the writing rising to a high literary quality. So the writing must surpass grammatical accuracy and correct construction to demonstrate literary skill. But literary skill does not consist of simply inserting techniques like simile and metaphor. Some of the worst writing I’ve read abounds with vivid and original similes. Literary techniques are counter-productive, however, when they become obvious and distract the reader.
I know a good book when I read one. And reading great literature is probably the best way to begin recognizing good literature. But I want to go much further in learning how to recognize and write literary work. Is this a skill that can be taught or is it simply intuitive?
Recently I’ve participated in some interesting chats on literary subjects, but I’d like to expand the conversation. Would you like to weigh in? What aspects do you believe lift writing to a literary level? Feel free to comment.