February 1, 2010

That’s Strange

"The aim of literature ... is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart." ~ Donald Barthelme

I love this quote. A friend posted it on his wall on Facebook. One of the things I love about this quote is the juxtaposition of the concrete and the general ~ it’s a strange object (general and nonspecific) but it is covered with fur (much more visual and concrete). And then the sentence does this amazing thing. It soars to another realm with “breaks your heart.”

Barthelme could’ve said that literature creates a cute little stuffed animal, and then you go, “aaaaah.” It’s covered with fur. It’s supposed to break your heart. Most stuffed animals aren’t strange, though, nor do they break your heart. They’re the clichés of the toy world. No, what Barthelme did was defamiliarize, make strange. Not that he probably started with a stuffed animal.

In my opinion, that’s one of the things good art does ~ it defamiliarizes us. There are no new stories, as many people have said, but there are an infinite number of ways to tell old stories, and each person has his or her own unique outlook (and I mean that in its true sense ~ only one in the world), as Dennis Lehane says on Author magazine here (at the end of the interview).

One of the ways that we make things strange is by reaching beyond what first comes to mind (the cliché, what we’ve heard ten million times before) to the wonderful specifics of something. Sure, clichés are apt descriptions ~ that’s why they’re so time-worn and oft-repeated ~ but people have seen them so often that they’ve lost meaning. They don’t pack any punch. They don’t shake people out of their everyday lives and shout, “Look at me! Feel!”

However, I don’t go either for the strange for strange’s sake, nor the shocking for shock value. You’re trying to communicate with people, and if you make it too hard for them, too much work, they’re going to drop your writing ~ i.e., you ~ like a hot rock.

But isn’t the world really strange and wonderful just as it is? We don’t have to remake the world, just our perceptions of it. We need to see past our preconceived notions and the wall of expectations to what’s really going on and to try to find the words to express that.

Going beyond cliché isn’t comfortable for some readers ~ I’ve heard it said that the goal of genre fiction is to confirm expectations (follow genre conventions, have a happy ending), while the goal of literary fiction is to defamiliarize and defy expectations. Each has its place, but ~ for me ~ I want the real world in all its crazy glory.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Ray Norsworthy’s short story (chapter from a novel, really) “A Glorious Fit” at Fried Chicken and Coffee. Exactly what I’m talking about ~ so specific it’s train-wreck/squirmingly moving.

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