June 23, 2010


What is it that separates great fiction from good fiction? Something I think about constantly. One of the things I was thinking about yesterday was authenticity. One thing that great fiction has is authenticity, but what does that mean exactly, and what does that mean in craft terms?

When something is authentic, we often mean it’s real, not faked. Every once in a while, I watch Antiques Road Show, and they worry a lot about authenticity on that show. Is this the genuine article? The real Ming Dynasty vase, actually a Tiffany lamp, really Buffalo Bill Cody’s six shooter? And the way they tell is in the details. This element is rococo but this element is actually art nouveau. This is made to look Chinese but the actual makers were Japanese and it was for the European market. This chest of drawers is made up of two elements ~ the bottom was made during the American Revolution but the top was added during the 19th century, which you can tell by the wood and by the construction.

What is the opposite of authentic? Inauthentic. Fake. Cheap copies. Something made of plastic with the seams showing. Poor craftsmanship. No attention to the artfulness of it. When you can see how it’s made.

So authenticity is conveyed in details that are convincing. Also unity and coherence ~ all the pieces and parts have to be working together to create this affect, to create this world. Depth too ~ all the elements from the macro scale to the minute must be working to create something that strikes the viewer as real.

That said, it can’t be so cohesive that it is a cliché. The real world is a messy place, and in order for it to feel real, authentic, it must also be divergent. It must have elements that seem out of place, yet they are strangely relevant. The forces of entropy and inertia should be in tension but in balance.

One thing that definitely makes a piece feel authentic is a confidence in the writing. Easily said, but what does that really mean? As I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that it’s not what people usually mean when they say confident. It’s not that the author has pride or is rushing headlong into something. Quite the opposite. It’s that the author has worked something over to the extent that it’s easy for the reader but it was hard for the writer. It’s about having the skill, putting in the time both in the long term and short term. There also is an element of the author trusting his vision. So confidence means that the reader trusts the writer, that the confidence is on the part of the reader, not the writer.

It makes me think, too, that authenticity is kind of like charisma. Charisma is when someone can walk into a room and make everyone fall in love with her. From long experience, I’ve found that charisma is not about coveting someone else’s attributes; it’s about being true to your own, about being real. Contrary to what some people think, it’s also something that people have to work at, something that can be learned. It’s also an outward focus, paying attention to other people, making them feel special, remembering names. So, too, authenticity is about being real and true to the vision, about paying attention to what a reader needs, about long practice.

Authenticity is created when a dedicated artist writer devotes time to craft and to a particular work, makes it true and honest and deep as possible, gets the details right, pays attention to his reader’s needs, and trusts his heart and his vision. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Ha ha.

What I’m Reading Today: Finishing up Coming from Nowhere, as book club is tonight.

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