Extraordinary Ordinary People

“Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.”–Boris Pasternak

A book called The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison is at the top of the New York Times bestseller list this morning. According to the description of the book on Amazon, “Witch and day-walking demon Rachel Morgan has managed to save the demonic ever-after from shrinking, but at a high cost. Now strange magic is attacking Cincinnati . . . Rachel must stop this dark necromancy before the undead vampire masters who keep the rest of the undead under control are lost and all-out supernatural war breaks out.” The first scene includes a conversation between the heroine and a “pixy currently sitting on the bottom of [her] hooped earrings (sic).” I don’t know if Ms. Harrison intends her book to be “literature,” but I doubt if Pasternak would describe it that way.

A review of the lists compiled by those who do such things reveals that most of “the greatest novels” ever written fit within Pasternak’s postulation of literature, even those–think Orwell’s1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World–set in (once) imaginary places. Even the kings and queens and sorcerers who populated the early novels were still just “ordinary” people. Why do the great books have ordinary characters with extraordinary–for them– attributes? Because it’s the reader–student, critic, man on the street–who creates a “great” book, not the writer. The finest assemblage of words, sentences and paragraphs is doomed to obscurity if it doesn’t resonate with readers.

Though few might recognize it, readers want to read about themselves. They imagine how they would react to the hero’s situation, they approve or disapprove of his choices, they celebrate or condemn the result. It could all have happened to them. Demons and vampires may be entertaining, they may even say something about the real world, but they aren’t real and the reader knows it. No matter how much a young woman might identify with the “day-walking demon” Rachel, she knows that Rachel’s experience will never be hers.

The second half of Pasternak’s definition of literature–“saying with ordinary words something extraordinary”–is where the art comes in. The writer wants to convey his ideas, his story, without getting in the way. Yes, there are wonderful passages in literature that dazzle–Fitzgerald’s description of the oculist’s billboard “half way between West Egg and New York” comes to mind–but, in a great book, the words must not interfere with the reader’s immersion in the story. It’s tempting to demonstrate one’s skill with unused (not necessarily “long”) words, allusions and onomatopoeia, and many good writers do, but it must be done as part of the story, not an appendage to it.

Book Number Two on the bestseller list is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Stephen King, whose judgement I respect, calls it “a smartly written literary novel . . . an extraordinary work of fiction.” It can still be done.

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