Saturday, December 22, 2012

Theme: Of Grinches and Gravitas

What’s the subtext underlying complaints about the grinch? Isn’t it disregarding the “gravitas”—or the substance and seriousness of Christmas? Glittering ornaments, pfeffernuesse, red-nosed reindeer, and new earrings or leafblowers are all fun, and all express love.  But they lack gravitas.  Despite their joyousness, they fail to represent the original spirit or theme of Christmas, which combined peace, humility, love, sacrifice, and worship.

These words represent weighty and abiding concepts. All have gravitas, and they have it the way the earliest novels illuminated: “The Tale of Genji” on mortality, “Don Quixote” on courage and perseverance, “Pamela” on class, and “Robinson Crusoe” on friendship. 

What’s that got to do with you as a contemporary novelist? Everything. Today’s novels cover everything from graphics or blogs to slipstream and sub-sub-categories of chick lit. But regardless of genre, the best examples still offer gravitas. They can be about the girl getting the guy or the guy twittering about time-traveling to meet Aristotle. But unless they offer new truth about the human spirit, something’s missing.

This doesn’t depend on tone or subject matter. Jane Austen wrote love stories, but W.H. Auden admired her ability to “Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety/The economic basis of society,” and C.S. Lewis observed that “The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. ‘Principles’ or ‘seriousness’ are essential to Jane Austen’s art.”

They are to everyone’s.  Thrillers, westerns, and urban fantasies all benefit from gravitas. It’s the original inspiration for the novel itself.

Tip: Good storylines drive novels. The best storylines leave us knowing or feeling or realizing something the storyline left behind for us.

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