Sunday, November 2, 2014

Transformation of, by, and for the Novel

Many of us write novels because there’s truth we want to express, an ideal we want our characters to portray. We may even hope to promote change. Yet those truths and ideals raise the question of whether books exert any substantial and lasting power.

Some argue that they do. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he purportedly said,  “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War?” Lincoln was right about so many things. But maybe not about this. Can fiction really change thoughts,  beliefs, politics, or lives? How much influence do books really have?

English profs read many novels. Yet lit majors aren’t necessarily more moral or compassionate or better-adjusted than anyone else. Does this suggest that every insight evaporates once the eyes scan “The End?” Transformation is elusive. It’s mysterious. You can’t measure it empirically—which doesn’t prove that it never happens.

Lots of people retain faith in the capacity of “art” to transform, to change what we do or how we feel. The local paper here listed a speech by Favianna Rodriguez called “How Art Can Shift Politics and Stop Rape Culture.” Elton John reminds us that “When all hope is gone/Sad songs say so much.”

At its best, art is universal because it probes the very deepest places in the human mind, the terrain where differences of culture, gender, race, or worldview dissipate. Deep inside there, most of us are remarkably similar—and have remained so for centuries. That’s why Shakespeare and Poe, Bach and Beethoven, Austen and the Bronte sisters still work.

For the novelist, the capacity to transform might begin with the perception of everyday reality. If your vision lets you detect the thrillingly extraordinary in the tediously ordinary, then you’re on your way to building a world, shaping a set of characters, and planning a series of events more credible and causal than life itself.

If the events you introduce transform your characters in a believable way, you’ve opened the door to transforming readers. After all, hasn’t fiction been doing that what since it was born?

Say you do transform a reader. Even before the novel ends, this person truly identifies with your characters—sees them as fellow humans rather than stick figures, empathizes with their plight. As the book closes, this reader feels that maybe X needn’t hate Y, that sharing with Y would feel good, that reaching out to Y might be possible.

If this represents true transformation, how long will it last? Hard to say. But if your book, however briefly, makes just one reader wiser, gentler, more generous or compassionate , isn’t that worth a great deal? No matter how long it lasts? Or doesn’t?

Even if your book is only one grain on the beach, one droplet of a single wave, over time, a lot of grains or droplets can produce major change. It takes a long, long time to build a mountain. It can take a long, long time to tear one down. Perhaps the transformation of readers—on our own time scale—is similar. Such patience doesn’t come easily when our beliefs are strong. But perhaps we need faith in time, in readers. In art.

Tip: Open yourself to transformation, and you’ll never know how much you affect someone you’ve never met.

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