What makes good fiction? At some level this is certainly a useless question, as ultimately it boils down to a matter of taste. There are a great number of people who seem to feel, for instance, that Moby Dick is a great piece of art. I would like to think that they are basing that judgment on the movie version with Gregory Peck as Ahab, which is certainly a fine movie. Moby Dick may be a great story, but some of the actual writing is horrible.
This is the first distinction I would like to make: that between the story and the writing, the subject and its treatment.
You go to the museum and see a portrait of Napoleon on horseback. A worthy subject, possibly, and as you focus on his eyes, his forehead, the set of his mouth, and the tilt of his head, you begin to see the man through the eyes of the artist. You begin to be taken somewhere. As art, deeply experienced, ravishes you, carries you away. But then you look at the horse, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Goofy. You step back. The background, the scenery, is sort of convincing, the color scheme giving a sense of . . . Is that horse mugging for the camera, or what? He looks like a toothpaste commercial. What he doesn’t look like, is an actual horse. Your journey towards wherever it is that art takes you stops at the end of the station platform. You’re looking at a well-executed study of Napoleon.
Cyril Connolly is getting at something like this when he says that literature is writing intended to be read twice, which reminds me suddenly of John Steinbeck’s character Doc Ricketts, who drank the first beer for thirst and the second for taste. It’s during that second beer that you notice the horse’s resemblance to Goofy, and that the characters in The Great Gatsby move and speak like cardboard cutouts.
But it’s a fabulous window on the jazz age, somebody told me once, shocked at my desecration of a national monument. I would agree about the window part, which makes it history, not art.
When you walk into a theatre you unconsciously perform a little mental shift that we in the trade call a ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ For the next two hours, you will accept that the events being enacted on stage are, in some sense, real events, and the characters flesh and blood human beings. You laugh and cry, spontaneously, because you are caught up in the masque. Until part of the scenery falls over. But that’s still okay, you say, trying not to notice the sudden window onto the backstage area, technicians running around. It’s a great story. Until the daughter comes out and says . . . what? How could she agree to marry that cad? She would never have done that in real life. You’ve paid for this, however, so you sit till the end. The acting’s not bad, except when the author makes the characters say stupid things. There are limits to what an actor can do for a badly-written role. Then comes the deus ex machina. True love prevails. Big deal.
After the play you go to a crowded coffeehouse to discuss. Turns out your date liked the show. She likes love stories. Yes, you say, but this one stunk. She removes her engagement ring, throws it in your face, calls you an insufferable snob, and storms out, loudly proclaiming to all and sundry not only that she never wants to see you again, but also that you are a lousy lover.
Clearly, literary criticism is not without risks.
Oh, if only you had stayed home and watched some of that old genius Jay Ward’s Rocky & Bullwinkle. Do you like stories in which the good guys win and the bad guys lose? You can watch Rocky & Bullwinkle time after time, because every word his characters speak, every gesture they make, is true.