I live, at all times, for imaginative fiction; for ambivalence, not instruction. When language serves dogma, then literature is lost. I live also, and only, for excellence. My care is not for the cult of egalitarian mediocrity that is sweeping the world today, wherein even the critics are no longer qualified to differentiate, but for literature, which you may notice I have not defined. I would say that, because of its essential ambivalence, ‘literature’ is: words that provoke a response; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act. There can be no one meaning for a text. Even that of the writer is a but an option.

Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.

It is a paradox: yet one so important I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.

It is one of the main errors of historical and rational analysis to suppose that the ‘original form’ of myth can be separated from its miraculous elements. ‘Wonder is only the first glimpse of the start of philosophy,’ says Plato. Aristotle is more explicit: ‘The lover of myths, which are a compound of wonders, is, by his being in that very state, a lover of wisdom.’ Myth encapsulates the nearest approach to absolute that words can speak.

Alan Garner
Aback of Beyond

Beginnings

July 1, 2020

So, it comes first: the world. Then, literature. And then, what one pencil moving over a thousand miles of paper can (perhaps, sometimes) do.

Mary Oliver
Upstream: Selected Essays

valuing realism more

March 25, 2020

I continue to think that realism is a fashion that arose during the nineteenth century and was emphasized in Spain over the course of the Franco dictatorship because, since the newspapers were censored and muzzled, novelists thought that their obligation was to replace the work of journalists by speaking out about the sad socio-political reality being lived in the country. The fantastic was considered “escapist” and, as a result, superficial, trivial, cowardly.

Today, although a majority of critics insist in valuing realism more (one need only look to see how year after year the Nobel Prize in Literature is given to realist authors who tackle “difficult” subjects, as if the literature were the subject and not its treatment), I also think that the younger generations already don’t let themselves be as swayed by “official” opinions, and they read whatever they want to, which in many cases is fantastic (of whatever sub-denomination: dystopia, horror, fantasy, etc.)

It seems to me that, deep down, it is a case that the reading public has now again realized that literature should be pleasurable and that, whatever its theme or subject, all good literature deals with the human condition, with the situation of humankind in the world (present, past, or future), the decisions that leave their mark upon individuals’ lives, the possibilities that open before one or another, the transcendence of the individual and the species.

The good and sweet is as realist as the bad and terrible, and everything has its place in literature. Now there is a much greater diversity of material and of kinds of audiences. In my opinion, what’s most difficult under these circumstances is maintaining the literary quality, the aesthetic pleasure that derives from the appreciation of the literary art. I think that a serious problem is that increasingly it is being forgotten that literature is an art and doesn’t merely consist of intelligibly recounting events one after another.

Elia Barceló
In conversation with Ricard Ruiz Garzón
Trans. Lawrence Schimel

Literature is an uttering, or outering, of the human imagination. It lets the shadowy forms of thought and feeling – heaven, hell, monsters, angels and all – out into the light, where we can take a good look at them and perhaps come to a better understanding of who we are and what we want, and what the limits to those wants may be. Understanding the imagination is no longer a pastime, but a necessity; because increasingly, if we can imagine it, we’ll be able to do it.

Margaret Atwood
Aliens have taken the place of angels
The Guardian, Friday June 17, 2005

writing is inevitable

January 16, 2020

I write for nothing and for no one. Anyone who reads me does so at his own risk. I don’t make literature: I simply live in the passing of time. The act of writing is the inevitable result of my being alive.

Clarice Lispector
A Breath of Life

That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky,  people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing.  That’s exactly the technique my grandmother used. I remember particularly the story about the character who is surrounded by yellow butterflies. When I was very small there was an electrician who came to the house. I became very curious because he carried a belt with which he used to suspend himself from the electrical posts. My grandmother used to say that every time this man came around, he would leave the house full of butterflies. But when I was writing this, I discovered that if I didn’t say the butterflies were yellow, people would not believe it. When I was writing the episode of Remedios the Beauty going to heaven,  it took me a long time to make it credible. One day I went out to the garden and saw a woman who used to come to the house to do the wash and she was putting out the sheets to dry and there was a lot of wind. She was arguing with the wind not to blow the sheets away. I discovered that if I used the sheets for Remedios the Beauty, she would ascend. That’s how I did it, to make it credible. The problem for every writer is credibility. Anybody can write anything so long as it’s believed.

Gabriel García Márquez
Interviewed by Peter H. Stone
Paris Review Winter 1981

 

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When I say I have written from the beginning, I mean that all real writers write from the beginning, that the vocation, the obsession, is already there, and that the obsession derives from an intensity of feeling which normal life cannot accommodate. I started writing snippets when I was eight or nine, but I wrote my first novel when I left Ireland and came to live in London. I had never been outside Ireland and it was November when I arrived in England. I found everything so different, so alien. Waterloo Station was full of people who were nameless, faceless. There were wreaths on the Cenotaph for Remembrance Sunday, and I felt bewildered and lost — an outsider. So in a sense The Country Girls, which I wrote in those first few weeks after my arrival, was my experience of Ireland and my farewell to it. But something happened to my style which I will tell you about. I had been trying to write short bits, and these were always flowery and overlyrical. Shortly after I arrived in London I saw an advertisement for a lecture given by Arthur Mizener – author of a book on F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise  – on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. You must remember that I had no literary education, but a fervid religious one. So I went to the lecture and it was like a thunderbolt — Saul of Tarsus on his horse! Mizener read out the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and I couldn’t believe it—this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical. I can say that the two things came together then: my being ready for the revelation and my urgency to write. The novel wrote itself, so to speak, in a few weeks. All the time I was writing it I couldn’t stop crying, although it is a fairly buoyant, funny book. But it was the separation from Ireland which brought me to the point where I had to write, though I had always been in love with literature.

Edna O’Brien

Interview with Shusha Guppy for Paris Review summer 1984

Good literature

July 18, 2018

Good literature very simply is that which uplifts an enriches in some way, that which gives you an insight into the human condition so that you understand that we all live in the same skin and we are all heir to the same fears and joys and that makes you want to be a part of the human race. That’s good literature to me.

Harlan Ellison
Ellison on Crafting Short Stories
NBC Today Show, 24 April 1981

alien landscape1

I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it (what I write), but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions…

…I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that…

…For most of my career, getting that label — sci-fi — slapped on you was, critically, a kiss of death. It meant you got reviewed in a little box with some cute title about Martians – or tentacles…

…I just knew from extremely early on – it sounds ridiculous, but five or six – that writing was something I was going to do, always. But just writing, not any mode in particular. It started as poetry. I think I was nine or ten before I really wrote a story. And it was a fantasy story, because that’s mostly what I was reading. By then, my brother and I were putting our quarters together to buy, now and then, a ten-cent magazine called something like “Fantastic Tales” – pulp magazines, you know…

…the fiction I read, because I was an early beginner, tended toward the fantastic. Realism is a very sophisticated form of literature, a very grown-up one. And that may be its weakness. But fantasy seems to be eternal and omnipresent and always attractive to kids.
But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer. I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well…

…My first publications were all poetry, and that’s partly because of my father. He realized that sending out poetry is quite a big job. It takes method and a certain amount of diligence and a good deal of time. And he said, I could help you do that, that would be fun! He got interested in the subculture of the little magazines and realized that it is a little world, with rules all its own…

Ursula K Le Guin
Interview with John Wray for Paris Review fall 2013