Why small stories are (usually) best

Six years ago, I read a book review that changed my life forever.

At the time, I was working on my very first novel. This novel was precious to me, and still is (I continue to work on the final draft). It was based on a simple idea in my head that I had nurtured throughout childhood. But somehow, along the way, the idea had become less fun. As I gradually built the histories of my world, designed bitter backstories for every character, and came up with languages for my various inhabitants, I realized that everything was becoming dull, gloomy, and tedious.

Somehow, paradoxically, my story was becoming far less interesting as the stakes became more colossal. ‘Fate of the world’ style plots swarmed in my head; magical objects, grand destinies, perilous quests, the whole High Fantasy kit. It was all taking the determination out of me and making what had once been a labor of love into a tremendous chore.

Around that time, I stumbled upon a book that looked to be very promising: Fablehaven.

You might have read Fablehaven. It was a New York Times bestseller, and the book has a respectable 4.5 stars on Amazon. It’s even been optioned for a Hollywood film.

The idea of the book was quite promising as well: two kids stumble upon a nature reserve for mythical creatures.

And as it turned out, the concept was similar to what I had in mind for my own book, so I had to do more than read it: I had to do some research. I read through dozens of reviews, all full of praise and adoration.

But then, I saw something that didn’t belong. Something that confused and fascinated me: Fablehaven and Why I Hate It.

I clicked the link, and came to a very humble Livejournal page, that still persists to this day in its antiquated glory. I will not reproduce the entire review here (it’s still online), but I will paste the sentences that affected me:

What Fablehaven actually is: A generic McFantasy with a side order of “Oh bother, this plot again?”

What Fablehaven ISN’T: a story about a wildlife refuge filled with mythical creatures.

It’s strange that such an obscure piece of writing has stayed with me for all these years, but I still remember the cool, Fall evening well. I remember how my heart sank into the bottom of my stomach. I remember realizing, with burning clarity: “My book has lost its identity.” All the histories, lands, languages and races that I had constructed came crumbling to the ground in that moment, and I saw the heart of my story, which I had loved, barely beating under all that excess weight.

I saw the characters who had begun their lives in my imagination; their quirks and eccentricities, their motivations, their conflicts, and their simple desires. I saw the childlike simplicity of it all, and I realized how I had buried it under a slush pile of ‘epicness’.

My novel was no longer fun, because I had lost the essence of it, trying to shoehorn it into a bombastic mold that it was never meant to fill.

The heart of a story

So I turned it all around. I backpedaled, and returned to the heart of my vision. I kept most of what I had invented in the background, and allowed my characters to speak for themselves. I allowed them to decide what adventures they would go on. And it turned out, their simple, bizarre lives were a thousand times more interesting than the one I was trying to create for them.

Everything became fun again, almost instantaneously.

I had learned an extremely important lesson: the heart of a story is simple. The premise, the characters, and the basic setting: this is what sets everything in motion. Everything else develops over time, and it’s only a supplement to the story. Magical objects, destinies, races and languages – they can make your worlds richer, but if they aren’t the point of your story, they may very well destroy it.

But people still enjoy High Fantasy, don’t they? If J.R.R Tolkien used elves, dragons, dwarves, and invented a dozen languages to go along with them, can’t we do the same thing?

Actually, I believe this is a tremendous mistake. I think many people miss the whole point of Tolkien’s work. For Tolkien, everything began with The Hobbit. And The Hobbit began with one simple line, scribbled on the back of a random assignment that the Professor was grading in the 1930s: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

That was it. That was how The Hobbit began.

A hole, and a hobbit.

This is eventually what led to The Lord of The Rings, the first and greatest epic fantasy novel of all time.

Tolkien continued to write The Hobbit for his children. It was a whimsical, exciting story to read them before bed. He had no aspirations to publish it; no ambitions of becoming one of the most influential fiction writers of the 20th century. And because he was a philologist who studied language for a living, languages came into it naturally. Because he had a lifelong love of mythology, myth came into it as well, and then dwarves, and elves, Dark Lords, and everything that now fills The Silmarillion.

If you – like many others – weren’t fond of the explosive, bloated movie adaptations of The Hobbit, perhaps you now understand why: because the movie wasn’t about hobbits at all. It wasn’t about a Hobbit, and his crazy adventures with a bumbling troop of dwarves. It was, instead, about battles, horrors, mixed up political commentaries, and exotic tangents that were never in The Hobbit to begin with.

Whereas Tolkien never lost sight of his story’s core, the movies never seemed to grasp it in the first place.

Movie makers, novelists, and story-tellers of every kind could learn a valuable lesson from one of Tolkien’s closest friends:

Bigness in itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a ‘galactic’ empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy.

C.S Lewis, to Nathan Starr

The enemy of great

It could be objected that many people, in fact, enjoyed Fablehaven.

I’ve only mentioned the opinions of one little critic. And maybe he was overlooking a lot when he decided to write off the book. Maybe he was being overly judgmental.

But in fact, our reviewer knew better than that, and even admitted: “What irks me the most is that Fablehaven isn’t really a bad book. The prose is fairly standard and the characters are believable enough.”

The point isn’t that Fablehaven was a bad book. In fact, Fablehaven may have been a good book.

But the reviewer saw one thing that nobody else saw, or cared about: what the story could have been. He saw the beauty of the simple premise – a nature reserve of fantastical creatures, and all the simple, intriguing adventures that might be had by the staff, or the visitors.

Those are all unique possibilities. Those are all possibilities that only Fablehaven could have explored, and no other book.

Instead, the writer chose a plot that any book could have had, and missed out on the unique promises of his own, original idea.

As a reader, should you care? Maybe not. If the book is still enjoyable, even if it isn’t as good as it could be, there’s no harm in it.

As a reader, you shouldn’t care. But as a writer, you should.

As a writer, you have a duty not only to your readers, but to the characters you have brought into existence, and to the premise of their lives.

As a writer, you have a mission: to write the best story you possibly can. Don’t settle for less. James C. Collins famously wrote, “Good is the enemy of great….Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

We can easily paraphrase him: “Few people write great books, in large part because it is just so easy to settle on good books.”

Write sincerely, from the bottom of your heart. Be true to your characters, deliver on your premises, and don’t worry if you end up with something simple or small. The best and the biggest stories usually start from humble beginnings.

Tell your story as it really is, let it live up to its own, unique potential, and don’t worry about the size; you owe it to your story, and you owe it to yourself.

Art is more than self-expression

It is exceedingly common to hear art defined today as ‘self-expression’, and this has become the measuring rod for lay evaluation of music, poetry, literature and almost every other form of art.

Rather than asking whether a work of art was constructed skillfully, with great attention to detail, good choices of details, colors, etc. we are more prone to asking, “Does this work communicate the feelings/experiences/beliefs of its creator effectively?

But this is exactly the wrong question to ask, and it’s a dangerous one. It not only affects the way we perceive art, but also the way we create art. And the longer the erroneous ‘art as self-expression’ definition persists, the worse art gets created.

Morever, art is held in increasingly low esteem. Educators and public opinion increasingly push for STEM students, and fewer students of the humanities.

Why doesn’t culture believe that art is worth studying, or reflecting upon? Why are we more eager to create another chemist or physicist than we are to create another painter, or an expert in painting?

I propose that the idea of art as ‘self-expression’ is partly to blame for this. Scientists are better respected than artists, because scientists deal in ‘facts’ rather than opinions, ‘objective reality’ rather than ‘subjective experience’. And because the Arts seem to be more concerned with the latter category than the former, their value (and I shudder to say, their ‘utility’) is not immediately apparent to everybody.

Why art isn’t self-expression

I’ve claimed that art isn’t just ‘self-expression’, and I’ll be asked to explain myself. But the claim is trivially easy to prove. All one has to do is think of a single form of ‘self-expression’ which isn’t considered a form of art, and I can suggest quite a few right off the bat:

  • Toddlers throwing tantrums.
  • Terrorists blowing up buildings
  • Office gossip
  • Boring social media statuses

Now this is not to deny the obvious possibility that any of these things may be imbued with some artistic sensibilities (terrorists are sometimes quite creative); but we can easily recognize that in and of themselves, there is nothing artistic about them, although they remain quite self-expressive. None of these things are art-forms, and if anyone claims they are, they should be treated with an intellectual cold shoulder.

If self-expression can exist without being artful, then it is not right to say that art is ‘self-expression’. The category is too broad. It may plausibly be a superset of art, but it can’t be equivalent with it. In fact, all art may include an element of self-expression. But self-expression alone does not qualify something as artful.

Art as mimesis

Classically, art was understood to be an expression, but a particular type of expression. Art was understood to reflect the world of nature, and real things. Art was indeed synonymous with realism, and the ability of art to conform to physical forms or objective reality was the measuring stick of its worth.

Modern artists have made great sport out of the limited confines of realism. And while I’m happy to throw most of these experiments into the gutter, it cannot be denied that some of them have legitimately artistic value.

dadaism

This can go.

starry-night-reproduction1335210141794

This can stay.

There remains no small effort to go backwards to the realistic view of art (take the efforts of the Art Renewal Center, or the Stuckists). And while I think that view is a bit too limited, it would put us in a much better situation than our present one. For while some possibilities would go unexplored, at least a great deal less effort would be spent exploring possibilities that are meaningless, freeing artists up to do what they should be doing: making great, magnificent art, even if that means following tired conventions and formulae.

If we are too enlightened to be strict realists, but also too enlightened to say that art is a form of ‘self-expression’, how then should we think of art?

Let’s go back to the logic behind mimesis. It’s important to understand why mimesis became a standard artistic paradigm in the first place. For that, we must visit our old friend Plato.

This is not the time or place to flesh out Plato’s theory of forms; in short, Plato thought that the physical Earth itself was a kind of physical ‘shadow’ of metaphysical things called ‘forms’. These forms included transcendentals, such as ‘the form of the Good’. And everything which exists in this realm exists contingently, while the things which the Earth reflects are eternal, unchanging, and self-existent.

Since nature therefore represents eternal and transcendent things – on this Platonic view – art should represent nature; thereby, art will also represent eternal and transcendent things.

Now when it comes to the point, it might be possible to represent eternal and transcendent things without strictly imitating nature. Pure mathematical concepts can turn out beautiful things worthy of artistic consideration. Take for instance the Mandelbrot set:

mandelbrot

Realism a solid way of creating good art. It may not be the only way, but it’s a tried and true method which works for any art form, including literature, music, and the visual arts.

Although it is understandable that artists don’t want to be limited by the confines of realism, by sacrificing the value of their craft to the subjective notion of ‘self-expression’, they also shoot themselves in the foot, destroy their chances at taking part in a pursuit that is as much about objective reality as any STEM field, and moreover, create lousy art.

The best art is not about self-expression

I’m going to bring up two famous poets: Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth.

I am convinced that one of these poets is a million times better than the other, and I’m going to quote some of their most popular works.

The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread,
crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the
passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and
dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
William Wordsworth, Surprised by Joy
In a perfect world, it would not be necessary for me to do anything more than share these two examples. But I know I will have to elaborate.
Both poems share some similarities. Both are indisputably self-expressions. But one is an expression that begins with self, and ends there. It is both self-indulgent and shallow, giving us no insights which surpass the immediate psychological conditions of its author. The other is an expression of something timeless, eternal, and universal. It carries us outside of the author, and helps us to understand both ourselves and him better.
One is arbitrary, lacking any form, meter or rhyming sequence. It has an admittedly impressive array of adjectives and nouns that are, in and of themselves, pleasing enough to say, but without any unifying structure. The other conforms to a haunting pattern that is pleasurable enough to repeat, and bury itself into the head. It is mathematically quantifiable. It is in a completely objective way, orderly.
Both poems involve self-expression. As it turns out, while self-expression can be divorced from art, art cannot be divorced from self-expression. By creating a work of art, an artist inevitably lets us in on his or her internal condition. But some self-expressions reflect on something that surpasses the internal condition of the writer.
Some internal conditions are more worthy of expression than others, and those are the ones that constitute the most lasting and effective works of art.