Manifesto #1

The easiest way to cut through pretensions in one’s own personal aesthetic is to analyze those works that one would never admit to liking. Try it. Think of a book that you’re embarrassed to admit that you like. Don’t try to deny that you have one.

In my case, I have an unhealthy liking for children’s literature. This is a little embarrassing for me to say, but the truth is, if I were given a choice I would rather read the Newberry Medal winner over the National Book Award winner any day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy more “adult” literature, because I read it all the time, with pleasure. But there is a feeling that I get when I read children’s literature that I don’t find nearly as often reading books targeted at an adult audience. It’s kind of a giddy, joyous feeling at being completely absorbed in another world. I’m sure you’ve felt the same at some point. The interesting thing is, most readers I know say that they were most moved by books during their young-to-mid teen years. I have thought at times that this had to do with that particular age, that perhaps there was some biological reason having to do with surging hormones, but the more I read, the more I think it has to do with the books that we were reading. Children’s literature has a kind of purity, an innocence that can be totally convincing. For this reason, in twenty years, no one will remember The Da Vinci Code, but people will still be reading Harry Potter.

The power of these stories, I think, lies in the fact that they are purely escapist works. By this I mean, they have no ulterior motive other than to tell a good story, simply. They aren’t meant to persuade or to flatter the reader, to teach him or to put forth a certain agenda. I can think of very few exposés or persuasive essays in the body of children’s literature. But this is not to say that they don’t deal with serious or meaningful topics; rather, they focus exclusively on the most meaningful of topics, that of how to be a good human being.

Of course, I am being very simplistic here in my analysis of children’s literature. But I think it’s true that for the most part (at least in the best works), they tell of good characters doing mostly good things in mostly bad situations. Like Ender of Ender’s Game, they are bright, strong, good people who try to do the right thing. And one of the results of that is, not only does the reader find himself admiring the book, but he admires the characters in that book, and sees the best parts of himself in those characters.

Which leads me to my point about writing in general: character is what makes a story work. And for the story to be truly affecting, the reader needs to not only believe the characters, but to believe in them. This is the difference between books that stick and books that don’t. I’ve read many books in the past year that I’ve forgotten, but I still remember the moment, a year ago, when I read the last page of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. This is not a children’s book, but it tells the story of young Dylan Ebdus, who grows up in 1970’s Brooklyn and struggles daily to fit in as the only white kid in his neighborhood. He is a character who you love and admire, and even thinking about it now, I get that little feeling of satiated giddiness that makes me want to go out and force other people to read the book.

That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me reading: the book genuinely affects the reader, knotting itself into one’s soul. I want a book to affect me so deeply that it causes me literal suffering to know that other people still haven’t read it. I remember when I first read A. J. Cronin’s Keys of the Kingdom, how for weeks afterwards I’d steer any conversation to the subject of that book, so that I could encourage others to read it. I was a zealot, really, and I think the analogy to religious conversion is the truest one. Good writing should turn you into a believer.

I have personal feelings about which artistic devices are more effective than others. I think character-based humor is much funnier than one-liners, and I think that character drama is more fulfilling, if harder work for the writer, than situational drama. But in the end, I think, the true criterion of a worthwhile piece of writing is how deeply it can touch its readers. Period. Whatever artistic devices the author does or does not use, I think, are secondary concerns. These seem to me to be problems of style rather than substance. Certainly they are important decisions for the author to make, but I think that ultimately, they should be dictated by the overall goal of the work.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I think if writers were to always follow that guideline, they’d be less likely to produce work that was overly sentimental, or pandering, or formulaic, or any of the qualities that irritate us in writing. Because if a writer wants to tell a story in a lasting, meaningful way, his only recourse is going to be to write truth. And writing that expresses truth is going to reach and reward readers that are genuine and honest at heart.

That’s the feeling that I want people to have when they read my writing. Writing this, it’s clear to me how far I have to go before I get there. But at the very least, I think you know where I’m coming from—I read what I enjoy reading, and I write what I hope others will enjoy reading. Not in a transitory, page-turning, diversionary mystery-novel sort of way, but in a way that makes the reader care more about the characters in the story than he does about his own extended family. Stories that, at 500 pages, you wish wouldn’t end so quickly, that make you skip class and stay awake until 3 a.m. the night before a test. Stories that tell about love and hate and God and everything that we as humans care about. To me, these are the stories that mean something.