The editors of plain china aim to find the best undergraduate writing. But what exactly does this entail? How would you define great writing? What do you look for when you read a story—in plain china or for yourself? Here’s a glimpse at what compels the fiction committee:
Raymond Carver once said, “if we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a story and then just sit for a minute, quietly…we’ll ponder what we’ve just written or read; [and] maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before.” When I read something that moves my heart or intellect off the peg, I am not thinking about syntax, diction, and character development. I’m in the world of the story, and excited to be there.
I had this experience after reading a recent Denis Johnson story published in The New Yorker, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” The story features an accumulation of vignettes, all narrated by the same character. In reading it, I was taken by the narrator’s voice, I was listening to him, and I had nearly forgotten that he was a creation of Johnson’s.
I’m interested in stories that are believable, stories that make me forget about the author’s hand. When I say believable, I am not referring to sobering tales about tax returns, or failed relationships, but rather to the author’s ability to convince me, whether through prose, dialogue, structure, or a combination of these and more, that the world he’s created is real and immersive. A story about a dragon who speaks Cantonese can ring truer than an autobiography written by a politician. Stories that stick with us, stories that follow us to breakfast the morning after we’ve read them the night before, are the ones I look for and cling to.
Junot Díaz’s “Invierno” tells the story of a Dominican family that immigrates to New Jersey. It’s their first day in the United States. From the top of Westminster, they can see “the thinnest sliver of ocean cresting the horizon to the east.” The remoteness of the ocean invokes the distance of their homeland. However, seeing the sliver of water also represents hope—a reminder that this is the very ocean they could see from home, in Santo Domingo. They now live in London Terrace, near a landfill. Díaz presents the two worlds of these characters without ever having to explain them to the reader.
This is exactly what my favorite stories do, stories in which the most evocative descriptions have a function beyond lyricism. When I read a work of fiction, I want to see the characters and the setting lend themselves to the plot to allow the reader to enter the work. The fiction writer’s role is to move the reader forward by rendering one event after another, and to establish the rules of the world of the story. Henry James writes in “The Art of Fiction” about “the importance of exactness — of truth of detail” that adds to “the air of reality.” The fiction writer needs “to render the look of things, the look that conveys their meaning, to catch the colour, the relief, the expression, the surface, the substance of the human spectacle.” Choosing the right details and “solidity of specification,” James writes, “seem to me to be the supreme virtue” of a story. In the stories that move me the most, all narrative elements—point of view, setting, tone, structure—are in the service of the story.
Great writing introduces its readers to something new. I know how impossible that may sound: Libraries and bookshops are filled, floor to ceiling, with the written word, and stories have been told since before anyone can remember. How can we find something new to say when it seems as though every aspect of the human experience has already been accounted for?
I find the stories that are the most memorable and enjoyable are those that take an age-old trope (a traditional storyline, a stereotype, or even a subject) and turn it on its head. Take the loss of a loved one, for instance. We all, at some point in our lives, must face this tragic reality. It is the subject of countless stories. And every so often, you stumble across a story that deals with the subject a little differently. This can be accomplished through a fresh narrative voice and perspective (the depiction of 9/11 through the eyes of a hyper-intelligent child in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example), by inviting the reader into a whole new world (as George Orwell does in 1984), or by subverting a story’s formal structural expectations—in Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, the story is told predominantly in footnotes, thereby blending the lines of fiction and fact.
Writing requires courage. By putting stories into the world, we engage in a dialogue that moves beyond time and space. Inevitably, we will be compared to those who walked the paths of human experience before us. How do we become trailblazers? By taking risks. And maybe if we stick our necks out far enough, we can take a worn out subject and portray it with a new voice, through fresh eyes. We can make someone see the same old thing in a new light. We can contribute to the conversation.
“Why?” is the question I ask myself most often when reading a new story. Why is this story being told? Why does it need to exist? Why do I care at all? The fact is, if a story doesn’t grab me within the first paragraph, it’s going to need a lot from that point onward to get me back on board. Often I find myself having contradictory ideas about different pieces. For one I’ll say, “Prose can’t carry a whole story” and for the next I’ll say, “The plot’s a bit weak, but the prose really carries it through.” What does this say about the job of choosing pieces for the “best fiction”? Sometimes an indefinable element makes what was uninviting in one story incredibly effective in another.
What I’m really looking for is something that sticks in my mind—the prose, the plot, the characters—through the rest of the day. It should be made impossible for me to put this story down. Maybe the prose is new and inventive, or the story is engaging. In general, I find the characters are often what bring it through. “Character” can mean multiple things: it can be a person, a dog, even a house. Whatever the “character” is, though, it needs to engage the reader. In The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker, for example, nothing really happens. The minute description of every detail shows the neurotic brain of our narrator, and he comes alive on the page. In A Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez creates so many characters it’s impossible to keep track of them (one of my pet peeves), yet it works towards the intent of the story. It is the job of the author to bring a reader in, and when I start a story, I’m just another reader. So, to the writer: Make me want to keep reading.
A story creates a world for a reader to enter into. The job of a writer is to make that world “enter-able,” and then to make it interesting to inhabit. This is described remarkably well in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” A storyteller creates what Tolkien calls a Secondary World, as opposed to our Primary World. As long as the Secondary World maintains an “inner consistency of reality,” the reader will be able to invest in that world without straining his or her imagination. It’s important to note that “inner consistency of reality” doesn’t necessarily mean realistic. A great example of this is Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.” The world of that story is far from realistic, but the narrator is consistently nonsensical. Everything—from sentence cadence to plot twists—fleshes out that Secondary World. What makes Carroll’s story remarkable isn’t what happens to Alice, it’s The Looking Glass World itself. It’s not just the quality of the bread-and-butter-fly, it’s the world inside which that horribly adorable creature exists. In fact, The Looking Glass World is so easy to live in that we’re often there without Alice—and that seems to be the trick to making a Secondary World strong.
Often, the reason a story is “good” is because the Secondary World is multidimensional enough to invest in. This isn’t true just for fantasy. Tom Sawyer’s actions are believable because both Twain’s descriptions and dialogue are tuned in tandem. Of course, there are no obvious rules. As Tolkien says, anyone can write “the green sun.” But a good story will go beyond that. In Tolkien’s words, a good story will “make a Secondary World inside which the green sun [is] credible.”