Sammakon in Turku

I was in Finland last week, in the western city of Turku, facing down five days of clear blue skies and 30 degree sunshine, weather Londoners can only dream about. Turku is a friendly, gentle-paced city.

I found a bookshop not far from the hotel.

What caught my eye right away was a small John Fante hardcover in Finnish lying on an outside table, selling for 3 euros.

No dumping books in remainder shops, not in this corner of the bookworld anyway. There it was at a price anyone can afford – with the added value of being in translation. Sammakon is not an average bookshop, even if it could be mistaken for one at first glance.

There are two sammakko.com shops, the other in Helsinki. Sammakon’s owner publishes, sells and translates from English himself, especially his favorites – Bukowski, Fante, the beat poets and novelists. His first book was a translation of Charles Bukowski’s The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. And don’t they just. After coming across this minor miracle for the world of books in English, one that so intimately caught my eyes, all both of them, it was on the bus for the drive back to Helsinki, for a day and a half of restaurants and walks, before flying back to rainy, chilly London.

Plot…is that all there is to fiction?

Laura Miller of Salon is one of a long line of ‘I know best-ers’ to throw the tired old crumbly stones of  ‘writing commandments’ from the journalistic mountaintop http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/02/23/readers_advice_to_writers/index.html(was-there-not-anymore) :

  1. Make your main character want something.
  2. Make your main character do something.
  3. The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting.
  4. Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can’t recognize “good writing” or don’t value it that much.
  5. A sense of humor couldn’t hurt.

Anyone who champions rules of commercial fiction risks sinking creativity to the lowest common denominator in the reader’s mind. It is so easy to force feed unknowing audiences junk culture, just as easy as it has been to promote junk food. And where has junk food got us? If Laura or anyone attacks quality or ‘difference’ be it in art, commercial fiction, food or politics, in the end, logically, it leads to totalitarianism. Commercial control of a cultural market, or political control of a society have similar roots.

We are not animals tethered to a plot line only – sophisticated readers want more than plot. If anyone reads War and Peace (a great read by the way, easy to read, entertaining and enjoyable) it is a long time before any one character assumes ‘the what’s going to happen to me next driver’ aspect to his or her role, but it is there – but it is always there as part of ‘the life’ in the novel – what will happen today? It is part of all of us – but there is much more to enjoy in Tolstoy’s novel, as there is in reading Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Outsider, As I lay Dying, and A Hundred Years of Solitude – all examples of novels and narratives that are far more mysterious and compelling than commercial fiction that obeys these silly rules Laura speaks of. In The Great Gatsby, what do we ever discover really of Gatsby? – not a great deal, more than half Fitzgerald’s point. Nick, we get to know, the character we engage with, the thinking centre of the novel. Hamlet was introspective and procrastinating and one of the greatest characters of all time. Just because lowest-common-denominator is now the major dollar driving factor in contemporary reading culture doesn’t make it good or good to read. The only comment I agree with is the last – laugh while you write and hope like hell the reader laughs with you!

“Naturally, writers of genius have broken these “rules” as well as every other rule ever conceived. But, let’s face it, geniuses don’t need lists like this and couldn’t follow them even if they tried. Most writers are not geniuses, and most readers would be exhausted by a literary diet that consisted only of the works of geniuses.”

This is Laura’s ‘a genius can do it, but the rest can’t argument’ which in effect shuts down experiment, closes the door on dissent. Who knows what genius is? It was 200 years before the Romantics woke up and declared Shakespeare a genius. All we can really hope for is that creativity in any novel is whatever form it takes when exciting readers. If a writer takes readers somewhere we haven’t been, surprises us in some way then it is an achievement worth applause. The ‘Only a genius can break the rules’ argument is another argument for more gatekeeping. This ‘we know the rules’ is nonsense. And even if someone like Laura could for a moment make a good fist of why she subscribes to her only a genius-can-break-rules-theory, very few of the ‘genius writers’ she’ll choose will surprise even her all of the time. No book or writer is untouchable. Everybody can be criticized, even Shakespeare. Logically, if anyone follows these, or any rules, they will become slaves of a market mechanism. Rules for fiction or any other art form only end up filling the pockets of the chosen and promoted writers. Rules lead straight to homogenization (though that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun with rules, while you’re doing other more interesting things) …go-go genius go.