Friday, September 25, 2009

A Fishy Tale

"But man was not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, but never defeated." -- Santiago

There was a small to-do a while back, I forget precisely how long, when a European scholar on the committee that awards the Nobel prize for literature said that no current American authors need apply. The remark raised my hackles at the time. It's a cottage industry for European intelligentsia, looking down their noses at those ignorant Americans. But now, having surveyed a few of the more prominent American authors from the first half of the 20th Century, I kind of see his point. There aren't many current authors who are fit to hold the pen of a Steinbeck, or a Fitzgerald.

Or a Hemingway.

The Old Man and the Sea was one of Hemingway's last books, and some say it was his best. The plot is simple: an old fisherman in the middle of a slump goes out alone, hooks a giant fish, and fights to get his prize back home. But glossing over it like that misses the much larger point: a man's not beat until he decides that he's beaten. As long as he refuses to yield, he's still in the fight.

You might think this an odd theme for Hemingway to explore, given the way he checked out. I tend to give him a pass on that. In those days, they didn't understand depression very well, or how to treat it. The electroshock therapy was slowly destroying his brain. The man simply wasn't in his right mind, there at the end.

In any case, the theme of endurance runs through the book. At virtually any point, Santiago could have cut his losses and come home. He could have given up fishing right at the start. He could have given up before going far out to sea, or when he realized what a big fish he'd hooked. He could have given up at any point during the chase. He especially could have given up when the sharks came, and began devouring his prize bite by bite. But he didn't. As he said, a man can be destroyed but not defeated. He came home with prize basically worthless, that no one would pay any money for ... but a legendary one, that every other fisherman would envy.

The phrase "nothing ventured, nothing gained" rolls so glibly off our tongues that we scarcely realize the truth of those words. Nothing great was ever achieved without cost. No worthy goal is ever gained without hard work and persistence. Santiago's lesson for us is that when life gets hard, we face a choice. We can either take the easy way and quit ... or we can face the challenge, and show the world what we're made of.

The verdict: highly recommended. There are few finer books that a young man could read.


John said...

I just discovered this post, and it made want to respond. I am a huge fan of literary fiction and I have no interest in commercial fiction.

Literary fiction in America is as good as literary fiction anywhere else. The problem is, most American fiction is commercial, not literary, as that is what sells. The Chautauqua Movement failed. I disagree that American literature is organically inferior. Commercial (genre) fiction is inferior to literary fiction in almost every way. It’s that simple.

Fiction is divided into categories. Literary fiction is the stuff from which classics are made. It has deep characterization, strong themes, and is very detailed. In America the market for it has grown smaller over time. Upmarket and commercial fiction writers have followers, who keep the writers writing. Not so for literary writers. Purely commercial fiction has by far the largest audience and requires the least skill to write and to read. All it tries to be a plot that does not violate the formula for whatever genre the writer is writing. Commercial fiction (also called formulaic fiction) follows the design of a genre and each book the author publishes is similar to his last book, and that is ok. That is what it is supposed to be. For example, in romance, there are two people who feel romantic affinity for each other and something is keeping them apart or challenging their relationship. This is the formula. This is the genre.

There are some writers who attempt literary fiction today, and even make the best-seller lists, but they rarely live on these lists the way commercial writers do (at least in America). For example, Vincent Louis Carrella’s The Serpent Box. Most readers in America, however, want to read something late at night with little substance, which can easily put them to sleep. Writers of literary fiction do not generally have a real chance to get paid for their work in America. I do not know how it is in Europe. If the Europeans appreciate literary fiction, the kind of writers like Carrella and Hemingway, then I agree that most American writers should not waste their time looking for the world of literature to recognize their excellence. They fill in forms for a living. There is little about them that resemble a classic writer, or merits a Nobel prize. I begrudgingly admit that John Grisham and Tom Clancy, for example, are really good at filling in forms. The result is a form, nonetheless.


Tim McGaha said...

On the whole, I wouldn't know literary fiction from a set of road signs, so I'll take your word for it. I don't often read challenging literature for pleasure. I will give The Serpent Box a go if I get an opportunity.