Good Writing

The Most Prolific Writer of Fiction? Isaac Asimov credit:

The Most Prolific Writer of Fiction? Isaac Asimov

As an example of good writing I offer the following short essay by a favorite author, Lee Child. Titled Telling Tales, it is from the New Yorker magazine’s online newsletter and it struck me as a little masterpiece. Its candor is immediately attention-getting and, like all good writing, it is information-dense. There are no boring parts, no unnecessary words. And there is profundity, an insight on the place of fiction in human endeavors, even though I do not necessarily agree with his conclusion. It is grist for thought, and perhaps, if you are so inclined dear reader, for discussion. I love discussion.

The other day I saw my father, who is ninety-two years old, and in very poor health. Physically, he’s a wreck, and mentally he’s not much better. At his peak, he was a capable and intelligent man, by nature rational to the point of coldness. But the other day he was full of childlike fear of the darkness that lay ahead. He’s religious, in an austere way. So I knew what he meant. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. “You’re a good man, and you lived a good life.” In fact, neither thing was true. But what else could I say? I’m sure he said the same to his own father, for the same reasons, and with the same reservations. Don’t we all?

Ten thousand fathers ago, we would have said nothing, because we didn’t yet have language. We didn’t yet have much of anything. A passing U.F.O. would have written us off as a certain dead end. Our contemporary competitors, the Neanderthals, would have got the nod. We were weak and slender, and often sickly, and shabby toolmakers. Then we developed language, and everything changed. We had grammar and syntax, which turned out to be the best tools of all. Now we could plan, and discuss, and theorize, and speculate. We could coördinate ahead of time, with a plan B and a plan C already in place. A coöperative pack of early humans was suddenly the most powerful animal on Earth. So that if the U.F.O. came back today it would have to admit that its first impressions were wrong.

But along the way something extraordinary happened. At first, we prospered by planning and speculating based on what we knew to be true, or could reasonably and responsibly infer to be true. In other words, we lived in a nonfiction world. We still do, in every practical way. My wife might tell me that her phone says it’s going to rain, so I should take my umbrella, and every step of that transaction would be meaningless without the fundamental assumption of truth. Most of life is like that. It’s a great strategy. Ten thousand generations ago, our bones were piled high in hyenas’ dens. Now Voyager has left the solar system. Or not, depending on how you—reasonably and responsibly—interpret the Oort Cloud. These are the things we talk about, and this is how we talk about them.

At some point, though, we invented a parallel option. We invented fiction. We started talking about things that hadn’t happened to people who didn’t exist. Why? Not for entertainment during our leisure time. We were still deep in prehistory. We had no leisure time. Everything was a desperate struggle for survival. We did nothing unless it had a chance of keeping us alive until morning. Fiction evolved for a purpose. Warnings and cautionary tales could be sourced from the grim nonfiction world. A sabre-toothed tiger will kill you. O.K., got it. Fiction pushed the pendulum the other way. It inspired, and empowered, and emboldened. It said, No, actually, there was a guy, a friend of a friend, who came face to face with a sabre-toothed tiger, a huge one, and he turned and outran it, all the way back to the cave, safe as can be. So don’t panic. It doesn’t always turn out bad. Then, perhaps a hundred generations later, the story evolved, and the friend of the friend killed the tiger. The action hero was born. Strength and courage would save us. And it worked. Fiction in its various forms proved just as powerful to our survival as any other factor. Some would say more powerful. Some would name us not Homo sapiens but Pan narrans: the storytelling ape. Would Voyager be leaving the solar system if we hadn’t long ago formalized and mythologized our inchoate desire to wander?

But the bad things would not be happening, either. Every bad thing depends on the same two components as every good thing: people prepared to lie, and other people prepared to believe them. The habit of credulity, bred into us, albeit inspiring and empowering and emboldening, has led to some very bad outcomes throughout what we know of our history. From small things, like a father believing a son, to much larger things, like a billion miserable and terrified dead. All balanced against the good things. Is it fifty-fifty? Or worse than that? And what about babies and bathwater? Could we give up the stunning joy that the good side of storytelling brings in order to erase the appalling horrors of the bad side? Where does the balance lie?

It’s ironic, given my profession, but the more I learn the more I would uninvent fiction.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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7 Responses to Good Writing

  1. Elyse says:

    I think I’d just bag the superhero part of fiction. How many evil doers throughout history have thought they were invincible? (How many thought they were evil, either.) I’d stick with chick lit which, while doesn’t always have a happy ending, usually shows folks working together towards a goal. And laughing out weighs killing every time.

    And then there wouldn’t be another damn Iron Man or Batman or Superman movie. Hollywood might have to actually create something.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      When I was young I loved comics, including all the super heroes. But that was then, and now I have eaten too much of the apple of knowledge. I think maybe that early experience primed me for seeking my military career. No wonder military service is for the young – physical requirements are not the only reason.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. PiedType says:

    Fiction is man’s imagination at work. It may have its down side (as does reality) but its ability to let dreams soar is too valuable to give up.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I’m glad that giving up fiction isn’t really an option. I love a good novel, but the stuff that suits me is rather rare. Currently, I am, after a couple of decades, re-reading mysteries by a favorite author, William G. Tapply. Of current stock, I like John Sanford’s Prey novels, and of course, Lee Child’s works. Fiction seems kind of like wine. It cleanses the mental palate and makes non-fiction more tasty.


  3. Jim Ruebush says:

    Interesting piece that causes you to think. I feel good story telling is a positive feature of us humans. It can be, and is, used for good and bad. That is true for nearly everything. We invented the wheel, levers, gunpowder, books, cell phones, computers, etc. Every one of these has their good and their bad applications. I put this invention of story telling in there, too. It came very early in the list. Whether each of these inventions is a net gain or net loss for humanity is probably seen differently through out history as new applications of them are introduced.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I agree, Jim, I think it’s positive, but whether good or bad, the proclivity for fiction clearly resides in our genes. The first commercially successful work of fiction is usually considered to be Robinson Crusoe. It sold four editions that first year and went on to become one of the most widely published books in history. Also, I suspect that the Space Age would not have been conceived as early as it was without the inspiration of Jules Verne’s works. He also conceived the nuclear submarine. Amazing, is it not?

      Liked by 1 person

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