I have so far tried to write this post three times today, and each time I have accumulated an awful lot of sententious sentences that say very little, and certainly nothing interesting. This is unfortunate for me, because I have wasted a lot of time that I should have used for other things, but it is fortunate for you, because even if the rest of this post is awful, it's not as awful as it could have been.
I teach English at a boarding school (a high school), and this afternoon we had a department meeting about what student-written poem to give the department award to, an award designed to honor the best piece of writing in the school literary magazine (which this year contained, for one reason or another, only poetry).
One of my colleagues offered a nomination and said that though the poem was not as subtle or formally interesting as some others up for consideration, he perceived that the writer was writing about his or her own life, and that it was honest. And, he said, he valued honesty.
I slammed my fist onto the table and disagreed. "I detest honesty!" I said, somewhat to my own surprise.
My colleagues are used to ignoring my odder outbursts, and so they continued as if I had said nothing. Eventually, though, somebody said, "You know, I'm with Matt. I could have lived with a bit less honesty in most of these poems."
I seized the opportunity for another outburst: "Art is about shaping things, it's about craft and deliberation, skill and surprise. It's not a therapy session. I'm so tired of poets who say, 'Here is my heart on a platter -- eat it, for it is a poem, and should be savored, because it is honest!' Such people should be tossed out windows and mocked viciously!"
This outburst scared everyone, and the meeting ended quickly. Someone pointed out to me that the poem I voted for, and which did not win, was not the most formally elegant, and therefore my actions contradicted my outbursts. This would only be true, I said, if I had voted for the poem because of whatever I perceived to be its "honesty", and I had not. I voted for it because I liked how some of the words worked together, and in the end that's what I most care about.
Novels, for me, are a different critter from poetry, because I go to novels wanting something more than language. I'm happy with a poem that is simply an interesting set of words, but in fiction of any sort I want the words to be signifiers for something more than themselves (while also remaining marvelous in and of themselves). I want fiction that does things only fiction can do, whatever those things are -- and I don't claim to know, because I like to be surprised, and I certainly don't think writers have plumbed all the depths of what fiction is and can be, although a few have dug artesian wells. If something could be done just as well, or better, as a poem or a play or a movie or a painting or a video game, it doesn't hold as much interest for me as does a short story or a novel that is unimaginable as anything other than itself -- a story or novel that would be unrecognizably altered or diminished by being adapted into another form.
Why is any of this important? I'm not sure that it is. But if you're going to be watching us rant and rave about books here, you should probably know what some of our biases are.
In other words, I'm trying to be honest.