The difference between hackwork and literature lies neither in the plot nor the subject. There are only about 54 possible plots in existence, according to a man who cataloged them more than 50 years ago. As for subject matter, there is only us — the human race.
The difference is the treatment of plot, characters and setting by the author. With the hacks, the emphasis is on the plot, and the characters are usually stereotypes or cartoonish. We read the hacks to be temporarily amused by the hero solving the problems piled on top of him. The very predictability of the hack story gives us comfort. We don’t have to worry about the hero. We know he will triumph and get the bad guys and the girl.
Louis L’Amour gets my vote as the greatest hack in the modern era. He churned out a prodigious number of short stories and novels with virtually interchangeable characters. His stories have the added virtue of being forgettable so that you can enjoy reading the same story more than once if you give yourself a little time between readings.
One of the best modern examples of an author who converts characters, settings and plot into literature is James Lee Burke. He has written a series of novels about an ex-New Orleans cop. His character, Dave Robicheaux, is an alcoholic with physical and emotional scars, a man who has known both joy and sorrow, and is full of love and hate. All of the characters in the Robicheaux novels are fully drawn, interesting people.
When Burke writes about the Bayou Country, New Orleans and New Iberia, he is as careful as Hemingway to get it right. Unless your imagination has died, you will finish one of his novels knowing what the place looked like and smelled like, and what the people sounded like.
Since Robicheaux is not a superhero, the plot is not predictable. All you know is that if you give Robicheaux reason to hate you, he will pursue you with a ruthless ferocity.
Burke’s latest Robicheaux novel is The Tin Roof Blowdown and takes place in Katrina-ripped New Orleans. The often-angry Robicheaux is enraged this time. If you missed seeing the hurricane and its aftermath, be sure to read this novel.
I’ve always believed that the virtue of good literature is that it can transport you to a different time and place. Literature also provides insight into human nature. It expands our knowledge of the world and of the people who inhabit it. Even literature of the fantasy genre is always based solidly on human nature, else we would find it unbelievable.
Harry Potter, for example, is a real boy despite his magical powers and the magical world he inhabits. Let’s hope with the end of the series that parents will continue to encourage their children to read, because reading is far more important than playing computer games or going to the movies.
Neither of those media works the brain and stimulates the imagination, and imagination is a key ingredient of thinking. Most of the real scientific breakthroughs resulted from imagination. Only after something new is visualized can reason and experiment be employed to bring it into reality.
The Potter novels, by the way, went against the grain. Reading is supposed to be declining, but the first six books in the series sold a total of 350 million copies worldwide and about 121 million copies in the United States. They transported the author from a single mom on welfare to a woman richer than the queen of England.
I can’t think of a nonfiction book or series of books that has come close to having that large an impact. A lot of nonfiction these days tends to be cut-and-paste jobs from the news databases available online, and news stories are an unreliable source of information. Being printed and being true are two entirely separate things.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.