A couple of weeks ago, while campaigning for the passage of California Proposition 30, which called for a modest increase in taxes to forestall even more dire funding cuts to California’s public education systems than we have already suffered, I began to wonder if I was working at counter purposes. One of the themes of my most recent book, The Hanging, is the currently fraught atmosphere on college campuses created by those budget cuts. It is a timely story, I know, because I teach on a campus that is similar to the fictional one I created for the book. The mood around here ranges from fretting malaise to simmering rage, altogether a milieu ripe for someone to snap. A good place to set a mystery, I thought, two years ago when I began writing The Hanging.
Prop 30 passed, and there was a great sigh of relief. Though the new tax revenue will not backfill the economic hole created by half a decade of recessionary funding cuts—it will only prevent a trigger for deeper cuts from occurring—I wondered, when we write a story that is linked to current events, and then later the foundation of those events shifts or disappears, do we risk seeing our work become irrelevant? An anachronism?
If a story is well written, the answer should be No. The Grapes of Wrath, for example, has all of the power now that it had for readers during the Dust Bowl era when it was published; it is timeless. Oliver Twist also still captivates. But then there is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In its own time, 1852, the book’s anti-slavery message hit the world like a bombshell. It was the first American book that could truly be called a best seller, not only in the U.S. but abroad as well. Of course, best sellerdom and great literature are not necessarily synonyms. Even in its own time, Uncle Tom was valued—or reviled, in the case of the slave-owning south—more for its message than for the elegance of its prose. Indeed, I find it painful to read as anything except an artifact of history. Once slavery was abolished, an artifact if history it became.
There, then, is the dilemma. I want to write stories that are relevant. And I want them to endure. Both should be aimed for, both can be achieved. Good writing, memorable characters wrapped within stories that address fundamental, timeless human concerns. When asked what a book is about, I always say, love, death, and redemption, because, in essence, they all are.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
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