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Good Letters

20110922-stripping-the-fat-off-reality-by-tony-woodlief“Since dullness is the chief enemy of art,” wrote John Gardner in On Moral Fiction, “each generation of artists must find new ways of slicing the fat off reality.”

I love how Gardner did that. He could have said it more simply. “Each generation of artists must be more creative than the last,” is how he might have written it, were he one of those dreadful authors of dreadful textbooks that leave students dreading school, or were he, worse by far, a political speechwriter.

But instead he showed us what he meant. You’ll likely not soon forget the image of fat being sliced off reality.

I’ve been turning my thoughts, and my heart, back to the fiction I set down months ago, the novel so close to done, the short stories. To do this I’ve gone back to some of the writers and musicians who inspire me. I’ve been paying attention to how they slice the fat off reality.

Chief among them, right now, is Walker Percy, with whom I had a blissful communion one night in a Washington, D.C. bar, nearly eleven years, to the day, after his death. I’d been searching for, and had finally found, a genuine gin fizz, ever since reading Love in the Ruins.

You’ll have to read the book to understand why a gin fizz, but the point is that Percy has that way with me, of reaching through the veil and grabbing me by the shoulders and telling me to quit indulging the narcissistic fantasy that I’m alone in this trumped up, puffed up, busted up world. A good many of us have been there, buddy, he says, which means none of us is ever as alone as he thinks.

I’m not sure why it makes sense to turn to Percy’s essays to inspire creative fiction, except insofar as good fiction is about truth telling. Discerning the godawful truth of a society that has everything and wakes up to find its head in the oven was Percy’s forte. And here he returns us to Gardner’s theme eight years after Gardner published that lovely fat-off-reality sentence:

“The great poets and novelists always wrote about the nature of God and love, of man and woman. But how can even Dante write about the love of God, the love of a man for a woman, if he lives in a society in which God is the cheapest word of the media, as profaned by radio preachers as by swearing. And ‘love?’ Love is the way sit-com plots and soap operas get resolved a hundred times a week.”

This is why writers turn to parody, and satire, and derision, Percy wrote, because the true things have been so corrupted, and everyone seems to be colluding in their corruption. So the writer feels he must “mock and subvert the words and symbols of the day in order that new words come into being or that old words be freshly minted.”

And so there is this old word called love, and what can we say of it, now? It has been perverted, by songs and books and perhaps worst of all by that variety of Orwellian preacher who crafts a hateful god and calls him Love. It has been perverted by every one of us who has whispered it without meaning it, who let it become passive feeling instead of convicted action.

In the film Parenthood, Keanu Reeves plays a doofus whose first appearance on-screen is in the bedroom of his teenaged girlfriend. Her mother is still in the house but the door is locked. In the midst of their frolicking, he produces a camera. “So we can record our love,” he says.

It’s meant to be funny and it is funny, but maybe he was closer to the truth than most crooners and preachers who try to say something memorable about love. Maybe in a post-Christian, post-literate world, the best love can be is a giddy boy snapping pictures of his physical union with a giddy girl.

But we writers are charged with slicing fat from reality—so what may we say of love?

We might say that God is love, which even my Calvinist friends can’t deny, coming as it does straight from Scripture. But this seems to diminish God, any more. We might quote a Hallmark card, that love means never having to say you’re sorry, or love is the song in your heart, or any number of similar claims one might find in a teenaged girl’s diary, say, or a politician’s speech.

As I think about cutting the fat off reality, I think about how we have to come at truth sideways, any more, the way we might come at an animal that once was used to people but isn’t any more, one that might spook if we come at him directly, or kick us if we come at him from behind.

Maybe we have to come at truth sideways, which if nothing else means saying it sideways, which is what I like about fiction, that you never have to worry about some literal-minded pharisee insisting that actually it happened at the dinner table and not the beach, or that it was a Thursday and not a Sunday, or that he doesn’t recall people really being that stricken the day Kennedy died.

One of the musicians I’m listening to as I sink back into the places and people of my novel and stories, is Sufjan Stevens. The seventh track of his “Seven Swans” album is titled “Size Too Small.” I have no idea what it’s about. Maybe Jonathan and David. What grabs me about it are these paired lines in the second stanza:

And what if I told you
I was in love with this?

Everything about our Christianesque, sentimental, super-sized, empty-calorie American pop culture conditions us to expect that second line to go: “I was in love with you?” But instead he says this, and suddenly we are paying attention where before we gave only half a thought, and we are wondering, what is this, and who is in love with it, and can you really be in love with a this?

We are thinking about love, in other words, perhaps for the first time that day, and even if we can never figure out what the hell that song is about, Stevens has tricked us into considering, really and truly, what is perhaps the most overused, misused, fundamentally abused words in the English language.

The fat, in other words, has been stripped, and the real eating can begin.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website

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