Love, love, love…ain’t it grand? Especially for writers, since nearly every work of literature has at its most fundamental level something to do with love – the finding of it, the loss of it, the overwhelming and transformative pressure it exerts, the thinning out of it or the strengthening of it by degrees, the confusions of it, the comforts of it – whether it’s love of self, of a friend, a lover, a family member, a community. Sometimes it’s love of a place, which can be just as strong as love of a person. Often falling into it is the inciting incident, though just as often falling out is the denouement. Sci-Fi, mystery, thriller, literary fiction – it doesn’t matter what genre – love is almost always there, whether at the surface or flowing along at the river-bed level of the narrative line.
Since poetry’s narrative line is shorter, or sometimes not even there, it addresses momentary fascinations wrapped up in interesting and seductive language – that’s a different thing altogether. Not that poetry is fundamentally flirtatious. There are many deep, determined, and long-lasting love poems. But they are usually brief.
I think that’s because a poem wants to come out out singing. Happy lovers have their sweet duets, disappointed lovers have their Blues. But are momentary fascinations at the heart – no pun intended – of fiction? No. Fiction by its very nature engages us in something more prolonged.
Last Sunday the New York Times published (in its Book Review column “Round-Up”) a collection of thoughts from well-known writers about what literature has taught them about love. Here’s how the column was presented:
Recent studies suggest that reading literature may make us smarter and more empathic, even more civic-minded. But what can literature tell us about love? Writers in a variety of genres share the books that taught them about love — and a few that led them memorably astray.
The list of writers who responded includes Hilary Mantel, Gary Shteyngart, Natasha Trethaway, Ann Patchett, Com Toibin, Jeanette Winterson and Khaled Hosseini, among others. David Levithan tells us about reading Weetzie Bat. Colm Toibin insists he hasn’t learned anything about love from literature (though how intriguing to say, “Teaching us is one of literature’s afterthoughts; it is fiction’s bored sigh.”) My favorite answer comes from the novelist Charles Baxter.
No wonder I love his stories so much, when he’s the kind of person who can say this:
“What literature teaches us about love is so multifarious as to be self-canceling. Shakespeare, for example, tells us that love is comical (“As You Like It”), passionate (“Romeo and Juliet”), disgusting (“Troilus and Cressida”), ennobling (“Antony and Cleopatra”), and is probably the most significant part of a young person’s sentimental education (the sonnets) even when it degrades the one who loves, as it usually does. Ovid assumes that everyone wants to love and to be loved (“Ars Amatoria”) and then to get free of the whole mess (“Remedia Amoris”). In Wagner’s version of the Nibelungenlied, Alberich the dwarf gains power by renouncing love. You get out of the game, you achieve mastery of an undesirable variety. But, as the musical comedian Anna Russell once observed, Alberich wasn’t going to get any love anyway, so he might as well renounce it.
Love is therefore a MacGuffin: It has no meaning of its own but gives a particular meaning to every situation. Anything you say about it is probably true, and the opposite will also be true. It’s beautiful and destructive in “The Iliad,” fecund and creative in the “Vigil of Venus,” plain stupid and scary (“Madame Bovary”). Love serves as the locus for sentimentality and domestic piety. In its name, terrible things are said.
One thing’s for sure: As a force, it changes people into fools. Or royalty. Or: It doesn’t change people. Take your pick.”
I agree with Baxter (or do I ♥ him?): Nothing about the nature of love in stories is nailed down or inert. And nothing says that as a writer you have to be consistent in your attitude toward it. Shakespeare (whoever Shakespeare was) didn’t feel the need for consistency. One play leaves you feeling like love is all the matters…
…and the next teaches you that love is for fools.
As writers, we need to acknowledge love’s presence in our stories, don’t we? We won’t all write “love stories,” of course. But we’ll always need to understand that stories – characters and the choices they make (doesn’t that define the word “narrative”?) – turn on love or the lack of it.
Try asking yourself this question: What will your readers learn from you? Before you can answer that, you need to sort out the answer to the initial question: What has literature taught you about love? Answers (in the comments) much appreciated! And while you’re thinking about it, you can read the NY Times column here, and you can even let the Beatles (50th Anniversary? Amazing) serenade you for a bit. If you want to see what the KidsLit people are posting for Poetry Friday, you’ll find the round-up at Linda Baie’s blog, TeacherDance.
All you need is love,
all you need is love,
all you need is love, love,
l♥ve is ♥ll y♥u need.