Love: That Old MacGuffin

Book - HeartHappy Valentine’s Day, Everyone!

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.

Charles Baxter, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two....

Charles Baxter, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two….

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…

"My love is deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have...." (Romeo and Juliet)

“My love is deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have….” (Romeo and Juliet)

…and the next teaches you that love is for fools.

a-midsummer-nights-dream-william-shakespeare4“Methought I was enamored of an ass.” (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

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.

flower love and peace

12 responses to “Love: That Old MacGuffin

  1. I agree with Charles Baxter, too. I suppose I have also learned from literature that one’s life can be framed by one’s ability to love well, or by the lack of that ability. And that love stories can be found anywhere: subtle, hidden ones during the Plague (in “The Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis) or woven inside a horror story (in “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness). Interesting question!

  2. What a wonderful, thought-provoking post! Thanks for the Beatles fix and the NYT link. 🙂

  3. Wow, Julie, provoking, and some of the references I don’t know, but what I’ve learned, so far, is that literature’s defining of love in all the permutations, reference to Shakespeare as you wrote, helps us choose the ways we wish to live, hopefully wiser in our interactions with everything, living or non. Happy Valentine’s Day!

  4. And isn’t love just about the first emotion we own, long before we grow the words to name it? Right from the time when infants first began to fix their eyes upon the faces of the grownups whose care and caring they need so desperately? And don’t we all secretly hope that we’ll leave this planet having loved and been loved? Thank you, Julie, for a wonderful post.

    • I agree completely, Uma – from the first breath of life, love rises to the top. And in the end, it’s really the only thing that matters. BTW: I hope you are basking in the love we all saw in your home in January.

  5. A lovely post. I love “”My love is deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have….”

  6. What a very erudite post. Thank you for sharing that NY times article, and I can see why you selected Charles Baxter’s thoughts for sharing here in your post. Love is all that it is. And isn’t. 🙂 Happy Valentine’s.

  7. Thanks for spreading the love with this post today! Love me some Beatles on Valentine’s. ❤

  8. Great post, Julie! I like the idea that writers can be inconsistent because that sure fits me!

  9. Thoughtful and thought provoking post… oh, and entertaining, too!

  10. Thanks, everyone. Beatles, sonnets, hearts, flowers – what’s not to love? Hooray for Valentine’s Day!

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