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Necessity and Truth

The Kenyon Review Credos

“How did I live so long without reading this book?” a student recently asked me about James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. The best stories should provoke that sort of response. Good fiction feels essential.

I often say that I love fiction that feels “necessary and true.” By necessary, I mean stories that read as if they must be told. They are powered by a sense of urgency. They are not trivial or facile, but plumb the depths of human experience. This doesn’t mean they aren’t funny: comedy is just as deep and necessary as tragedy (think of George Saunders’s short stories). And it is possible to write about seemingly banal things, such as riding up an escalator, as in Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, and still create fiction that is anything but trivial. The urgency comes from the way a writer approaches her subject. The urgency comes from the writer’s insight and from the language itself, from the energy of the prose or inflection in the voice, from the tone. The urgency comes from the selection of sensory details that complicate characters and give the story meaning. I have read books that are well crafted, but bland. They seem to rest on the surface, never daring to penetrate dark places. The prose rarely surprises me; the observations are stale. These stories rarely stick with me. But the necessary books, the ones born of struggle and desperation and a profound yearning to connect, are the ones that I can’t forget.

And by true, I don’t mean autobiographical or “based on a true story.” Nor do I mean plausibility on a plot level. I’m talking about emotional truth: the sense that a story has captured, in some fundamental sense, the way humans feel and relate to each other. A good story, whether it is fantastic or naturalistic, novel or flash fiction, should resonate with a reader’s emotional core. It should articulate something innately and viscerally felt—“that’s so true,” a reader might say, even if he’s never consciously thought about it before. It should provide insight. It should illuminate our lives. Such stories make me grateful for their existence.

I can think of many such short stories: “The Lady With the Little Dog” by Anton Chekhov; “The Dead” by James Joyce; “A Country Doctor” by Franz Kafka; “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor; “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson; “Work” by Denis Johnson; “We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek; “Train” by Joy Williams; “The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed” by Edward P. Jones; “Jakarta” by Alice Munro; “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace; and “Screenwriter” by Charles D’Ambrosio (to name but a few). They are different in style, but they all feel necessary and true.

Though I try to achieve the same effect in my own fiction writing, it’s easier said than done. I start with characters in various states of desperation, facing some kind of challenge. I look for the surprising moments, when characters’ cracks are starting to show. People are full of contradictions. They often grow, but don’t change completely. I try to write characters who are similarly complicated, inhabiting their myriad perspectives, attempting to see the world through their particular lenses. I use specific details to bring scenes to life. I am less interested in plot—the events—than in a story’s larger meaning. “What is this story really about?” I ask myself as I revise. And then I cut anything and everything that doesn’t need to be there. I love fiction that is compressed and potent.

Some readers were frustrated by the ending of my novel, You Are One of Them, because the surface mystery about a character’s identity was not resolved. More than a few people told me that they loved everything about the book except the ending. They informed me that the plot wasn’t complete. But in writing the book, I was concerned only with the narrator’s perspective. Sarah, the narrator, spends much of her life obsessing over a betrayal and the loss of a friend; in the end, she finally lets go of the past and moves on. So the novel has resolution in terms of the character’s story. The ending is true in terms of her personal journey. Any other ending would have felt false and engineered to me. Like Chekhov, I believe that endings in which everything is neatly tied up seem artificial. Life is messy, and stories that capture its messy complications feel truer to me than ones with overt explanations and tidy conclusions. I’m not striving for happily ever after. I’m after necessity and truth.


More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.

Elliott Holt's writing has been published in the New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salon, Guernica, Kenyon Review Online, The Millions, Bellevue Literary Review, The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology) and elsewhere. She has won fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, and Yaddo. In addition to winning a Pushcart Prize, she was the runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. Her first novel You Are One of Them was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Award for a first book.