Meat & Potatoes Fiction

Today I went out with my roommate to a local diner for breakfast, and she made a comment that basic, simple food could be so good. I replied that it was good because it fulfilled a need. Giving your body what it needs to live and be healthy is the basis of good food–everything else is secondary.

I like cooking, and I do use spices when I cook. But the spices are to enhance the experience, and don’t work as a substitute for providing proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. If the food isn’t nourishing, then there is nothing you can add to it that will transform it into good food.

I tend to make food analogies with fiction a lot, probably because I enjoy both writing and cooking and both were self-taught. I don’t use recipes, and I don’t follow formulas. I just take the stuff I like and throw it all in a pot. Sometimes this works, and sometimes I quietly scrape my experiment into the trash and order a pizza.

Today’s analogy is this: Good fiction should fulfill a need. It is enjoyable because it is good for you, and the spices, garnishes, presentation and so on add something to the experience only if the basic needs are met first.

So what is the basic, core function of fiction? That’s not an easy question to answer. Like food, it has a number of different parts to it, that do different things. A short and imprecise answer might be that it allows the reader to vicariously experience events that–if they were real instead of made up–would result in positive mental and emotional growth.

This, of course, covers a very broad class of experiences, from winning a battle to surviving a cataclysm to meeting and wooing a partner. But I think it’s a good litmus test for fiction–“If I had been in the situation that these characters were in, and I behaved as they did, would I feel good about myself?”

This does not mean that every story must have a happy ending, for arbitrarily defined values of “happy”. Sometimes the guy does not end with the girl, and sometimes the monster eats the hero. Some games don’t have victory conditions. The point is that the reader is able to do the right thing, despite the costs, because at the end of the story the costs aren’t real.

If the story is a good one, though, doing the right thing is real, or real enough.

Some fiction strikes me as all sizzle and no steak. The presentation may be exquisite, the seasoning perfect, but there’s nothing there to feed the soul. The author is so focused on how the story is told that she or he forgets to put the story in.

This is Joe. This is what happened to Joe. This is what Joe did. This is what happened as a result of what Joe did. This is Joe now.

That’s the story. And at the end of the story the reader should want to be like Joe. When bad things happen to the reader a good story can act as a surrogate life experience. Remembering how Mowgli faced down Shere Khan can help a man deal with his own fears–even when he knows perfectly well that The Jungle Book never happened.

In genre fiction in particular I think it’s easy to get overcome with the spices and forget the meat and potatoes. One describes a Science Fiction story in terms of the peculiarities of the setting or some new invented technology, because those things are unique to the story.

Those things can be enjoyable, and provide food for thought long after the story is finished. They are what make a story different, but that’s not what makes a story good. What makes a story good is the example it gives us of eternal virtues–courage, compassion, ingenuity, prudence, fortitude–no matter where or when the story is set.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
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3 Responses to Meat & Potatoes Fiction

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    The benchmark for “literary” fiction, or at least one used by many who divide work into worthy or not, seems to be almost the opposite: in the search for stories that describe actual humanity in its Realest Realness™ the protagonist being someone the reader would wish to follow seems almost a mark against a book.

  2. Karen Myers says:

    I think what makes worthy books for children/adolescents in particular are the (sometimes for-adult) authors of the past, such as Gene Stratton Porter, or Albert Payson Terhune, or similar 1890s-1920s folks. Their characters, adult or otherwise, are always evaluating what the right thing is in difficult circumstances, and taking the necessary actions/risks to advance their conclusions. This mostly works out (best, I think, when the childhood heroes don’t necessarily die), but always at a cost which the hero considers worthwhile.

    In a nutshell, these are STORIES about CHARACTER and the ACTION that it takes to achieve GOALS. This is an invaluable template for life (and IMHO for enjoyable fiction).

    Even the comic authors of the period, like P.G. Wodehouse, base their humor on characters who avoid taking the right action with every fiber of their being, and the comic consequences that result. (Along with the “don’t be like him” unstated lesson that lets you laugh at him.)

    There is no denying that greater sophistication makes all sorts of other stories realistic but the difference to my mind is that those are not stories about achieving GOALS — they are stories about weakness/failure/willful evil that may or may not succeed (for various values of “success”) in this fallen world of ours. They are NOT nourishing (to use your metaphor) and make lousy guidance for GOALS.

    At best, they serve as cautionary tales. But in the absence of any suitable heroes, who wants to read entire stories about cautionary objects? What sort of nourishment is that? Picture some of our current depressing books as tales told around a campfire — can’t do it, can you?

    • BobtheRegisterredFool says:

      I like this, and I like what Misha said.

      Helps me frame my understandings of the positives of story I’ve been a bit obsessed with recently.

      It is a kung fu wizard story (xianxia), and a pretty unusual example of the genre.

      Lot of kung fu wizard plots work best for a reader who is extremely angry, because they involve a lot of seeking revenge for people using power to hurt others. aka, wish fulfillment power fantasy for someone who may, in fact, have been badly treated. (Genre comes out of the PRC, which apparently isn’t the most wonderful place to live.) Really long plots, that don’t tend to involve a superior martial artist using their superior skills to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. MCs that don’t figure out where the stupid people are, and then do not choose to avoid being near stupid people.

      Anyway, I got into the genre angry enough that it took me a very long time to understand why the genre didn’t work well for a lot of Americans.

      Anyway, anyway, the story I’ve been into actually has the characters making choices about what they do. Main characters start out in a position that is a combination of forest ranger and lumberjack, and a couple of them have a sub-specialty in dragging out the corpses of other lumberjacks who perish in the haunted wilderness they work in. So, these characters spend a fair amount of time looking for options, and tallying costs, because the author is trying to use that wilderness for Horror, and as a place that is very dangerous for careless people. I’m pretty sure I would have noped out if the characters weren’t trying to make moral choices from their options, and if they weren’t trying to avoid being drawn into situations with stupid people.

      A lot of kung fu wizard activities are not comparable to anything I experience. But there are some choices of the moral sort, and I’ve not liked how I feel about the times when I’ve gone with the easy wrong call on those. So, a kung fu wizard story where the protagonists make the hard correct moral judgements, are closer to passing the ‘if I had done this, would I feel good about myself’ test.

      Normal xianxia plotting is a bunch of revenge cycles, like links in a chain. This one’s plotting is more about one barely survivable situation leading to the next. Some of the moral decisions are about avoiding fights, and stopping fighting. Others are about picking up people in trouble, despite the cost of keeping them alive, and the danger they could pose.

      The negatives that have me on the fence, even after two million words, I’m not sure if the author is genuinely crazy, and am worried that they may do a Phil Pullman.

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