It's been a while since I posted, thanks largely to illness over Thanksgiving and the couple of weeks that followed. So I thought I would catch up, with a brief comment in keeping with the season.
There is something about literature that lifts it from mere entertainment to the more profound level of art. It is difficult to achieve. It's simply impossible to teach. And it's nearly impossible to define. I speak of wisdom.
I mean more, of course, than intelligence, even shrewd perception, and certainly more than self-help advice. I'm referring to deep insight into the human condition. When I read truly great writers (I'd list Tolstoy, Wharton, Melville, and Conrad as a few), I discover not only rich, fully fleshed-out characters, but a special vision that takes me deeper into the essence of it all. Of course, the names I've just listed are all novelists, but I'd add many nonfiction writers as well, such as George Orwell, Gary Wills, Joan Didion, even Robert Caro, a fellow (but far more accomplished) biographer.
I don't know if it's possible to deliberately instill wisdom in writing, but I do believe that I—that all of us writers—can try to think about the universal human experience in the course of our work. When I wrote of Cornelius Vanderbilt as a father, I tried to connect it to the Fatherhood with a capital F. When I wrote of Jesse James becoming a violent criminal, I reflected as best I could on the fraught relationship between circumstances and individual choice in the warping of his nature.
I must caution myself as well as my fellow writers: It takes ambition to reach for wisdom, but the attempt must be made with modesty. There is a difference between self-important pronouncements and reflective consideration, between declaring judgments and pondering the depths. At its best, perhaps, wise writing does not offer answers, but points to where readers might pursue and discover their own insight into the human condition. Unfortunately, the pursuit rarely ends with "Ho ho ho." But, at its best, literature can bring us all a little closer to being Wise Men.