“Urgency. Please.” Beth Kephart on the need for honest, relevant fiction


Beth Kephart

This essay was originally posted on August 4, 2014 but remains just as relevant and urgent a year later. 

I need them urgent. I need them to persuade me of their relevance, to yank me by the hair, to stop me in my whirling tracks, to somehow give me faith (still, still) in this planet rotten with injustice.

I am a bore, I am a scold, I am no fun, excuse me and but:

There is a girl in the Gaza strip paralyzed neck to foot and (also) orphaned. There is an Ebola virus mad with intent. There is a lake that holds no water in California, a husband murdered by the cops, so many lost Syrians that we are losing count, disappearing birds, confounding politics, Salvadoran children running toward a country that will turn them back, a comatose boy in a hospital bed, a mother’s young son going blind and if, in this time, in this place, you ask me to understand narratives built merely to sell, stories packaged merely to distract, books sold merely on the basis of hollow hype—well, I can’t.

I’m sorry. I can’t.

I need my books urgent. I require the meticulously unveiled. I insist on purposeful, on stories that sizzle in. I need characters that help me believe that we human beings are capable of deep thinking, tenderness, complication, problems solved, humanity. Humans capable of humanity. That’s what I want. I need the books I read to give me signs of that.

Desperation—the news fills me with it. Intelligence—I’m desperate for that. For sentences that surprise me, structures that appease me, characters who give me something like truth, and something like hope, and something like proof that both are still possible, still available to us. Don’t talk down to me, don’t try to trick me, don’t fudge, don’t diminish, don’t pimp your characters or your storylines out. Don’t tell me the book before me is the next Eat, Pray, Love or the Hunger Games on steroids or Andrew Smith without the grasshoppers or the sideways, because imitation doesn’t sound like urgency to me. It doesn’t sound essential. It sounds nugatory and also pyrrhic; it sounds cruelly hollowed out.

There are people out there hurting. There is a planet splitting apart. If we, as writers, are going to make a difference, we have to stop writing toward headlines, toward gimmicks, toward sales, toward the inevitable flaming out. We have to know where we are living, and what is at stake, and what we can do about this here, and this now.

We must write the book that might proudly stand as the last book ever written, ever read.

Time is running out.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 18 books of non-fiction, poetry and young adult fiction, including One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books, April 2015), Going Over, a Berlin Wall novel (Chronicle Books), Nest. Flight. Sky: on love and loss, one wing at a time (Shebooks), and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham). Her articles and reviews have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as magazines like Parenting, Family Circle, Real Simple, and Reader’s Digest. She teaches and lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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