Excellence

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. It was my first time reading it in any format; I’ve read most of his work, and now that one is done only Coraline is left on the list. I think I need to read more Gaiman stories in audiobook form. He puts his words together so beautifully, and I appreciated them more fully when I could hear them.

Anansi Boys starts out like a family comedy drama. It seems like it’s going to be a realistic and funny yet perceptive novel about fathers and sons, and it happens to have a magical twist for fun. This is not inaccurate, but there’s more to it than that.

The story carries you along, gradually adding more and more magical elements, until, like an Escher painting, it has become something else. It’s a folktale. Specifically, an unwelcome guest folktale; a form found all over the world. Naive everyman invites magical being in, magical being causes trouble, naive everyman must figure out how to get it out again. It’s told everywhere because it’s funny, and because the struggle to extricate oneself from unpleasant company is apparently universal.

But there’s more to it than that.

The story shifts and shifts again, and now it’s not realistic drama, it’s not a folktale, it’s a Myth. It’s about human nature on a grand scale. Its scale and cast have dramatically expanded. It may have actually crossed the line into an epic. All this happened so naturally and gradually, I could never point to the stitches that tie these three different forms together, but there they all were.

Then, very neatly, the epic is resolved, the fairy tale is over, and the story becomes one of family again. I may have a new favorite Gaiman book.

(no, I take it back. It’s still The Ocean at the End of the Lane.)

The book made me think about a lot of things, but one of them is the question of excellence. I teach myself to write well by reading; both books on how to write and good fiction books, of all genres. Over the years I’ve tentatively developed a theory; what makes a story not bad and what makes a story excellent are two distinct things. That is to say, the techniques of storytelling do not guide you along a spectrum from very bad to average to extremely good. They teach you to avoid problems that would drag the story down, but if you dodged every mistake and did nothing more, you would not end up with a good story. You would end up with a decent story. An unobjectionable story.

Excellence, on the other hand, is something that can be practiced, but not taught. It comes from that place where writers get a bit mystical, where they talk about where the story wanted to go and what the characters said they were going to do. Above I described what I thought made Anansi Boys excellent, but I cannot generalize from that. I can’t say, “all my stories should go from realistic drama to fairy tale to mythic epic and back again.” That was what Anansi Boys needed to be, but I might never write that kind of story.

This is why some stories you read or watch or listen to, say they were good and then go years without thinking of them again, while others you complain about their obvious faults but still enjoy them and go back and back again, choosing to ignore their stumbles, or nod and laugh at them. This is why I can acknowledge every bad episode of Doctor Who, yet still call it my favorite show. The things that make it frequently awful and the things that make it consistently wonderful are completely different.

And another factor of excellence, of course, is the subjectivity of reader’s taste. It’s about those moments that, despite all the distance between writer and reader, somehow what the one created is exactly what the other needed.

Excellence is a story that is what it needed to be, put into the hands of someone who needed what it was.

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