That’s how Arthur describes her response to exceptional books. Editors, agents, and readers often speak of books this way, with passion. Can this sort of book love be pinned down, described, analyzed?
Consider Anne Lamott’s enthusiastic endorsement of Kathleen Winter’s debut novel Anabel. “It reads with such caring,” Lamott says. “It’s such a gift.” How we got here, who we are, what we do now, how we awaken if in fact we do – the novel delves into all of these questions, Lamott says.
Transcendence. That’s what literary agent Noah Lukeman calls a book that addresses such questions. Of course, not everyone agrees on what transcendence means or where it applies. Winter’s book, for instance, garnered no starred reviews; in fact, a Publishers Weekly review calls its delivery “heavy-handed,” and its Amazon ranking is nothing to get excited about. Still, who wouldn’t be thrilled if even one writer with the chops of Lamott were to rave about the transcendence of our work, saying in essence that the world needs this book, Amazon rankings be damned.
Timing is everything when it comes to transcendence - not the timing of the project, though it is possible that what’s unappreciated in one era may transcend to another - but the writer’s timing in weighing the value of her work. Too much early concern about transcendence can kill a project before it ever gets off the ground. Too much early conviction regarding its importance breeds grandiosity, leading writers to invest large chunks of time into stuff no one wants to read, at which point the writers typically throw their hands in the air and complain that the world simply doesn’t get their particular manifestation of genius.
In The Plot Thickens, Lukeman warns that there are no formulas for genuine transcendence, but he does point to some of its common elements. Though not vague, transcendent works are open to interpretation. “The more levels, the more there is to work with,” Lukeman says. Transcendent writing also features multidimensional characters and circumstances. And transcendent work feels timeless. Regardless of era, readers will deeply identify with it. In reading, they’ll feel they’ve learned something, especially about themselves.
“Works that leave lasting impressions are usually greater than the sum of their parts,” Lukeman says. “The greatness lies not in any individual character, or setting, or story twist, but in the coming together of these elements.” The ideal work, he adds, takes the audience through four stages, from curiosity to interest to need and, in rare instances, to action.
Though aiming for transcendence can be counterproductive, we can at least shoot for an awareness of what we mean to achieve. Lukeman suggests checking in with ourselves, at the deepest level, to discover what prompts us to write. If we write from defensiveness or insecurity, we’ll likely come off as aggressive. If we write out of pride, to prove how smart we are, our work becomes a showcase for high language and affected speech. If at the root of our writing there’s fear, we wind up overstating. Revenge, control, deception – there are any number of poor motives that will show through in our work.
“It is your job to clear the slate, to create a sacred space in your mind just for the writing, free from all your neuroses as a person. The writing must be about the art as much as possible,” Lukeman says. “No matter what your goal or motivation, you should strive to write from a place of truth and love.”
When it comes to transcendence, try not to try too hard. Pushing for profundity, writing with an agenda, preaching a moral (or two or three or ten): don’t be fooled by any of these self-important pursuits. Humility, vulnerability – these are among the most transcendent perspectives in writing, because they open a work to its emotional core.