At some point I wrote that I preferred the literature of conviction to the literature of perception despite lacking all conviction myself. I speculated that this was because I took malicious pleasure in all the scenes where people prove how right they are and how absurd their opponents are (a pleasure that in me has a limited amount to do with whether I actually think the winners are right). That is certainly part of it, but I think, more broadly, that my favorite writers are those who write sincerely about what they believe.
Reduced to that, it’s a platitude. But I still think it’s worth saying. For one thing, so many writers don’t. I’m my best example, because I live inside my head: I tend to glue plots together out of tropes or ideas I enjoy without thinking at all about the values those tropes imply, and often I find them so interesting and attractive I cannot make myself give them up. I suspect a lot of the genre fiction I read is the same. I’m getting better–I think. But it’s hard.
What is necessary in order to write sincerely about what you believe?
Well, first, you have to believe things in such a way that you yourself find them exciting and worth talking about. For a long time, this was a problem for me. I felt (not entirely correctly) that my beliefs and values, to the extent that they were coherent at all, fell so definitely within the mainstream that no one–least of all I–would find them interesting to read about. I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of righteous anger and been quite wary of it on account of my enjoyment, but I think the sort of passion that leads to the books I like best often springs from it, or at least from a strong sense that other people don’t believe what you believe and would do well at least to consider it.
Second, though, is the harder and more important thing. You have to question and think about what you believe. It is entirely possible to believe something passionately without ever thinking it through or applying it to other areas of your life, and a book written out of that sort of belief is likely to look like a half-hearted series of bland and incoherent cliches however sincere the emotion behind it may be–e.g., a New Agey book about the power of love in which the main character remains a snarky, petty, and conventional American consumerist who thoughtlessly dismisses “weird people” throughout despite feeling waves of universal compassion, having a violet aura, and being chosen by angels to single-handedly save some species from going extinct. I haven’t read that exact book, but the tone permeates a number of books that I have read. (Or the Left Behind series for kids, in which Christianity seems to consist largely of not wearing revealing clothes and has nothing to do with one’s inner life whatsoever….).
This searching investigation of your beliefs leads naturally to originality, complexity, and verisimilitude–because the world beyond us, including the human world, is complex, and what we imagine often isn’t. As I’ve said elsewhere, I truly think that the human mind is at its best trying to understand how things are. It brings to mind a C.S. Lewis quote:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
Of course, it helps if I find what an author believes exciting, beautiful, or interesting, too. So C.S. Lewis and Diana Wynne Jones, my two favorites, both pass this test with flying colors, though many of the things they believed were flat opposites
This isn’t necessarily as common a position as one might expect. It leads me to like Atlas Shrugged, for instance, much better than I like most things I’m asked to read in literature classes, even though I disagree violently with Ayn Rand about pretty much everything, because Rand articulates a complex, exciting, abstract worldview clearly and passionately rather than mushing around about “universal emotions” or something.