Ok, here I need to comment on the following quote from Jenna's post, particularly on the quote's the first sentence:
"And the trick, for those of us aiming at the stars, is to write a tale that is both within our time and transcendent of it.
That is a resolution of contraries if ever there was one. Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling, disrespectful of history and therefore unable to learn from it, busy trying to immortalize itself in 140 characters or less per idea--this we must unite, somehow, to the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be."
So, maybe it's because I'm a graduate theology student at the moment and so I'm immersed in early Church writings about the nature of Christ, but this passage, especially its first sentence, immediately brought to mind for me the nature of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. The Word of God is exactly as Jenna has described a good tale to be: "both within our time and transcendent of it." He is both within the time He lived on earth (2000 years ago) and transcendent of it. (He is of course also present in our current time as well--He is in all times, both before and after His earthly sojourn--but that's another theological discussion separate from this point I wish to make right now.) I included the whole of Jenna's quote above because later on she uses the word "unite" and, again, that is theological, Christological language right there, and it was awesome to see that appear in this dialogue about good storytelling, storytelling that both speaks to us today and also taps into the greatest Story of all.
I wonder if, in a way, the Christological analogy can be taken a step further: if Christ can only save what He has assumed (i.e., our fallen condition, including death itself), I wonder if this means the good writer (in synergy with God and His grace) can take that which is fleeting and nailed down in the here and now (i.e., "Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling") and transfigure it from the inside out (as Christ does with us) by filling it with true Story (i.e., "the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be").
I'm not a fiction writer myself, but as an avid fiction reader I can confidently say I've encountered this kind of transfiguration of our time, our world, and our very selves (as reflected in full, rich characters) in great stories. It is like C.S. Lewis's statement in... one of his essays about this sort of thing (lol I read it years ago, sorry I don't have the citation handy). To paraphrase Lewis, he said something like: When we eat an ordinary piece of meat, it is exactly and only that: a piece of meat. But when we imagine that someone has hunted for this meat, encountered dangers while doing so, emerged triumphant, and because of that struggle and victory this meat is now before us, waiting to be eaten... suddenly the meat tastes so much better than it would have when it was just "ordinary meat." Story makes this transformation happen.***
One follow-up: I just spent about twenty minutes skimming Lewis's essay "Of Other Worlds," from which I am sure I first encountered the idea about story transforming meat to the point where it tastes delicious because of the sense of story that accompanies it... But, I could not find exactly the image I thought was in that essay. I must have extrapolated the above (I guess I was in the mood for meat when I first read that essay years ago, ha) from the following quote of Lewis's, which is the closest I could find:
"The happiness which [a story where the characters are animals who talk and live like us] presents to us is in fact full of the simplest and most attainable things--food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That 'simple but sustaining meal' of 'bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding' which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual." (pp. 14-15 of the Harcourt edition of Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis)I think, since his essay begins by addressing the sense of danger often found in good stories, I must have combined the danger-discussion with this little snippet about food tasting better for having passed through story (with a little of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet thrown in). Regardless, both discussions are talking about the same thing: at the beginning of his essay Lewis discusses a sense of danger (think Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans), and in this quote above his discussion has moved to a sense of preposterousness and absurdity, where he uses a story where animals talk and share fellowship as an example. (Since I'm currently reading as my de-stress reading Martin the Warrior, a novel of Redwall by Brian Jacques, I can relate to this about talking animals even now.) Each of these qualities (danger or absurdity) is what the essay's title refers to as, simply, "other." It is this otherness, or as Jenna puts it, this transcendence, which makes the ordinary meat (or Lewis's "real nursery dinner") taste better.
To conclude, the crux of my above response to Jenna's post is this: a good story has the ability to transfigure, by God's grace, the fallenness of our world and our selves, from the inside out--made possible because of Christ having done this very same thing for us on the cross. I think this, for me, is the measure of a truly "good" story--one that achieves this great feat.
Is this a tall order for the writers and storytellers out there? Perhaps. But, it's what I'm seeking when I devour book after book after book--a reader's quest, if you will. And of course I have found it (Thank God!), time and time again, and these are the books and stories that get at the core of me. They tell my story of brokenness and redemption back to me. A story that can do this, without of course preaching or "teaching a lesson" (none of my above discussion has anything remotely to do with didactic, moralistic writing), is what I would call good storytelling.