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The Fragrance of Fiction

By Carol Lerner

I’ve been reading all kinds of fiction lately. This is a good thing, as for years I’ve had difficulty finding fiction that kept my interest. I’ve finally figured out what makes me stick with a story-it’s the overall aura, the “feeling” the words evoke, or, as I like to say, the fragrance. It’s that which moves something inside of you, and lingers, long after you close the book.

I have struggled to come up with a “favorite fiction.” The only book that would come to mind was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I read the book as a teenager, and, while I could analyze my attraction based on theories of teenage angst and powerlessness, what stuck with me was its ambiance, particularly when the protagonist becomes self-aware in the midst of her invisibility. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember the revelation, and the scene that enveloped it.

On the lighter side, I could say the same thing of another favorite: The Dog Who Could Swim Underwater by George Seldon. You’ve heard of it, right? (If you have I want to hear from you; you are my people!) What remains with me of this story are the comfort of a sunny field transected by a refreshing brook and a protagonist that discovers a new skill and works at developing it, just for the sheer joy of accomplishment.

As Carl W. Buechner says: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

The fragrance of fiction comes at many levels: story, scene, sentence, word. I’ve noticed that there are just some sentences that sound great, create an impression or emotion, but when you read them closely, they don’t make any sense. It reminds me of the line in the movie Blades of Glory, “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.” I love that. A sentence that, when you read it straight through in context flows, fits, and sounds musical. It touches the spirit, soul, or wherever, depending on genre, and produces delight. But, eh, when you get right down to it, it doesn’t add meaning or progress – it provides fragrance.

Joseph Conrad said it well when he said, “He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.”

Interesting thought. What do you think? Is there a lot of support for pursuing this fragrance in our writing? Have you experienced it in your own reading?

Carol LernerCarol Lerner is turning from the oral tradition of storytelling to the written word with her new, as yet unpublished book, Stone House, a historical novel set in Davidic Israel. She and her husband are currently decamping from N. California to N. Carolina. Probably some auto-correct mix up while texting.

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