What keeps writing alive? The truth of life. Getting the truth into words is our only hope for immortality. Writing that speaks falsely about life dwindles down to death in a matter of decades.
Yet over the centuries countless tons of paper have been printed with ink that tells truths only a few care to read: crop reports from 1871, sermons by fashionable Victorian preachers, or legal boilerplate:
Our Certificate of Incorporation and By-laws will provide that, to the fullest extent authorized or permitted by the DGCL, as is now in effect or as amended, we will indemnify any person who was or is party or is threatened to be made a party to any threatened, pending, or completed action...
So what more than telling the truth must we writers do to keep our precious prose and poetry alive? We must please our readers. Some writers declare, "I write as I please, the public be damned," and if that's your thing, more power to you! Experience tells me, however, that readers read books they enjoy reading. If a book bores or annoys them, they stop reading. To grab and keep readers a writer must have some idea of what humans enjoy in books and give it to 'em, plenty of it.
What pleases readers? That's a question as tough to answer as "What's the truth?" Let's look at The Odyssey, writing as vigorous today as it was when blind Homer first sang his poem in the smoky banquet halls of ancient Greece. The Odyssey has pleased readers through a hundred generations; what's its secret of success?
Readers like clear and comprehensible forms. Readers like a book to progress from beginning to middle to end, and they like to keep its overall shape in mind as they read. After a ten-line prelude, Homer sketches the gist of his poem in two sentences:
All the survivors of the war had reached their homes by now and so put the peril of battle and the sea behind them. That powerful goddess, the nymph Calypso, who wished him to marry her and kept him in her vaulted cave, prevented Odysseus alone from returning to the home and wife he longed for. (All quotes from the E. V. Rieu translation)
—and that quickly we've got the arc of the story: a man trying to go home to his wife but beset by obstacles. With that in mind, we can follow the zigs and zags of Odysseus' journey because we always know where he's headed. When he finally gets home, we rejoice with him:
Penelope's surrender melted Odysseus' heart, and he wept as he held his dear wife in his arms, so loyal and so true. Sweet moment too for her, sweet as the sight of land to sailors struggling in the sea, when the Sea God has wrecked their gallant ship with wind and waves.
—and that's one of a million examples that readers like happy endings.
Readers like strong central characters. No character in all literature bestrides his paper stage more boldly than "devious devising" Odysseus. He's strong in brain and body; he's cunning, imaginative, and courageous; he's a bold warrior and as bold a lover. Odysseus is a superhero, and the Odyssey belongs to him as Hamlet belongs to Hamlet. Readers of all ages and eras marvel at this hero's crafty accomplishments: how he hung under the belly of a sheep to escape from the Cyclops, how he dared to listen to the Sirens' song, how he alone could string his bow:
Odysseus poised the great bow and gave it a final inspection. And then, as easily as a musician who knows his lyre strings the cord on a new peg after looping the twisted sheep gut at both ends, he strung the great bow without effort or haste, and with his right hand proved the string, which gave a lovely sound in answer like a swallow's note.
Readers like sex. Various women captivate Odysseus on his way home to Penelope—our superhero is far less chaste than his spouse! Calypso has a good heart and Circe a druggy charm, but no woman in Homer's tale is sweeter than fair Nausicaa, and no scene sexier than when the shipwrecked Odysseus, waking on the beach, watches the princess and her nubile ladies-in-waiting frolic by the water:
After bathing and rubbing themselves with olive oil, they took their meal at the riverside. And presently, when mistress and maids had all enjoyed their food, they threw off their headgear and began playing with a ball, while Nausicaa of the white arms led them in song.
—until, driven by hunger, he comes naked out from hiding:
The gallant Odysseus crept out from under the bushes, after breaking off with his great hand a leafy bough from the thicket to conceal his naked manhood, and advanced on the young women....Begrimed with salt he made a gruesome sight, and one look at him sent the gentle girls scuttling in every direction along the jutting spits of land.
Readers like fantasy. Even if we exclude the many scenes of gods toying with humans, much of the Odyssey is as fantastical as Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress or Wells' The Time Machine. Was there ever a more nightmarish villain than Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant Cyclops:
"The cruel brute jumped up and reaching out toward my men, seized a couple and dashed their heads against the floor as though they had been puppies. Their brains ran onto the ground and soaked the earth. Limb by limb he tore them to pieces to make his meal which he devoured...never pausing until entrails and flesh, marrow and bones, were all consumed..."
Readers also like seeing the real world in words. Like all great realists, Balzac, Trollope, Eliot, Dreiser, Tolstoy, Homer excels in painting clear pictures of daily life, here men cooking and eating meat over a fire:
These pieces the venerable king burnt on the faggots, while he sprinkled red wine over the flames, and the young men gathered round with five-pronged forks in their hands. When the thighs were burnt up...they carved the meat into small pieces, pierced them with skewers, and held the sharp ends of the spits to the fire till all was roasted.
It may say sad things about human nature, but readers like violence, and like James Jones, the prose poet of World War II, Homer lays the blood and gore on thick:
Odysseus let an arrow fly which struck Eurymachus by the nipple on his breast with such force that it pierced his liver...Lurching across the table, he crumpled and tumbled with it, hurling the food and wine cup to the floor. In agony he dashed his forehead on the ground; his feet lashed out and overthrew the chair, and the fog of death descended on his eyes.
Readers like vivid writing. Like Walt Whitman, Homer drenches readers with the pleasures of mouth-filling words and meaty metaphors. When Odysseus approached Nausicaa and her handmaidens is one of countless examples:
He advanced on them like a mountain lion who sallies out, defying wind and rain in the pride of his power, with fire in his eyes, to hunt the oxen or the sheep, to stalk the roaming deer...
Readers like villains, readers like coincidence, readers like suspense—readers like so many aspects of writing that this short essay could easily become a long book. Let's stop here with one more: readers like writing that touches their hearts. When Odysseus gets back to Ithaka, while still incognito, he finds his dog Argus. The decades his master has been away have turned the once fleet Argus into a fleabitten wreck sleeping on a manure pile in the stable. Yet:
... directly he became aware of Odysseus' presence, Argus wagged his tail and dropped his ears, though he lacked the strength to come any nearer to his master. Odysseus saw him out of the corner of his eye, and brushed a tear away without showing his emotion....And Argus, he had no sooner set eyes on Odysseus after those nineteen years than he succumbed to the black hand of Death.
Every time I read this passage, I wonder, why does this writing still live? How can an old dog dying on a dung heap keep words alive through three thousand years? Argus still lives because readers like to feel the tender clarity of Homer's understanding, like to look with him deep into the sad humor of the scene. Tears well up in our modern eyes as we read of Odysseus' ancient tears because, as Homer hoped, his few words tells us much: the sober but welcome truth that, for better or for worse, we are all in this life together.