Sparing the Poet

It’s my pleasure to present the readers of this blog with the foreword to my upcoming short story anthology.

Spend some time on authors’ blogs or online writing groups, and you’ll meet people who claim to be aspiring writers. I use “claim” because there’s no such animal. Our actions define us. If you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t, you aren’t.

About eighty percent of Americans say they want to write a book. Wanting to write doesn’t make them aspiring writers. Only half of them will ever sit down at a keyboard to start a book. Only half of those who start will finish. The writers are the tiny fraction driven to see a book through to completion; then start on the next. In saecula saeculorum.

What separates writing from taking up carpentry, practicing medicine, and studying classical guitar is that unlike any other pursuit, deeply wanting to write is not the stuff writers are made of. Only those who absolutely cannot not write have the gift—or personality defect—required to be writers.

If writers are defined by their actions, what acts are proper to a writer? What does this strange office entail? Homer, the type and patron of the craft, gives us a hint in The Odyssey. Upon his return home through many perils, Odysseus puts the suitors who abused the hospitality of his home and tried to steal his wife to messy deaths. Two unwelcome house guests—a priest and a poet—beg Odysseus for mercy. He slays the priest but spares the poet.

That episode might subvert the expectations of those who were raised in the remnants of Western civilization. The gods are quite real in the setting of Homer’s epic. Killing a priest would be a potentially catastrophic act of impiety. But slaying a poet? It’s not like they’re a rare commodity. Everybody wants to be in show business, and what use are entertainers to society?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Homer was clearly well-acquainted with the answer and structured his plot accordingly. The role of the poet is to tell stories that explain a culture to itself. What we remember best about the ancient Greeks, their customs and religion, comes to us not from their sacred texts, but from Homer’s poems.

You’re probably wondering what Greek epic poetry has to do with a silly collection of science fiction yarns. Certainly you came here to have fun, not to be lectured on ancient Western literature.

The common thread that runs through the centuries from Homer to contemporary fiction authors is the duty of the poet to transmit culture. Fiction writing is the art of telling entertaining lies that serve a greater truth.

Sadly for us, many fiction writers in the West have neglected or even abused their office these many years. They have left out the truth, and increasingly, the entertainment, to tell us only petty lies in the service of bigger lies.

Do my books hint at bigger truths, or are they just frivolous diversions? You be the judge!

The Ophian Rising - Brian Niemeier

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