Writing the Extreme

At a book group I visited recently, someone asked if there was anything I was afraid to write about. I had to stop a moment and think. I’d never been asked that before. I offered some thoughts on not writing about my children, but the question was actually about being afraid, not protective. In fact, I had to admit to myself later that certain subjects do scare me away. I’ve never been in a war; I don’t know what it’s like to be a victim of racism; I haven’t been sexually assaulted. And I haven’t gone through the Holocaust or had a miscarriage in Mongolia, the subjects of two of the works we’ll be discussing in my Lit Fest class on Literature of Extremity. My actual fear, I would have told my questioner, is can I do justice to subjects that often deal with extremity?

What I do know, however, is that the bigger the subject, the more critical the approach. Form is of the essence. Any extreme situation in fiction or memoir has to come across as more than reportage. And that entails knowing how to individualize an extreme event for its emotional impact. As Stalin purportedly said (and who should know better?), one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.

To be clear, “extremity” here can include “smaller” experiences. The continuum of possibilities for extremity stretches from the most private to the most public of occurrences. Nothing could be sadder than the quiet tale of the clerk Akaky Akakievich in Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” We see the grinding poverty, and exhaustion he’s endured in order to save for a new overcoat. The overcoat briefly changes his life for the better—until it’s stolen, the ensuing loss stripping his life of pride, happiness, and visibility. As with Melville’s Bartleby, Akaky Akakievich’s character is a study in extremity at its most dispossessed, which is the common link of any experience of extremity, no matter how isolated or widespread.

And, for the record, it deserves mentioning that writing about extremity does not always negate using humor; writers do inject humor in the most unlikely places (think Flannery O’Connor).

In this class, we’ll examine the approaches we can take when incorporating momentous events into our work. Not all of us live in extreme times, but all of us at some point have experienced moments of extremity. Certainly our characters inevitably will. How to portray “the truth” about such experiences, in an age where truth has become so slippery, is the challenge of any literary work.

Steven Schwartz is the author of two novels and four collections of stories, and he has twice received the Colorado Book Award for literary fiction. He is professor emeritus of English at Colorado State University and fiction editor of Colorado Review. His Literature of Extremity class at Lit Fest will take place June 8, from 2:00 to 4:00 PM.