In the recent Author's Guild Bulletin, two quotes caught my attention. The first, from novelist Jeanette Winterson, appeared in the New York Times Book Review:
"Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home. A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect."
The second is from novelist Charles Baxter, whose volume of essays, Burning Down the House, happens to be one of my favorite books on craft. In a review of Tom McCarthy's C, which appeared in the New York Review of Books, Baxter wrote:
"[E]very work of literature should drop clues that will lead the reader to a central mystery that must remain--and this is the tricky part--mysterious. Imagine a detective novel with no crime and no solution but with the symptoms of criminality somehow appearing everywhere."
I couldn't help trying to decide what, if anything, I've read that I'd describe as a "waxwork" (the answer: nothing good), and then mulling, briefly, the difference between what Winterson would call imperfect and what I commonly consider mistakes that hijack my enjoyment of a book--I realize that's not the kind of imperfection she means. There may be works of technical perfection that still provoke argument. (Jane Austen comes to mind.) At least, one could argue that point...
But what interested me most was that both writers mention mystery. Winterson implies it's not mysterious comfort that should be our goal, but mysterious discomfort. This kind of imperfection that is, possibly, true perfection--the quality that gets under our skin and won't leave us alone. Think of it as it relates to Baxter's "central mystery," the one that remains mysterious, what he also calls the "secret" of literature. Because not knowing is in itself provocative. We want the answers...but we don't, not really.