I've been getting into photography lately, and so a few weeks ago I found myself walking around the house shooting random stuff, in order to test out some new equipment. The pictures weren't very interesting, by and large, but there was one that really stood out--a picture of the hall closet doorknob. It's a cool knob--made of elaborately molded brass and unusually large--but I'd never really gotten excited about it before. Now, however, looking at it on my computer screen, I was kind of mesmerized by the thing. I called Rhian and the kids over to look at it. And the four of us stood there, staring at this photo of a doorknob, while the real actual doorknob went entirely neglected about eight feet behind us.
It practically goes without saying that the frame is everything--in fact, Rhian thought this was too obvious to post. But seriously--it's everything. The entire concept of the cliché, in fact, is a matter of how experience is framed--there is no human reality, however culturally overexposed, that can't be made into a successful work of art. Shakespeare was an early adopter of this way of thinking; Andy Warhol a more recent one. A good artist can take the wilted castoffs of a culture and make them into something great.
There's even a subgenre of cliché-reframing in literature, and I'm always delighted when some writer or other takes a crack at it. Donald Barthleme's "The Indian Uprising" is a hilariously literal approach the the idea--a battle of sloppy historical provenance takes place in a landscape of cultural garbage. David Foster Wallace's story last year--the one about the teenage pregnancy--is a subtler take; part of the reason I liked that story so much (and a lot of people seemed to hate it) is that it's about teenage pregnancy, as drearily afterschool-special a topic as it's possible to imagine. George Saunders' "Brad Carrigan, American" actually lampoons the emptiness of TV culture in a manner that seems fresh and vital and disturbing. Alice Munro never seems to run out of stunning ways to present marital disharmony. And Jonathan Lethem's "As She Climbed Across The Table," which I posted about a couple of weeks back, manages to be original while also being an academic comedy, a love story, and about seventeen different works of pop philosophy.
I've heard a lot of stories about teachers who try to outlaw things--things they think are hackneyed and deflated. One writing prof we know once issued an anti-mermaid edict, and one student, a friend of ours, responded by handing in a mermaid story. A good one, apparently. The edict was rescinded.
One possible definition of a cliché is: something that's important to people, and which they can't stop talking about (like, you know, um...mermaids). We're sick of it for the latter reason; but we can't ignore it because of the former. A good writer can crack open the nut of a cliché and fork out the meat, leaving the old familiar shell behind. Indeed, that's a writer's job description--forking out the meat. A writer who ignores cliché has failed, a writer who succumbs to it has also failed. Success is framing the cliché as revalation.