Hello readers and welcome to this update in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I finished exploring Under the Dome, and after took the plunge back to an author I hadn’t read since school: Jack London. Specifically, The Call of the Wild. But I was in luck, as the copy I purchased also included some of this man’s best short stories. After I got through them I decided to read White Fang as well, and was richly rewarded. I’m assuming most of you are familiar with this author and his works, so I’ll go directly to the lessons I gained from reading these classics.
Use of language. This was London’s speciality, and I would argue he was Hemingway-esque before it was cool. London’s language through all these works is simple, easy to follow, and grimly detailed. Despite the stories being largely similar and no gigantic words to be found, the novels about the Wild and its impact upon creatures as well as the short stories carry heavy messages and are deeply impactful on many levels. You don’t have to be experimental in your language if you know what you want to show the audience.
A broad perspective. As is well known, the two novels are essentially allegories about nature and the meaning of the Wild. London is quite deft and noticing when his creatures are compelled to act by forces beyond their control (such as instinct) and expressing the importance of this to their survival. He also ruminates quite heavily on the nature of “gods” and how humans and animals might consider such a thing; while humans can never be sure theirs exist, animals’ are all around them, proving their might. It’s worth contemplating how large a perspective you want to have as you explore this in your own writing.
To Build a Fire. While my collection included some of London’s other famous short stories (including the devious “Batard” and the hilarious “That Spot”), I want to take a minute to look at what I consider the best one I’ve read in some time. “To Build a Fire” is the tale of an inexperienced man who ignores advice of an old-timer and ends up paying for it with his frozen corpse out in the wilderness. This was a haunting story, and kept me on the edge of my seat as London’s perfect use of language built up the environment and character. I can’t think of a single other story I could recommend as a finer example of the type. This one hits all of the previous themes and also remains an incredibly powerful parable about the dominance of nature over man.
I also want to recommend White Fang. For some stupid reason I always thought of this as a “lesser” work to The Call of the Wild, and I can’t express enough how wrong-headed that is. This is truly a masterpiece all on its own, and I would argue that London shows great growth as a writer from one to the other - not just in thematic elements but in overall storytelling ability. I would go as far as to say you can’t read one without the other, thinking of them as two parts of a larger whole.
I hope it’s pretty obvious that I emphatically enjoyed returning to this author, as I feel he has a much deserved place in whatever is considered the “canon” these days. While Hemingway would refine this type of writing, it was Jack London who paved the way in some regards. I would totally advise you to pick up any of this man’s books, as not only will you enjoy them, but will gain your own insights even from those I outlined.
Up next, I’m segueing into more short story collections (including a vacation gift from my wife - Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things) and continuing to write more of my own. I’m less concerned about publishing at this time and more about doing them well, and hope to be able to craft a similar post about lessons learned from reading the masters of the form. After that it will be back to novels to close out the rest of AYOF. Thanks for reading!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.