For all of my life—I am seventy this year—I have been taught and heard all the wrong things about writing, and how to write. I think of this as the John Gardner-David Lodge-E. B. White school of writing, all of them worthy practitioners of the craft, and all of them dead wrong. Dead for sure. As I will be, soon enough. And, in that they have the advantage of some professional success that I do not, the fight would seem to be unfair. Still, I persist with the thought.
These authors, as well as half a hundred others, ranging from Ambrose Bierce to William Zinsser, have indulged themselves in the mud-wallow of explaining what they do and what they do not do and why their methodology is the best, or at least the better. I admit I have not read them all, but I have read some parts of them all and you will find that in large measure they agree—and they are wrong.
They have missed the point of writing. The very purpose. The paradigm, one they have followed since the time of Dickens, was wrong at the start and this business has disintegrated in the interim. A clarified communication is not a reason to write. A grunt or laugh is enough for most of that. Nor is a fat paycheck. Nor fame. Nor approval. Nor any of the other bullshit foisted on generation after generation and now codified in writing programs at universities and writing groups gathered in functions rooms at libraries across America. And good writing is most certainly not about the acceptance and approval of the agents and editors who make a living as the procurers and pimps of a much sullied profession.
To borrow from current rough usage, it’s all about the content. The reason to write is a matter worth writing about. Good writing is a creation of time and effort as much as any small genius that might occur. It is God-like. But the subject of what is written is what matters most. Saying it well is the task. The craft, if you will. The art, if you can. As a writer, you have spent a piece of your life in the bargain. And after that, what follows is, for the most part, beyond the author’s hands. You may hewn this craft. You may polish it. But if you have nothing to say, it will still be a sneaker.
I do not look down on prostitution, per se. Most of us do that to one degree or another in our lives. We sell ourselves, often for very little. But writing might be a more worthy profession if it were not tied to the pimps. The courtesan has much in common with the writer in that the practitioners might get a great deal more pleasure from their craft if they do it well. And too, doing it badly is not worth doing at all. But to do it at the beck and call of a pimp takes all the fun out of it.
I have mentioned before that I had a good friend who was a professional author his entire life, and earned a good living at it. His astonishment that I wasn’t willing to adjust my writing to the demands of the marketplace still resounds in my head. He told me that anyone who wrote without prospect of being paid was a fool. I told him I was that fool. And he was correct, of course, if what I wanted was his success. Though that pleased him, it never appealed to me.
And I do not disparage Dickens, or Hilary Mantel for that matter. I admire them both. They wrote and write about what matters to them, and have done it in a manner that appeals to a great many people. There is nothing wrong with that. But that can’t be taught. It can be learned—as Michelangelo learned to cut marble. But if it could be taught, we would have to crawl over the statuary to get to the grocery. The learning, which is a bringing to bear of soul and craft is done by the author. The artist. Whether a creation is drawn from the life of the author, or an imagined instance, the writer must care intimately about the subject or else it is hack work. The best of authors often seem to find themselves doing a little hackwork, trying to pay a mortgage. But for the reader, what matters is that it be worth the time taken from their own lives to read. It must be an enlargement of the life they know. Hack work, though it might briefly entertain, does not do that, unless the life of the reader is very small.
My evidence for all of this begins with the dead body of literature now lying in those morgues we call libraries, most of it rotting so badly it must be disposed of regularly despite the ever growing quantity of it being written under the aegis of writing classes preaching the mammon of fame and fortune possible to those who do it right, and the continuing reduction of space that is allowed for it as the corporal bodies of the books themselves are quickly incinerated or reduced to zero’s and ones, thereby diminished to pale images on screens—and thus made increasingly unimportant. The case I’m making ends with the realization that a computer can write just as well.
In the mean while, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, and a few hundred others remain in print—as on ink and paper—and continue to fill those library shelves and are replaced when the pages become shabby with turning. How come? . . . Take your time. . . . Excuses may be deposited in the round file at the end of the desk.
I may not be up to the measure myself, but I know which standard to follow into battle. And one particular distinction all of those ‘great’ authors have in common is that they do not write in the same way. Simply that. They are not the same. Toss your Gardner, Lodge, and White into the file with your excuses. Not necessarily their own literary work, mind you. None of the three write the way they preach. To my own reading, they are often good. But you can rid yourself of their manuals on the craft. You’ll be needing a Virgil or Beatrice where you’re going.
Still, look at the consequences of what they have done! Most of a century of our literature is lost! Yes, them! They are responsible for what they have written. I can name a hundred authors of as fine a merit as Gardner, Lodge and White that you will never read—that you never had the chance to read because you were given such dross in school and taught with such a heavy hand that now you hardly read at all. That is, if you are the general public. If you in particular are this far into my own small essay, you are likely of sterner stuff. But ask yourself, what have you read of late that has enlarged the time of your life, not diminished it.
That is the real crux of my own argument. A good novelist gives us additional time. A good story enlarges our hours. A great novelist defies the laws of physics, offering an experience of the present or some imagined past or future at the same moment we are living our own adventures. When we have lived another year we can look back and survey what we have done and the best of the novels are there amongst the storms and the sun, spring flowers, and babies smiles, tragedies and deaths. They are part of us. Our lives are that much larger. We have gained time!
I am aware that there are some who read only to escape the lives they are living badly. But they will not hold themselves responsible for what they do, even as they complain about their petty aches and pains, much less for what they read. That is another subject for another time and place. And I am aware that the schools are much to blame for the quality of education—no, not the schools themselves—the walls and floors didn’t do it. The teachers did. Blame them fairly. But that too is another subject. True, the publishers and their handmaidens, the literary agents, have much to answer for as well since the days when the great Blanche Knopf published authors simply because she liked them. That too is another branch to follow. What I address here are the authors who have lowered their art to craft and then preached a doctrine of prostitution—the authorities who preached form and function without purpose—the perpetrators of the not so grand larceny that instead of enriching, stole another few hours from you in your search for some larger context to the pace of your own life.
The novelists and storywriters properly take upon themselves the role once played by the old woman at the stove, the uncle on the porch, the guy sitting at the end of the pier with his fishing pole, or the strange fellow on the bench at the bus stop. Gump may have been a fool, but he was a sage for the fact that he saw his life in context. He saw through time. He offered that to us, just as my illiterate grandfather once did to me. And that is the role of the good writer. All the technique in the textbooks will not help with that.
What I argue is this: what the Whites, and Lodges, and Gardeners have instructed is only technique, and not very useful technique at that. They have not taught their readers who or how or what to write about—that is, tell a story worth telling. They have taught method. Like a Stanislavsky asking a girl from the wealthy suburbs to imagine being an Ivanovna, or a Russian immigrant raised in New York to be a cowboy. It may be an interesting exercise but it will be artificial. And technique changes from year to year. More from century to century. What was common usage a century ago is not now. Technique is mere device. It may serve well for reader comprehension, or it may just as easily inhibit thought and reduce the experience being offered. Worse, there is an assumption, with most of these writing instructions, that the reader does not need to be told certain things. In fact, should not be told. ‘Minimalism’ is a word for that. Writing spare prose. Hemingway was the master. Less is more. But that hardly serves to enlarge the reader’s mind—expecting them to draw upon their own experience alone, after being raised in the flickering light of a television set. Does the reader actually know the smell of death? Of child birth? Of rotting heather? Is that important? Yes. And more.
Why do so many characters in recent work act as if their philosophies are a given? Do all modern heroes think alike? Do all villains do their dirty for the same purpose? Having been well-trained by the major networks and the Hollywood marketers to the political correctness of the moment, can you bear to read something that does not fit your reduced cosmology? Can you read the thinking of Raskolnikov and understand his motive for the murder of Ivanovna? Is this made easier simply because she is a pawnbroker? Are his other good deeds sufficient to make you forgive him? Most of the crime literature of late is not so complex—well, Raymond Chandler aside.
Yes, I am aware that the same sterile and artificial authorship has spread to other artistic disciplines. Music. Sculpture. Painting. Clearly the academically approved writing methods of the 20th century reflect other aesthetic trends. But that becomes just another excuse and the reasons touted for it are as poor as the literature that attempts to capture it. A tautology. If the literature did not accept this reduction in the subject matter, devaluation of meaning and degradation of purpose, would the other arts have diminished on their own. Writing, as I see it, is the first of the arts. The philosophy of life that is au-courant—seeing human beings as mere cogs on the wheels, or the meat ground between—is pervasive. It is nihilism. I am not alone in rejecting that.
The great pity of the moment, beyond the needless loss of life to violence and the pain of lives lived in poor circumstance, is the waste of otherwise comfortable lives by those who should know better. And I ask myself why that should be? Why do so many people today spend the precious time of their short-term existence looking at the screen of a hand-held device filled only with the intelligence of others willing to do the same? Is it because their parents spent their own hours in front of the two-dimensional gray fields of glass on their television sets instead of looking into the stars? Whatever the reason, isn’t that a passive acceptance of nihilism?
Less than one percent of the population of this benighted country has listened to a Rachmaninoff concerto—I mean, listened, not passed through the sound of it on their way up an elevator. Is it elitism to wish beauty on the lives of others? And is it unfair to judge the best hip-hop against an average Duke Ellington melody? What sense is it that’s lacking there? Common sense, certainly. It is the lack of judgment, as well as the basis to make such judgments. And how much smaller is a life that has never heard A Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini? Measure that, if you can. Because you can’t. It is simply a dead loss.
And the greater part of that loss is time. Mistakes can be repaired. Judgment can be reformed. But time spent will never be regained. A glimpse of paradise known in a few moments of music, or poetry, or a novel will not be theirs. Instead, they have won or lost a petty game that will not be remembered by the very dawn that they will miss because they slept in the empty exhaustion of a wasted effort. And repeat.
I am seventy this year. I feel like I have lived several life times, and I have, if memory serves. I have read the novels to prove it and even written a few. And I hope there’s still more. I have more to do.