I believe — though I have no empirical data to prove this — every writer / writing critic / reader eventually encounters the inexplicable-author-success story. Perhaps you know of what I speak? The best-selling novellist who cannot write. Goddammit!
Their prose is archaic yet filled with jargon. Everything is too vague despite all the details. Women exclaim, introverts prance and characters stutter through their consonants as if they’re speaking for their first time. Worse still, everyone’s racist, sexist, leftist, rightist, downist, upist and topped-to-the-brim with idealogical fervor.
A true reader — you, me and your neighbour’s cat wouldn’t touch it. We wouldn’t embrace those kinds of terrible, torrid and torturous pamphlets of pettiness, would we? I say NO to you good ma’am, no we will not.
And yet the words “New York Times Best-seller” adorne the crisp card holding those printed vowels together.
“Why?” you cry to the ceiling at Big W. “Why have the masses failed us so?”
Today it’s Stephen King’s turn. Apparently, and to my surprise, he can’t write very well. He uses the word “mazelike” and also “steep”. He also utters this phrase in Mr. Mercedes:
“When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting”
Michael Conniff argues that the descriptors used in this passage are too vague. Too simplistic. What kind of auditorium? Red, pink, blue? 19 doors? How steep? 16 degrees? 17?
He posits (let’s fancy it up on this blog) that Stephen King isn’t a good writer because he doesn’t respect words. And words are the basis of writing. As such, Mr. King has clearly violated the nobellious (go with me here) writerius decree or some such and should hand in his literary card.
He clearly shouldn’t have assembled (and published!) a book about the craft.
Firstly, I’ve read On Writing — right to the end, and the advice on how to put nouns and verbs one after each other recently. I can’t recall where he’s anti-words. There’s a section where he shows how an author can be effective with simple, or literary phrases. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to how your love of vocabulary shouldn’t overtake the story element of a novel. How sounding smart and communicating well are two different things.
Let’s put all of my opinions on the luminous-bench of public judgement: I found Steven King’s handling of our current erudite legacy very even-handed. He advocated that anything goes, that you should speak from your truth, and use any literary tool as is your won’t AS LONG AS it doesn’t get in the way of the story. (A big but, if there ever was one.)
Clearly, I’m sympathetic to Steven. Friends even.
Secondly though, I support Michael’s frustration with those he deems are not worthy of their financial success. I too have a cadre (a whole cadre!) of authors that have achieved a measure of success I am uncomfortable with. Woeful, wonky, wretched yarns they spew. Yarns that have beguiled the reading public all the while reaping their creators nothing less than wads of yuan.
Alone (yet in unison with Michael) I stand in front of the ‘great’ legacy of printed documents and fend off the uninvited. Who do they think they are? Popular support does not a classic make.
Obviously, I’m in solidarity with Michael’s hypothesis. Chummy even.
As someone who has penned two tomes (a fictional biography! a fantasy!) that exist in relative obscurity I must concede that, perhaps, it is my pride showing. A dash of green flicking beneath the collar. It took me a while, but I got there.
See, no matter what technical flaws I believe those books (and writers) have, they had something I didn’t. An ability to connect. An ability to connect with an audience I did not. (And perhaps do not at the moment.)
And, in finality, when you think about it — isn’t that what a writer does? Communicate? John talks. Kazuki runs. Smith gambols. Do I need to know how fast? How quick? How well? Surely all I need to know is what’s happening to John, Kazuki and Smith.
Do all these tools in my toolbox even matter if my truth on the page fails to reverberate with the reader? Isn’t everything else dressing? Do people really pick up a novel to find out the width, colour, height and style of a man’s chin? Am I paying $3 or $5 or $19.95 to discover new English words?
Or is it because I want to know why the slovenly man, with gun poised, decides to ramble about the CIA into a reporter’s camera?
Or, like all flawed thinkers, am I wrong? Is the story supreme, or only another topping to be served on a lexicon of lifting lights?