On »Good» Writing
What does it mean to be a good writer?
I’ve just finished reading I Wear the Black Hat: Coping with Villains (Real or Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman, a writer I had not read before, but about whom I had heard good things. It’s ostensibly about our complex relationship with bad guys and why we sometimes root for them. In reality, it’s a collection of largely meandering and pointless rants against celebrities the author doesn’t like. It feels like a missed opportunity and it’s not the book I was hoping it would be, although perhaps it’s not fair to blame Klosterman for my expectations.
When I read a book, I often like to peruse the reviews on Amazon to see if other people felt the same way about it I did. In this case, a number of people shared my complaints, but what stuck out to me was the way in which so many people felt the need to qualify their criticism with some variant of »but he’s a really good writer.»
Is he? I wouldn’t have thought so. He’s certainly not a bad writer. He expresses his thoughts with clarity and ease. His prose is free from grammatical errors and awkward constructions. But as I read the book, I found myself annoyed by the glossy superficiality of the writing. It was unchallenging, almost as though directed at a high school — or even younger — audience. It was readable, but ultimately unfulfilling. It lacked depth and subtlety.
This problem is not unique to Klosterman. It sounds pompous to say it, but I find myself having difficulty reading books written within the last ten years or so. They all feel the same. While the content may be interesting, thought provoking, or even unique, the style is uniformly bland and flat. It seems to be what modern readers — and modern publishers — want. It sells books.
This stylistic evolution is no doubt partly a reaction against the bad, overwrought purple prose that overly-ambitious college English majors so often fall into. Their teachers tell them, »don’t try so hard. Just write the way you talk. Writing is about communicating ideas. Big words, long sentences, and complex constructions only stand in the way. Clarity is key.»
There is some merit to this advice, but it is a mistake to assume that it is complete, or even sufficient to produce »good» writing. The Dick and Jane books express ideas simply and with unparalleled clarity, but no one (I hope) would consider those books examples of »good» writing.
It is true that writing is all about communication, but there are many things that can, and should, be communicated other than facts. Good writing must also be evocative. It must convey emotion, atmosphere, environment, and otherwise unnoticed details. Good writing should transport you to a place you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Good writing should make you feel something.
My favorite writer is French Romantic novelist, poet, and playwright Victor Hugo. Most people know him from the Broadway adaptation of Les Miserables and Disney’s jaw-dropping butchering of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (spoiler alert: the novel does not have an ending that could be described as »Disneyesque»).
I regret that I lack the ability to read Hugo in the original French, but even in translation, the power of his writing comes through. One of his lesser-known novels, called Ninety-Three and dealing with the French Revolution (the actual French Revolution, not the mini-revolution often misidentified in Les Miserables), still contains my favorite bit of prose of all time.
Early in the book, a cannon breaks free of its restraints on a ship and proceeds to careen out of control, propelled by the rolling of the ship and destroying everything it touches. It’s where we get the expression »loose cannon.» Having read that chapter, I will never think about that phrase the same way again.
I just described the facts of what happens in that chapter in one sentence, with clarity and brevity. I communicated an event, but I (deliberately) failed to communicate everything important about it. When Hugo writes about a loose cannon, you can feel the visceral fear, the complete lack of control experienced by the crew as a gigantic, unstoppable, metal monstrosity slowly but inexorably destroys their only means of support in the middle of an endless ocean. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I quote liberally from the passage here, by way of example.
A cannon that breaks its moorings suddenly becomes some strange, supernatural beast. It is a machine transformed into a monster. That short mass on wheels moves like a billiard-ball, rolls with the rolling of the ship, plunges with the pitching, goes, comes, stops, seems to meditate, starts on its course again, shoots like an arrow, from one end of the vessel to the other, whirls around, slips away, dodges, rears, bangs, crashes, kills, exterminates. It is a battering ram capriciously assaulting a wall. Add to this, the fact that the ram is of metal, the wall of wood.
There is much more, but the point is made. Hugo’s writing is great because it does more than simply tell you what happened. It creates empathy in the reader. It actually forces you to feel what he wants you to feel. There are certain lines from that chapter that are so evocative that they will stick with me for the rest of my life. Now that’s good writing.
It’s also the kind of writing no one seems to want to read anymore. People want to read the Da Vinci Code, and Twilight, and the Hunger Games. These are books that are simple, fast, and easy to read. They have clarity, but they lack depth. They are not challenging, and being challenged, at least a little, is what reading is all about.
I do not mean that books need to be »difficult» to be good. The works of P.G. Wodehouse are fantastically fun and easy to read. They are also challenging. They challenge us not with density or gravitas, but with their unceasingly creative use of language, their quick wit, and their relatable characters. It’s impossible not to empathize with Bertie Wooster and his antics, and empathy is always at least a little challenging.
The aforementioned popular bestsellers fall short, not because of content — vampire romance is no more silly now than it was when Bram Stoker wrote about it — but because of facile writing style now demanded by the reading public. They are not »good» writing, even if the things being written about are creative and engaging.
A prime example of this is Neil Gaiman. As a storyteller, I happen to love him, and I have thoroughly enjoyed all the books of his that I have read. His imagination is without equal among modern writers and his stories are truly great. He is not, however, a great writer. With the possible exception of American Gods, I find myself getting frustrated with the slick easiness of his style. He tells stories of interesting things happening to interesting characters, and they are enjoyable in the way a good fairy tale is enjoyable, but they do not affect you like a good novel should. Good novels leave an imprint of themselves on the reader. The person on page 300 of a good novel is not the same as the person on page 1. That’s what good writing does.
I began this piece by talking about Chuck Klosterman, an essayist, and some may complain that it is unfair to compare his writing to that of a novelist. The two have different functions. They can’t be expected to have the same effect on readers, because they are not trying to have the same effect. This is fair enough, so let me compare apples to apples by talking about a favorite essayist of mine, G. K. Chesterton.
Chesterton wrote hundreds, perhaps thousands, of essays, and it’s rare to find one that doesn’t move me or make me rethink a cherished opinion. His essays can make a wooden post seem like the most fascinating object in the universe. This is not a hyperbolic metaphor on my part, he actually wrote a piece entitled Wonder and the Wooden Post. He makes dust seem beautiful. His opinions on cheese are revelatory. He remarks that a train arriving at its designated station on time is the most poetic thing imaginable, and you believe him. He makes you laugh, and cry, and think all at the same time, and his prose is never trite and never unchallenging, yet never a chore to read either.
Klosterman offers his opinions with none of the wit, charm, or depth of a better writer like Chesterton. In its place, he offers a shallow stream of consciousness that is easy to read, but not rewarding enough to be worth the effort.
I can hear the comments already. »Well, if you’re so smart, how come he has written so many bestsellers and you’ve written none?» To which I can only say that I have never claimed to be a better writer than Chuck Klosterman. In fact, he does what he does far better than I ever could. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little envious of his success, but ultimately, his books are not the kind of books I want to write.
Nor am I anywhere near the lofty heights of my own literary heroes. Maybe I will come close some day, but I doubt it. It’s important to have goals, though.
My only point is that the standard to which we hold writers today has diminished from what it once was. »Good» writing used to mean something other than simple communication of facts. It used to imply art.