Saturday, July 16, 2005

Good Writing

When asking for book recommendations, I often say that I only like "good writing." What a stupid phrase! I should speak more clearly. For what is good writing. To one man, it might mean good grammar and spelling; to another, it might mean that the writer knows how to wax poetic and spew out metaphorical devices. Sometimes, I say (a bit more clearly) that I am talking about writing style. At which point the listener usually points me towards ornate, flowery writers with showy prose.

But I read to get lost in a writer's world. I read to escape. I read to adventure. This is obviously true with fiction, but it's also true with non-fiction. By which I mean that a writer's world is a controlled version of our world. It's controlled in the sense that the writer keeps our mind from infinite wandering.

In our world, we can freely think about anything. You can I can be standing on the front lawn, talking about taxes, when I can suddenly wonder what's under that rock by the tree. It's safe to wonder about the rock, because if I pick it up, there will be something underneath. And whatever it is will obey the laws that govern our universe. True, I will have strayed from taxes, but that's okay in real life. Life isn't about sticking to a point. Life's only point is living, and one needed try to stay on task. For one is bound to live until one dies.

But books have a point. If they are non-fiction, their point is some subject. And that subject is the world. If the subject is George Washington, it's pretty disastrous if, in the middle of a paragraph, I start thinking about the Easter Bunny. Of course, an author can't control my environment. There's nothing he can do to stop my roommate from dressing in an Easter Bunny suit and hopping about in front of my while I am trying to read about Winter in Valley Forge. But he can take pains to control his own world. He can keep the text firmly focused on George Washington. It is this focus, in fact, that leads me to books. Real life is so un-focused and haphazard. I turn to books for meaning. In life, I'm an Atheist who believes in a random universe. But I love books because each has a god, and that god is the author. The author creates rules and all the characters and devices in the book are bound by those rules.

In fiction, I may wander with the main character to the grocery store, to school, or to the court of King Arthur. But once there, I can't idly pick up any rock I choose. I can't do so because there's nothing under than rock. The writer can't completely flesh out his world. Yet his world must feel completely fleshed out. Otherwise reading his story will be a tawdry experience. So he has to trap me in a train of thought. He has to control my mind to such an extent that I don't try to peek through certain doors and don't climb certain staircases. Also, if I could wander anyway, I would lose the thread of the story. Fiction has just as much of a point as non-fiction, though generally the "point" is the life and times of a specific character. While reading about Oliver Twist, I shouldn't be thinking about Justin Timberlake.

Which isn't to say that writers should hold my mind in a vice. The trick is to make me feel as if I have freedom to wander anywhere within their world without actually allowing me to do so. The writer should create a cage for me like the ones in today's sophisticated zoos, in which the animals feel as if they are wandering through hills and forests, while all the time they are trapped in an exhibition. Sure, they can wander from the lake to the gulley, but both lake and gulley are trapped within the same enclosure. And there's no way the animal could wander into the gift shop.

When I'm reading it is possible for me to experience a high so great, it's like the best sex in the world or the best chocolate cake or the best cup of coffee. This happens when my I control my surroundings: when I'm sitting comfortably in a quiet, well-lit room; when no one can disturb me and when the wristband of my watch won't chafe my wrist. In short, when I can focus with complete attention on the writer's words.

At this point I have done all that I can, and the rest is up to the writer. If there are no internal distractions within his book, I can submerge myself totally within its world. If it's non-fiction, I will get so caught up in the book's ideas that all other thoughts will be banished from my brain. If it's fiction, I will believe the world is real. Sometimes this belief doesn't last long, but there are those rare, wonderful moments when I fall in love with the heroine or scream when the hero falls off a cliff. Others may read for different reasons, but this is why I read. It's the only reason why I read. For these orgasmic moments of complete escape.

(So-called post-modern fiction, in which the fourth-wall is broken and the story admits that it is a story, is not an exception to the rule. Such fiction still should contain a controlled world. Perhaps the writer wants you to think about the fact that you're reading a book; perhaps he wants you to consciously compare the hero to Bill Clinton; perhaps he wants you to notice puns and other word-games in the text. But he doesn't want you to think about anything. When watching a Brecht play, you're meant to always know it's a play -- but you're not meant to think about what shoes you're going to wear tomorrow. A PoMo writer's world contains items external to his book -- but it doesn't contain ALL items external to his book)

There are many ways a writer may can stumble and distance you from his world. He can contrive a plot device so ridiculous that you know it could never really happen. He can flout logic. He can insert anachronisms in a historical novel. He can put didactic speeches in his character's mouths. He can use obvious exposition and try to pass it off as dialogue.

Imagine coming across something impossible in real life. You're walking down the street and you see a dragon. At first, you cast around for physically possible explanations: it's someone in a dragon suit, etc. But when this fails, you're forced to except on of two possibilities -- either there is magic in the world of you have gone insane. But your mind will try everything else before jumping to one of these conclusions.

When reading a book, your mind will never jump to these conclusions. Those orgasmic submersions are powerful but fragile. If you come across something impossible for in a book and your mind can't account for it within the book, your mind will do the only logical thing: it will think, "it's just a book, and clearly the writer made a mistake." At which point you're no longer submerged. You're thinking about the writer, and the writer is not part of the story (or, in the case of a PoMo story, certain aspects of the writer are not part of the story).

Some people may enjoy the story even if it contains such lapses (after all, the fight scenes are still cool, and the language is still astounding), but I can't. I read for submergence, and no one can be simultaneously submerged in a world and sitting outside it. You're in or you're out. Sure, you can be in for parts of a book and out for other parts, but if you come out too often, it's hard to keep resubmerging. It's painful to be yanked out of a submergence, just as it's painful to be yanked out of a pleasant dream. And if a clumsy writer keeps yanking you out, you're not going to trust him enough to allow yourself to be duped back in again.

One of the easiest ways a writer can burst the bubble is through bad use of language -- bad style -- or as I stupidly put it, bad writing. Something simple as a spelling mistake can rip me from the world. After all, where could a misspelling come from except from the writer, and if I'm thinking of the writer, I am not thinking about his world. As a terrible spelling, I would long to join those ranks that say, "spelling doesn't matter as long as you know what somebody means." But it does matter. It doesn't matter for some polite, academic reason. It matters because bad spelling makes you think about spelling. Whereas good spelling doesn't make you think about anything. So you are free to think about the world.

Cliches are good yankers. They make you think about the ineptitude of the writer, in which case you're not thinking about the world. The same is true with bad dialogue, mixed metaphor, poor grammar and overly-complex construction. The list could go on and on.

There are a million uses for good language. Words can be beautiful things in and of themselves. And while pedestrian writing may not hurt, skilled writing can evoke powerful, often unconscious feelings and urges. And I praise all these poetic and magical uses of worlds. But when I ask for good writing, I mean something far simpler. I mean writing that doesn't dislodge me from the world. I want to thrill to the fear of what's behind the creaking door without cringing at who's responsible for the creaking sentences.

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