What is good writing? Is a bit of writing considered ‘good’ if it is concise, or evocative, or highly descriptive? Is it ‘good’ if we learn something from reading it, are entertained by it, escape into it? Is the whole of writing like any art, but merely a subjective extension of that old saw, “I may not know Art, but I know what I like!”?
Perhaps, but even if that is so, do we not owe it to ourselves, to our potential readers, to become ‘better’ at writing? But isn’t being a ‘better’ writer also highly subjective too?
A couple of years ago I decided that for the improvement of my writing skills I would embark on an effort to expand my literary horizons by going out of my way to read works I had been able to successfully avoided my whole life.
Henry David Thoreau said, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” The problem is, there are SO MANY ‘best’ books out there, and the list changes enormously depending on who you ask for advice. And over the last few years since making my decision I’ve asked quite a few folks. I listened to their suggestions and tried to read recommended works that were both broadly acclaimed and alien to my normal reading preferences. As a result my library has grown some with the addition of works I had never before thought to own.
All well and good, and perhaps, just perhaps, my writing has improved. But I’ve run into a real quandary. I don’t like them. Or a lot of them. You know what? You can keep Faulkner. You can keep F. Scott Fizgerald. The U.S. Grant autobiography fair to good, considering when and the conditions under which it was written, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems I found alternately sweet, sickeningly sentimental, or just slightly boring, though at times I’d find a line or a poem that I truly loved. The collection of ancient Chinese love poems I found ranged from so-so to the sublime, depending I think upon who was responsible for each translation.
More current authors too have been grist for my reading mill. Most recent has been work by Annie Proulx. Someone backed me into a corner the other day (literally), stuck a copy of “Brokeback Mountain” into my hands and would not let me out till I has promised on my saintly Mother’s grave, that I would read it. “It will change your life!” they promised, “It is truly a life changing experience to read!” How could I pass up that? And they were sort of right.
So I read “Brokeback”, and didn’t much like it. I didn’t like the story (what very little there was), I didn’t like the plot (what very very little there was), I didn’t like the characters who populated the story (none of whom I could identify with or empathize with at all in any way and none of whom ever grew or learned anything). After reading the book I got the distinct impression that I had been loaded up on the way a friend will take a bite of a fish dinner, then spitting it out declaring it terribly spoiled, but insisting at the same time that YOU must take a bite too. This smells bad, here, you smell.
When I had finished reading “Brokeback” I came to a couple of conclusions about Annie Proulx. She does not like men. She does not like men passionately, and in fact, she does not like much of anyone, period.
BUT, after reading “Brokeback” I went right out and bought two more books by her, a collection of short stories called “Heart Songs” and the novel for which she won the Pulitzer, “The Shipping News”. Why? Because of her writing.
Anne Proulx is an artist at metaphors and simile. I am in the process of reading her, or trying to, because of how carefully she chooses them and how carefully she tunes them, but that can be a negative thing too. I will explain in a minute.
But she is damn near impossible for me to read.
I am about half way through “Heart Songs”, but I do not know if I will be able to go much further. I may wind up giving both books away.
Every short story I have read so far in “Heart Songs” has been a struggle to get through, and I’ve had to force myself to read them. I really hate that.
Why? For several reasons.
The stories suck, and the people in the stories are even worse. The book so far has been one ‘tale’ after another of hopelessness and failure, the characters all without any redeeming elements whatsoever, not even hope, and each one more ignorant and baser in nature than the last and none capable of achieving anything approaching growth or self realization or becoming better in any way except through dying and they can’t even do that properly. Every one is a back country goober whose only expectation of ever having anything is to take it from others but who are so intrinsically ignorant and inept that they can’t even steal or rob successfully. Showing us the ignominy and baseness of this parade of wholly hopeless character living short brutish pointless pain filled lives in a crude and bestial manner is not a fun read. And believe me, these are the kinds of stories that after you read one you find you seriously want to take up a big stick and go find the author, or the publisher, or anyone standing near by to give them a dozen good licks while screaming “What were you thinking!” with each stroke.
Hate filled, spite filled stories. Stories written by a true misogynist. Truly I have come to think of her so.
But the very reason I bought the two books in the first place and the reason I am trying to force myself to read them, is also causing me to think I might not be able to finish them. It is her use of metaphors and similes you see. Both, when carefully crafted, selected and or honed, add such a great deal to a work, to a paragraph, to a page. I have read a number of interviews with Ms. Proulx and have listened to a few others, and I have noted two things. First, she thinks in metaphors and similes. It is evident from her personal off the cuff remarks. But that also after she writes a draft, she goes back and rewrites several times to tune and pare them down to fighting strength.
Now, her metaphors and similes have this great ring of truth to them, and when you read them they are absolutely perfect for the use in which they are employed. Which is why I bought the books, so that I may study the fineness in their selection and the sharpness of their honing. But there are just two many of them to deal with.
Now it is one thing to find oneself admiring a turn of descriptive phrase every now and then, but when Annie gets rolling sometimes there are three or four of them in some remarkably short sentences, remarkably short considering the number of turns of phrases they hold that is. And it just irritates the hell out of me.
Now look, a real zinger of a metaphor is one that you read and it has such a ring of truth to it that it seems a perfect fit. And almost all of hers are, perfect fits. Many folks read them and are informed, never really noticing that she just told them the rising and falling of the axe head glinted a sardonic metal smile against the sky. They almost never stop to think about the curved edge of the blade, smiling at them, they just SEE it.
Which makes it powerful writing.
But as a writer, trying to pay attention to how the woman has crafted her tales, I find I have to stop and study at each, to see how the words are put together. And when she packs in three or four a sentence I find myself increasingly resentful.
The thing is, if at Xmas time you visit someone and they ask you “What do you think of my Xmas tree?” you can be assured they are not asking you if you think they bought the right kind, nor are they asking you to look at the trunk, branches or needles of their tree.
They are asking you to look at all the shiny doodads they literally covered the actual tree in. For myself as a writer, I have found that Annie Proulx has taken a mesh of chicken wire and wood slats, has cobbled them together into stories that are roughly tree shaped and then blanketed the surface of them with shiny doodads. Layers and layers of them.
Enough to hide each and every strand of chicken wire.
And then she says, “Look at my tree!”
And you can still tell she really hates real trees. But she sure likes them shiny doodads.
I just hope I can wade through the mess of them.
Rant ends. Energy levels depleted. Rant ends. Resume normal activities.