ReadySteadyBlog

Elizabeth A. Brown reviews Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Good Writing over at csmonitor.com. Brown says, Leonard wants the writer to be invisible: "Good writing is not about the writer (and the way he sounds or the size of her vocabulary), but about the story."


Not for me.


For me, good writing is precisely about the writer and their struggle to write what they are writing (for sure, I'm not interested in the size of anyone's vocabulary!) Otherwise it is merely a story ... and I'm not that interested in stories. Or -- better -- I am interested in stories, but my interest is second to my interest in why this particular writer thinks that this particular story is important enough for them to write and me to write. A self-consciousness about the act of writing and reading needs to be folded into the writing for the writing in front of me to become more than merely a vehicle to carry a plot. Only with that self-consciousness -- adroitly brought about and not merely some clever postmodern intervention where the writer tells you (s)he is writing -- can I be sure that the novelist hasn't simple taken the general shape of your typical literary fiction novel for granted and merely filled in the gaps. If that is the case, the novel becomes artless, empty, and I quickly lose interest in ... yet another story. No matter how accomplished, a novel that simply tells me a story also tells me that the novelist hasn't thought enough about exactly what they are doing when and as they write.


Brown says, Leonard's most important rule sums up the rest: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." With this, I mostly concur. If it sounds like novelese, run away! Indeed, this was the problem I had with Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe which I finished reading yesterday evening.


The Tartar Steppe is a very good book, but it is not "great" because it overreaches and becomes poetic at just the wrong moments and in precisely the wrong way. It succumbs to its own story and ruins the stark effect it has been striving for by piling up the adjectives and metaphors (particular in the key moment when Angustina dies). The whole book is a tremendously powerful allegory anyway and it does not need the writing to underscore the allegory. Like Henry James does in his breathtaking Beast in the Jungle, Buzzati shows clearly the absurdity of spending a life waiting for a life-changing event: life is the journey, not the destination, precisely because the destination of the absurd journey is the same for each of us.


This is a book that will linger long in the mind ... and, doubtless, it will improve there! It will become, in memory, as unalloyed and beautiful as it hopes it is on the page but, actually, on the page it often strained: sometimes too flowery, sometimes awkward and mawkish. But, goodness, much better than most of the nonsense one reads!


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