Monday, August 17, 2009


Most succinct movie review of the month from Slate:

The Time Traveler's Wife
I wish I could travel back to a time when I hadn't seen this movie.

To read or not to read?

Came across an interesting discussion on Tor. com Apparently science fiction writers Orson Scott Card and John C. Wright have said some pretty negative things about homosexuality. Some readers wrote that they will no longer read anything by these two men while others say that personal opinions shouldn't stop you from enjoying a writer's fiction.

How about you? Should a writer's private beliefs matter to readers?


Storytellers and wordsmiths

Patti Abbott posted a thoughtful piece on different kinds of writers--those who tell stories and don't generally concern themselves with careful choices of words etc. and those to whom each word is a matter of serious concern.

I started to post a response but then realized that what I was in the process of saying didn't make sense (that's never stopped me before of course).

After a day of thinking about the distinction Patti makes I'd say that I'd split the difference. To me if you're writing a story then the story is the utmost concern. But I do come across stories and novels so badly written I have to give them up. But I think there are storytellers who are also excellent stylists. Don Westlake was certainly an example. He was a master of story and a master of language as well. I've also said that nobody in crime fiction writes better sentences than Lawrence Block. He has many imitators, none successful. Ray Bradbury was quoted once as saying that he'd take apart a Theodore Sturgeon story just to see how anybody could write with such energy and grace. I know what he means. Thirty years ago I went to school on a Larry Block novel. I could see how the plot was put together; how he stage managed the scenes and so on. But what I couldn't get at all was how he concocted those sentences. Block writes with a clarity I find in nobody else. But then there are the rhythms of the phrases and the richness of the psychology and the ongoing urgency of the story. I would say that Westlake and Block are both storytellers and wordsmiths.

By coincidence I reviewed Megan Abbot's Bury Me Deep this weekend. Now here is a perfect marriage of story and style. I consider it genuine literature, so much so that when I see some of the kudos some writers get I wonder if the reviewer has ever read Megan Abbott. The imagery, the cadences of the language, the almost brazen use of backstory in the age of speed demon novels--this book was written with almost painful precision. Now I know the Edgar committee is hanging on my every word so let me say i here--I can't imagine there'll be a better novel published this year.

On the other hand, I find a lot of wordsmiths bores and boors. I guess I'm too old to appreciate stories that aren't stories. I don't mean that stories have to follow the old pulp patterns. But I see enough literary magazines to know that some awfully good writers of words are awfully bad tellers of tales. Rather than letting language free them, it seems to trap them so that the words become self-conscious. Every other sentence the writer expects a round of applause. That's the feeling I get anyway. To be fair, let me say that last week I read a collection of literary stories by undergraduates and was stunned and moved (and envious) by just about every one of them. With young men and women like this coming up American literature has nothing to fear.

So to conclude I guess what I'm saying is that I'm not sure storyteller and wordsmith are so equally divisible. Questions?


pattinase (abbott) said...

I know in my case, I am not a natural story teller. I never tell a story at a party, for instance. No one has ever been held rapt over the words coming out of my mouth.
I love the days when I can just edit. It's getting the actual story down on paper first that troubles me. And how I admire those who come from a family where story telling was a tradition. My family talked politics-what kind of story is that?

Dory said...

What a wonderful collage of goodies you've presented.

First: I'll take your word for it re: The Time Traveler's Spouse.

Second: RE: should one allow a writer's personal opinions color my choice whether to read them or not.

Maybe this isn't the best answer but it's all I can give:

When Rock Hudson was a drop-dead hunk and women were falling all over him, he never turned my 'crank'.

I used to adore Tom Cruise, but after some of his questionable antics I'm no longer a fan. And it's NOT because I don't want to be.

For some unknown reason I can't separate his off-screen life from that on the screen.

Maybe it's b/c there's something in their chemistry that I pick up that melds their private life with their public.

Don't know. And I'm sincere if someone can give me an answer.

Now to my neighborhood. Wordsmithing vs Story telling.

As a developmental / substantive ed, I run into those who are one or the other. Not too often, both.

When I come across the latter, I feel obligated and without restraint to get down on my hands and old battered knees to kiss their feet. ;)
That and protect them with my life.

Love your 'stuff' You made my day.

Matt said...

Regarding the love affair with words, I've never found a difference between Anne Proulx and Harry Stephen Keeler, except that Keeler could actually tell a halfway decent yarn.

Charlieopera said...

There are people who won’t listen to Wagner because of his publicly stated anti Semitic writings and commentary, but I can’t imagine not listen to Wagner when the mood strikes. Seeing someone act like a putz probably affects me more (what Dory alluded to with Cruise), but the truth is sometimes individual shtick I find phony may well entice me to read a given author. If I think or know they're phony SOBs, I might take a look-see and read them to see if there’s any gravitas behind the bull. And if I like what I read, I will read more. That doesn’t usually happen but it has.

What will steer me away from writers I’ve never read before are gratuitous blurbs I recognize. Then I’ll be sure to browse through the book and read at least a few pages before making the purchase. But my wife now has me on a tight 12-step program regarding book purchasing and there will be less new authors I read because of it. The stimulus cost me one job and my book store purchases. Rumors about more layoffs in September have knocked me from amazon to Alibris (orders over $50 get you no shipping fees). If I lose my 2nd job, I’ll be reading the Bible over and over to try and find the reason why I ever fucking went legit.

Speaking of Alibris, I’m down to my last purchase from two months ago (a book of short stories Ed touted here by Stephen Crane)—great stuff.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, I agree with you about Westlake and Block. Westlake's books were pitch perfect whether he was writing capers or very hardboiled, and Block's writing has a magical flow to it. Another very strong writer who was a great storyteller was Michael Crichton, and he might've been one of the best storytellers of the last 50 years. The best pure writer I've read in mystery/crime fiction has to be Rex Stout. When I reread his Nero Wolfe books I marvel at his writing. He also wrote a classic noir novel, How Like a God, that is about as far removed from Nero Wolfe as you can get. Great writer.

Like you poor writing will turn me off quickly to a book, but the storytelling is still the most important part of a book. A beautifully written book with an unsatisfying story will leave me cold.

Charlieopera said...

Dave speaks, of course, of the story written by his new england cheaterfaces a couple of years ago ... when they capped off an 18-0 season with a big fat 1 ... 'twas the one (18-1) that ruined that story for him (but what a great story it turned out to be).

Go Bills!

Gonzalo B said...

Shunning an author because of his ideas or lifestyle is, of course, a reader's prerogative. In my case, I don't really care for what the writer espouses in his personal life (unless he happens to be a deep thinker and his insights are particularly interesting). It's very likely that part of the author's worldview will spill onto his fiction but so long as it's not heavy-handed propaganda or overtly preachy, I can tolerate it. Holding unpopular or even reprehensible views does not necessarily affect a person's talent. Witness the case of former Stalinists Camus, Sartre or Neruda, or fascist sympathizers like Drieu, Brasillach or even George Sylvester Viereck.

Todd Mason said...

I haven't yet read Audrey N.'s novel of TIME TRAVELERS'S WIFE, but like what little I have read of her work, and am a stone fan of Rachel McAdams (have found even her big dumb films unusually watchable, aside from her presence...I think she's been choosing good scripts so far), so hope my response to the film is better than the SLATE reviewer's, since I might see it in a theater.

I have more of a problem with the extra-artistic nonsense around an artist, favorite example in this wise is Miles Davis, the biggest ass in the history of jazz (which has had some giant burros), who is (Still!) often treated as a demigod, a status he was always ready to exploit during his life when not busy punching around Cicely Tyson and other female companions, while trying to ruin the careers of various other artists (he failed, at least in the cases of John Coltrane and particularly Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor). That his later performance was often, not always, also bad might well be a result of his spiritual constipation, but I can still enjoy his good work...just don't trust anyone burbling about what a Higher Beging, epitome of Cool, etc., that he was. I don't know Wright, but Orson Scott Card has always struck me a pretty stunted and clumsy artist, full of ill-considered or unconsidered drives and tics, so his braying ignorance over the last decade or so hasn't surprised me.

Patti--Politics is ALL narrative, entirely too often! And of course, way too often, fiction of the basest sort.

Todd Mason said...

Hmm. A closer look at McAdams's cv does show some Questionable choices, even if the balance is still pretty good. THE HOT CHICK is a pretty poor first US film, but it was her first US film (I think, glancing over them).

Graham Powell said...

As far as wordsmiths go, you mention "clarity" and "precision", which to me are the most important traits. Say exactly what you're trying to say and no more. Put an action or emotion into words but know when you're overdoing it.

Martin Edwards said...

I am in the camp that believes that an author's opinions and his or her work are very different matters. I don't even necesarily agree with the opinions of some of my closest friends who are writers (nor do they agree with me) but it doesn't stop us enjoying each other's writing.

Brendan DuBois said...

Ed, so true about Westlake and Block... their prose is so fine and deceptively simple... and for me, trying to break apart what they did and how they did it is like trying to learn how to cook a three-star Michelin meal by listing all the ingredients... there's that extra something there that's missing.

As to writers and their personal lives... one weakness I have is H.P. Lovecraft; something about those old pulpy New England horror tales appeals to me... but Howard's views on certain peoples is certainly repugnant...

Todd Mason said...

Brendan--HPL wised up by the end of his short life. Wish I could say the same of Robert Howard.

Max Allan Collins said...

I'm, as is often the case, with Ed on this -- it's not an either or, as to storytelling and "wordsmithing." I care very much about the words I choose, which is a big part of good storytelling. I do keep in mind advice Don Westlake gave me early on, which was to strive for invisible writing. Writing that calls too much attention to itself is like filmmaking that is too heavy on the camerawork, art direction or scenery. Any movie that has you coming out of the theater raving about the cinematography (or acting or name-your-element), and not the story told, is a failure.

This is why so many of Chandler's imitators -- including at times Ross Mac -- don't do it for me. They are so self-conscious in their wordsmithing that start to frown and get pulled out of the tale. I do not trust writers who would rather impress than entertain.