Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Books, words, authors, and all that jazz

There have always been poorly-written books. The penny dreadfuls, the sappy romances, the Westerns of a century ago, were the staple of the average readers. They sold in the thousands and rarely made their authors rich.  Most have vanished without a trace-- all the better--but they have left a legacy of something we could call the $20-dreadful, the truly awful books that in turn become truly awful movies that somehow make bad authors into respectable writers, while earning them millions.

Since you ask, here’s what I think is wrong: We’ve created a population of bad readers willing to accept awful plotting, dismal grammar and two-dimensional characters. Our schools have brought forth people who have never really been taught to read properly, i.e. to appreciate that a good book is not necessarily an adventure without bruises or scrapes. It will take more effort to get through War and Peace than it will to read The Da Vinci Code but in the end Leo Tolstoy is more satisfying than Dan Brown.

What increasingly bothers me is that trivial writers are being feted as if they were good ones, and merely good ones are being treated as if they’re extraordinary. I recently read a book by Dennis Lehane, an author whom I generally like and whose career has included best-sellers and motion pictures, and it was disturbingly obvious that, in spite of the praise amassed for his latest opus, he was coasting on past glory. The lead character was not so much poorly drawn as without substance. The story was at best uninteresting and without much of a plot, and though Lehane prides himself on his historical accuracy, in this book it was lacking. Or perhaps not so much lacking as undeveloped…

Even one of my favorite writers, James Lee Burke, can err on the side of the unreadable. Consider this sentence: “Twenty four hours later, at sunset, the sky turned to turquoise; then the strips of black cloud along the horizon were backlit with red brilliance that was like the glow of a forge, as though the cooling of the day were about to set into abeyance so the sun’s heat could prevail through the night into the following dawn.” I think what this 59-word epiphany means is, “The sun was setting and it was still hot.” Burke is a man with an uncommon liking for stringing words together in unending streams. He likes overwrought images, confusing palettes of bright colors, and pages of introverted meanderings. Sometimes it works, most times it does not.

Maybe I’m being unkind. Certainly I believe in writing as universal therapy. Whether as a writer or a reader, words take us from the dismal to the godly and back. But poorly arranged, thoughtlessly pasted together, they can also confuse, frustrate, anger and annoy. Sometimes I even gnash my teeth.

Me, I have a great respect for words. I think they’re one of mankind’s best inventions, allowing us to communicate the felt and the unseen and oput meanings to emotions that otherwise would remain undisclosed.  I suppose this is why I get exasperated when they’re used shoddily.



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