I read a lot of books, and by definition, most of them are average. The genuinely memorable books have a great story well told, but it’s a rare combo. By my reckoning a good 70% of books fit in the middle of the bell-curve – competently written and more or less a worthy diversion, but not something you’ll necessarily recommend to others or remember too long. There’s about 20% of books on the wrong edge of the bell-curve – poorly written and edited, formulaic, sloppy, etc. I’m lucky if I finish one of the books, and if I do it’s generally because some small skerrick of interest has been pricked and I’m curious how it ends. Mostly, when that happens, I’ll scan the last hundred or so pages very quickly, or skip outright to the last chapter.
Then there are the very few – 10% if I’m lucky – which I deem to be a pleasure to read. Often times, it’s the sheer quality of writing that draws me in. I’m a sucker for that. Depth and insight and a mean way of stringing words together make for a delightful reading experience. Add that to a ripsnorting story, and I’m a slave to it.
As someone who writes on the side, and who’s passionate about it, that’s the standard I’m aiming for. You want a cracking story, obviously, but what makes for that is mostly subjective. As they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. I accept that. I can only measure up to the standards I set myself in that regard, which are my own, so I’ve got that pretty well ticked off from the get-go.
It’s different when it comes to the quality of the writing. It’s harder to get right too, I reckon. Sure, you can turn in something competent without breaking into a sweat, but where’s the fun in running a five-minute mile? It’s not the point, either.
The point is to write something people want to read, and keep reading, and take pleasure – and perhaps even wonder – out of the reading experience. That comes in two parts, I reckon.
The first part is simpler, I think – to put words in a sequence and with a cadence that bewitches the reader into reading more. It sounds nice in your head and has a quality that stays in mind. I guess you’d call this style. There have been some great writing stylists. The best of them make a simple shopping list a thing of pleasure. They resonate. Their words linger. Think of Hemingway and Salter, writers like that, and many other writers just enjoyable to read. I say it’s simpler, but it’s still very hard.
Style is great, but most of us aren’t going to splash out for a well-written shopping list. What I’m talking about is human insight and understanding. I’m talking about the rare writer who exposes through their prose human nature and vulnerability. Somehow, they see with more precision than the rest of us and have an understanding of how we act and interact, the why’s and wherefores and even the hows of it. They tug the curtain aside to give us a view of things otherwise hidden to us, but which so often feel ineffably true when we come across them. They’re the writers you find yourself looking up from the page in contemplation. Something dawns on you. You feel enriched. You wonder why you never knew this before. Then you bend your head and read some more. Think of Roth and Updike, Mann or Remarque. These are writers who have lived. This is a rare gift.
Naturally, I hope to put together style with insight. Time will tell.
I started a new book last night, which is what prompted this discourse. The book is Commonwealth, by Anne Patchett. She’s an author I knew of but never read previously. I’ve only read the first chapter, but it’s a winner.
As I began to read, I felt a sense of pleasure. This lady knows how to write, I thought. With that came a subtle pang. For one of the rare occasion reading, I felt self-conscious about my own writing. I knew wasn’t this good, and I felt both sad and inspired knowing it.
I don’t know about other people, but writing is one of the few areas I don’t feel particularly competitive about. Mostly I’m content to do my own thing while others do theirs. On the occasions when I come across writers like Patchett, I feel much more humble than aggrieved. I’m glad of the opportunity to read such quality. I drink it up, and at the back of my mind, I figure I can learn something – and maybe that’s my get out clause. I’m not the finished product, I figure, I’m still learning, still improving. One day I might be as good.
What’s the quality that seduced me reading last night? It felt so real, and so rich at the same time, like a story passed down through the family, you know backwards and forwards. You know it in yourself and can see and feel it too. And though she’s not a stylist like some of the big names her prose is of the top shelf, easily read, easily absorbed, and totally engaging.
Let’s see what chapter two is like.