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What's the Point of Writing?
My sister got me a book for Christmas. I love getting books as gifts because one of the hardest things about reading a lot is trying to find enough good books to read. So much of what is out there, even the popular stuff, is so terrible, that it feels like a big risk to pick up some random book from an author you’ve never read. The genre doesn’t matter—I’ll read anything, fiction or nonfiction, classic or contemporary, history or fantasy, biography or science fiction, even a romance or two if they find their way onto my shelf—but I’m a harsh critic, as an author and editor myself, so I tend to stick with authors I know and trust. When someone else buys for me, at least I am likely to get something I wouldn’t have tried on my own. And my sister is a voracious reader, so I know I will be getting something worthwhile, especially when she tells me it was her favorite book of the year. I picked it up with great anticipation, settling into my bed at night, and couldn’t make it through the first chapter.
My stomach was churning and my chest was tight. A sense of dread was shaking me inside out. I was having panicky flashbacks to grad school, where I studied creative writing. It was awful. It was different. It was near unreadable. But I’ve read plenty of bad books before. This one disgusted me. The reasons are complicated and personal, but they reach to the heart of everything that’s wrong with our intellectual and creative culture today. So let me take you on a quick trip inside the world of writing.
The book in question is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. It won a few awards last year, and I can see why. I did ultimately finish it, after taking a day or two to calm down. I’m not a quitter. I was able to repress some of my disdain for the stylistic choices and, happily, the book improved after the first chapter. You may notice, if you read enough novels, that the first chapter will often have a different feel or flavor than the rest of the book. The reason is simple. The first chapter is what you send to agents and publishers when trying to get them to accept (or at least read) your book, so you want to make it your absolutely most magnificent, most intelligent, most impressive writing, which often leads to overindulgence that can’t be sustained throughout the rest of the book. This particular book is the definition of overindulgent.
Filled with fancy language, long, flowery descriptions, and extended metaphors (what’s sometimes called “purple prose” in the writing world), you will read dozens of words in this single chapter that you will never hear anywhere else in your daily life. There is a contrived scenario (a massive crowd of people in a 90’s subway station pushing and shoving for a chance to stare at…a Magic Eye advertisement poster) overstuffed with deeper symbolism and a fateful chance encounter that launches the whole plot. The entire scene takes perhaps 30 seconds, but every step, every thought, every moment is packed with detail and drama and history and emotion. It’s like a caricature of what people think of when they imagine a great literary work, high-minded and intellectual and self-serious. It was impressive in a certain sense, I suppose. Obviously, a large number of people in the literary world and the reading public thought so.
I admit some of the dread that struck me was a blow at my own identity as a writer. This is what people consider good writing? If my writing is not like this, if I refuse to make it like this, what does that say about my art and my future? But that didn’t last long. I don’t write literary fiction anymore, and this book reminded me why, after having read and studied and written so much of it during school, I returned to my first loves, Sci-Fi and Fantasy. The real problem, the truly distressing part, is that the same defect that infects nearly all modern artistic endeavors, particularly the literary and “high” arts, of which this book’s opening is a particularly egregious example, but increasingly the more populars arts, television and children’s books and cartoons and superhero movies, as well. It may best be described as a shallow performanceism, an obsession with form or appearance to the exclusion of content, the overwhelming need to impress combined with the lack of anything to say, which manifests on the lower end as a flashy, CGI overproduction and on the higher end as an almost unbearable pretentiousness. All our culture has adopted the form of an instagram selfie. Pretty but fake. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
In a world that’s lost all meaning, what’s the point of writing? It’s like asking why anyone tweets. Sometimes there is a shallow political messaging or posturing, but most of it seems motivated primarily by the desire demonstrate how intelligent or witty or ideologically-committed or beautiful or adventurous or talented or special (or victimized) you are. In a twist of irony befitting the classics, it has done the opposite.
The fact that it’s all so obviously fake, so obviously a performance, has destroyed the foundations of intelligence and wit and talent and beauty. No one can care about those things anymore, because it’s impossible to tell when they are genuine. The photo filters became a shell for hiding a hideous void. The pretentiousness turn out to be a veil to prevent anyone from seeing the truth. Anyone with photoshop and a curated feed can turn themselves into a flawless imitation of a person. Anyone with an online thesaurus can churn out academic gobbledygook that’s incomprehensible to the entire population, including the author. Have you read any academic social studies lately? The point is to obscure and exclude, so you can’t tell how ugly and stupid it all is, so that over time you begin to doubt whether beauty and intelligence even exist at all.*
It takes a rare genius to make the beautiful plain and the truth obvious. But that’s the goal of good writing. To communicate. To say something in a way that is comprehensible and meaningful to another human being. Effusive sentences and exotic words can sometimes express the truth in ways that mere information cannot, but they are nothing without that underlying truth. Beautiful writing makes it easier to understand by inspiring your imagination and exciting the proper emotions and touching on hidden connections. Great writing leaps from the page to your mind. It may be challenging and difficult, as the most profound ideas often are, but the writing itself does not add to that burden. It lightens.
The less skill it takes to understand a complex idea, the more skill it took to write it. The lower the reading level required, the higher the writing level required. They treated with very different ideas, and so wrote at very different levels, but Dr. Seuss was every bit the genius as Proust. Mark Twain was at least the equal of Tolstoy.
But simple does not mean bland. Beautiful writing does not require obscure words and impenetrable syntax any more than beautiful music requires finding the most bizarre instruments. You can paint a wondrous landscape using a mix of three colors. Like music, writing is about rhythm, about varying (or repeating) your sentences to creating a certain tempo, about varying (or repeating) your words to hit certain notes. Like painting, writing is about shaping all your individual strokes—some long, some short, some bright, some dark—into a larger picture that catches your eyes in certain places and fools it in others. The whole is infinitely more complex than the parts. The beauty is in how you put them together. The beauty is that when you see it, you immediately know that it is real, and that reality moves you. When you read something beautiful, you don’t have to reach for the thesaurus, because the words resound within you, and you know that they are true.
*That’s how you get stories like this article about fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, where a young journalist with uninspired prose and absolutely nothing interesting to say, condescends to one of the most popular authors of his generation, insulting his personality and work and city and even his children in every paragraph. He admits telling Sanderson, during an interview, that his writing is terrible. Why? The only things he can point to are a few generic sentences you would find in almost any book, and he notes it is written at a 6th grade level, as though by definition the more complicated the reading level, the better the prose. I cannot stress enough how wrong this is. There are legitimate criticisms of Sanderson’s plotting and style, but this is not one of them. I’ve read several of his novels, and while I’m not a huge fan, they were competent and enjoyable books with obvious appeal. But in the absence of any genuine analysis or critique, any curiosity or interest, without the least desire or capacity to understand and explain to readers what lies behind this popular and prolific author, the journalist seems content merely to express his own unbearable pretentiousness.