What's Good Reading: A Discussion
I’ve been having a similar argument with another friend about J.K. Rowling; but this time it is me who defends Rowling and the friend who thinks of her as a hack.
What began as a continuation of the same argument we’ve been having for seemingly a decade stretched into some related tangents that are pertinent to this blog, so I’ve included it here.
(I should warn you, this will be a long post by my standards. If you were thinking about getting a glass of lemonade or relieving yourself, you may want to do it before you begin reading.)
It began with an e-mail the friend sent me that quoted Roy Peter Clark:
“I conclude with a disclaimer: The wealthiest writer in the world is J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. She loves adverbs, especially when describing speech. On two pages of her first book, I found these attributions:
said Hermione timidly
said Hermione faintly
he said simply
said Hagrid grumpily
said Hagrid irritably
If you want to make more than the Queen of England, maybe you should use more adverbs. If your aspirations, like mine, are more modest, use them sparingly.”
or put another way: “Rowling is a hack.”
Normally I don’t bother responding to people who are commenting on books they haven’t even read. But I thought you might appreciate this Norman Mailer quote. (For context, he was describing his own The Naked and The Dead.)
“Overcertified adjectives are the mark of most best-seller writing.”
My opinion on Rowling remains unchanged. She has a knack for characterization, though not language. Her early books are kid stuff, perhaps above-average kid stuff, but nothing special. Somewhere around the third book, the series becomes genuinely good.
In later books, her storytelling becomes bloated but she maintains a knack for characterization and longitudinal plotting. Is she Shakespeare? No. She isn’t Margaret Atwood either, but she is not a hack.
James Patterson is a hack. Mary Higgins Clark is hack. Rowling is a decent storyteller who has had an unjustifiable amount of success. (But, to be fair, no one can justify having as much success as J.K. Rowling.)
I do not doubt the ability of Rowling’s storytelling.
I’d advise her to go make movies. Oh, wait ...
So authors can’t be storytellers? Rudyard Kipling would disagree.
Everybody is a story teller. Go have lunch at Bumps. A novelist or poet do something more.
Hemingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck tell stories, yes, but as stylists they do not need magic or creatures to move us. It’s like music.
An author can absolutely be “just a storyteller.” Mark Twain often stressed that he was just a storyteller. (Those looking for a moral will be shot, remember?) Granted, he was being humble; but not every author needs to be a Hemingway or a Steinbeck.
There is a vast ocean between Thomas Hardy and Patterson. Not every author that falls between is a hack.
And Shakespeare wrote science fiction, also. (Both “The Tempest” and “MacBeth” depend upon supernatural elements.) The genre, as a whole, should not be dismissed.
You’ve chosen to qualify Macbeth as science fiction in an attempt at a defense for J.K. Rowling?
I think that should be repeated.
You’ve said Hamlet was science fiction because of the appearance of a ghost.
No, not every author is a hack in between. And yes, there are some storytellers, like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, possibly Kurt Vonnegut, who are not just pure stylists, but have written great stories, but now I disagree with that as I’m typing.
Those men were stylists. Vonnegut rarely used adverbs and never used trite adverbs.
No, I classified MacBeth as science fiction to defend science fiction. You seemed to be dismissing the entire genre and I was replying to that.
And if you want to talk about bloated, British prose – Dickens. Excessive adjectives and adverbs are a turn off but we forgive them for authors we like.
Sometimes, I suspect you don’t have your own tastes when it comes to writers. You simply wait for someone with a doctorate to tell you it’s good. Name a non-classic author you enjoy.
Dickens is excessive in those categories. Agreed. And he is known more for his characters, stories, social justice, etc.
But, as you’ve said many times before, Dickens already established his place. We needn’t debate him anymore.
I have read Dan Brown, all of Thomas Harris’ novels, Chuck Palahniuk (I looked up that spelling), much of Christopher Moore, and many, many others that I cannot recall at the moment. Including novels about Warcraft, Spellfire, Dungeons and Dragons and years of comic books. Years.
I’m sure there many parts of these books I’ve enjoyed, at times. But while Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter is fascinating, those books teach us nothing about how to be writers, and mostly fall back on cliche gadgets of drama, suspense — and we turn the page because it excites us in some way, we are moved toward the end. I enjoy a good thrill as much as anyone, but like to save those moments for movies and media that does it much better.
Writing is a completely different animal.
Let me say, I enjoy writing, its techniques, its voice, its poetry, its phonology, its music, its play on words, its mechanics, far more than most people do or even should.
But to encourage people to read books just for pleasure, or thrills, like Tricia, I think, does not unlock their potential.
I totally disagree with your comment about people with doctorates. Most of what they write about exceeds both of our thinking, much of the time. It may interest me but does not govern my opinions.
As a former jock obsessed with all things sport, chronic video game player and someone who is heavily engaged in the news, gossip, politics — let me state this unequivocally for anyone who thinks that I enjoy some sort of mental masturbation:
Books, stories, plays, poetry engage us in a way that enriches our lives and helps us figure things out in our own way. If we want to watch Harry Potter, we should have already watched Lord of the Rings, and we are watching Twilight now. All the same. Marketing departments have figured out how to make us want to read the same things and enjoy them. It’s utter rubbish. And if that makes me a snob, fine sir, then let it be so!
I think you and I may be closer to agreeing than we realize.
Things on which we can agree:
1. There are different tiers of author.
2. The best authors should be experienced, appreciated and enjoyed.
3. The most popular authors are not necessarily the most popular. (In fact, popularity may indicate that they sacrificed some of their writing for the sake of popularity.)
4. We do not always read the best authors.
5. Lower quality books (whether they be Spellfire novels, Twilight or Harry Potter) can also be enjoyable, but they lack the edifying qualities of the best authors’ works.
6. While there are some general rules to writing, what makes a writer incredible is ultimately subjective and can only be reached by consensus (whether that be a consensus of two or 2,000,000.)
Things on which I suspect we disagree:
1. I think that books of medium quality are still worthwhile. They can have worthwhile features—a memorable character, an original plot or narrative device—that justify reading them. (This is just a restatement of my previous argument that an author can be something besides brilliant or a hack.)
2. I think that not every book needs to unlock the full potential of writing, just like every song does not need to push its genre forward. Yes, I enjoy books that make me look at writing in a different way—(I recently wrote about an Italo Calvino book that did that)—but a book is not worthless if it doesn’t.
3. I read to learn the potential of writing. But I also to read to meet new characters, learn facts and—gasp!—be entertained. There is a happy medium between your and Tricia’s approaches.
Some final bits of minutiae: The “doctorate” shot I took was a low blow. Consider it rescinded.
I didn’t like The Lord of the Rings books. I think Tolkien created a thorough world, but his obsessions with Elvish languages and genealogies distracted from the story. Also, he tacked on about 200 pages of unnecessary epilogue to The Return of the King. He would have benefitted from more focus on storytelling.
I don’t dwell in mediocrity. The last four books I read are Their Eyes Were Watching God, Outliers, The Tao of Pooh and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I’ll defend the quality of those two novels to anyone. Outliers and The Tao of Pooh are nonfiction on topics in which I am interested. Just because I’ll defend the merit of moderate books does not make me a glutton—someone who will read anything regardless of quality.
I suspect I’m just slightly less judgmental than you when it comes to reading (which is, I realize, a judgmental thing to say).
The friend got the closing words:
I agree to part or much of what you’ve said. Except for this sentence: There is a happy medium between your and Tricia’s approaches.
That is the type of argument that gives us free passes, like “Such is life,” or “To each his own.” We don’t feel as though Jeffrey Dahmer’s lifestyle fell into those categories.
The problem is most people feel “good” books, plays, poems are unapproachable, boring, etc. and so they dismiss them. Sounding very judgmental, as if I know what’s best for people, I’ve found very few people who upon reading a poignant poem by Emily Dickinson do not feel it very deeply. If people can turn to Deepak Chopra for answers they surely can turn to Euripides. It isn’t he who fails the masses, it’s his marketing department.
The carpenter has more satisfaction after he has labored, choosing the wood, sketching the plans, and then saws and chisels and hews and nails, before presenting his cabinets with finished paints and layer of shellac — then he does preparing the shim. Luckily, spending a little bit of time reading each day is much less labor intensive.
P.S. No disrespect is meant toward Tricia from this post. I got nothing but love for her. I just disagree with some of her reading tastes.