This past November ninth Judy and I did what we've been doing for decades now: celebrating my birthday by visiting my son Marc and his wife Stella who live just outside Seattle, and getting together with some of our writers for a meal who also live in the area. This led into a spirited discussion about writing with William (Bill) McCauley, a very gifted writer and world traveler whose fiction we'd published three times to excellent reviews—Need (the Seattle Times review said "his evocation of place is masterful and provides a level of engagement reminiscent of Hawthorne or Melville"), The Turning Over, his second novel, set in Sierra Leone, involved Western aid workers and native workers and won high praise in Library Journal,and his short story collection Adulteries, Hot Tubs, and Such Like Matters—set in Suburban America—was hailed in Booklist as "biting and insightful stories about well-to-do middle-agers, bored with their lives, who engage in empty shenanigans." Obviously my admiration for Bill is immense. And to pass those twelve hours of travel I brought along the world-famed Swedish novelist Henning Mankell's Sidetracked. So much for my introduction to Bill's Blog. Needless to say it was a novel I abhorred. —Marty Shepard
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When Marty and I were talking about books a few days ago he told me he'd recently read a Henning Mankell novel and was disappointed. He asked me if I'd read any of Mankell's books. I said I'd read only one and I came away from it feeling betrayed by the reviewer blurbs. Reading the book was akin to what I feel when I have unwisely devoured some fast-food treat like a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke. It may fill my belly, but it will not satisfy me. This is because there is nothing new in it. Everyone knows what to expect from a Big Mac and fries. In an analogous way the Mankell book filled my time and gave me no satisfaction at all. Having read the blurbs, I anticipated an enjoyable read and ended up annoyed with myself for not cutting my losses at page 25 and tossing the book into the Goodwill bin.
I make no judgement about the worth of the Mankell book. A book is worth what the reader thinks it's worth. Obviously, my opinion on Mankell's writing is out of sync with many thousands of his loyal readers. I didn't like it because it did not meet my standard for a good readable book.
We all have standards, though we don't often express them, and when we do we don't express them well. What are yours? Can you generalize your standards in a sentence? I can. I keep it simple; it is the same standard I use to evaluate art. For me the quality of a book starts and ends with the question of whether it offers me the discovery of something new (Merriam-Webster: "to obtain sight or knowledge of for the first time"). Perhaps this is another way of saying it must be interesting.
From my perspective, the topic of a book or its genre are not of first importance. The next book that captures my admiration might be a novel, or a collection of short stories, or book of poems, or an anthropological book on human origins, or a book on cosmology, or a military history, or a book on any number of other topics, in any number of genres. What I don't want is to give my time to any book that says something in a way that I've seen many times, that is didactic, that is careless or ugly in its use of language, or is populated by two-dimensional cliché expressions and characters. I want originality in material and in manner of presentation. I believe that when the writer strives for originality she necessarily discovers and offers discoveries to readers; and in not being original, the writer forecloses the possibility of discovering and offering discoveries to readers.
"Discovery" is a very general term. In that sense I mean discovery has many aspects. Often, I find one aspect of discovery in a book but not other aspects that I value. When that happens, I am nonetheless likely to finish it because the value of the one ongoing experience of discovery is enough for me to enjoy the book. For example, I recently read This Kind of War, by T. R. Fehrenbach. I heartily recommend it, though the writer's underlying politics are too conservative for me, the intellectual setting is outdated (it was written in the early 60s), it is loaded with mid-20th Century racial clichés, and the writing is often in mediocre military-history style. Nonetheless, I liked it very much and think it a worthwhile read, because it brilliantly characterizes the difficulties of fighting a war of movement (a modern war) in mountainous North Korea. This is new information for a lot of people and should be thoroughly understood by those advocating a war against North Korea. The insights (discoveries) provided by the author were original and clearly developed. The book is a tidy history of the Korean War.
Another example of a book in which readers are likely to find rich veins of discovery is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I read this year. Whereas the Fehrenbach book offered me one aspect of significant discovery (why fighting a land war in North Korea is a bad idea), Pale Fire offers many aspects of discovery. In this it exemplifies the genius of Nabokov. I've read several of his books and in none have I found any single weakness. In his books, discoveries abound, on every page from first to last. Plot? No one is more original. Humor? I experienced numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Poetic language? So subtle and lush I stopped and reread sentences and paragraphs to re-experience the thrill of the first reading. Originality? He seems never to repeat himself in any book or from book to book, and never to use any character as a template for others. His characters are as original and as alive as Shakespeare's. Dialogue? Always in character, never unfitting or unlikely, and always leading the reader into yet another discovery.
Poems and short stories are typically built around a single discovery. O. Henry made a living on this. John Updike is known for the one-line "zingers," each a revelation (discovery) for the reader, with which he ends his short stories. Ditto John Cheever. A poem without discovery for the reader is reduced to an exercise in word play.
In the most felicitous case, as the writer composes he is discovering. While I cannot say how other writers work I can say that I never end up with the words and thoughts I put down first. Never. I throw away far more pages of stuff than end up in a manuscript. It is in the act of writing that I discover what I want to say; it is in the act of developing characters that I discover who the characters are. When I follow that motif of composition – exploring by writing and making changes until I cannot find another change that makes an improvement – I continuously feel an aesthetic lift that accompanies discovery, because I am writing stuff that says more than the words alone express. The writer hopes the reader makes his or her own discoveries. The most enduring literature consistently involves the reader in this way. To the extent this happens, the writer is successful.
For many years I've believed this. It is what sustains me when I am defeated by my cliché characters or a plot line that embarrasses me and defeats every attempted change.
This brings me full circle to Mankell's book. I discovered nothing in it that wasn't on the surface of the words, which is simple word play.
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I am curious to hear from you about which popular writers you believe are incredibly overrated, and the reasons you would put forward for your dismissals of them. The media is always concerned with Best-Seller lists, and contrarian that I sometimes am, I'd like to see a listing of other unworthy Best-Sellers for another blog. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org