ReadySteadyBlog

Elizabeth A. Brown reviews Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Good Writing over at csmonitor.com. Brown says, Leonard wants the writer to be invisible: "Good writing is not about the writer (and the way he sounds or the size of her vocabulary), but about the story."


Not for me.


For me, good writing is precisely about the writer and their struggle to write what they are writing (for sure, I'm not interested in the size of anyone's vocabulary!) Otherwise it is merely a story ... and I'm not that interested in stories. Or -- better -- I am interested in stories, but my interest is second to my interest in why this particular writer thinks that this particular story is important enough for them to write and me to read. A self-consciousness about the act of writing and reading needs to be folded into the writing for the writing in front of me to become more than merely a vehicle to carry a plot. Only with that self-consciousness -- adroitly brought about and not merely some clever postmodern intervention where the writer tells you (s)he is writing -- can I be sure that the novelist hasn't simple taken the general shape of your typical literary fiction novel for granted and merely filled in the gaps. If that is the case, the novel becomes artless, empty, and I quickly lose interest in ... yet another story. No matter how accomplished, a novel that just tells me a story also tells me that the novelist hasn't thought enough about exactly what they are doing when and as they write.


Brown says, Leonard's most important rule sums up the rest: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." With this, I mostly concur. If it sounds like novelese, run away! Indeed, this was the problem I had with Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe which I finished reading yesterday evening.


Giovanni Drogo is a young army officer who is posted to Fort Bastiani, a remote and almost forgotten outpost that looks out over the desert and mountains of the steppe and onto the barren reaches of the Northern Kingdom. There is a vague possibility that acrimonious relations with the Northern Kingdom could, at any time, descend into war. There is an even vaguer chance that if war were to come it would arrive over the inhospitable steppe. Whilst younger officers, like Drogo, keep their spirits up with constant chatter about the possibility of such an attack, the older officers know better. They have spent a lifetime waiting, they've succumbed to many a false hope but, in their hearts, they know that no-one will attack, certainly not over the steppe, and that their chance to prove themselves as valiant soldiers has slowly died over the course of many years pointlessly waiting for something to happen. Drogo is astute enough to see this. As soon as he arrives at the Fort he asks to be posted somewhere else, but is persuaded to stay for a few months. Those months turn into years. The years quickly turn into a lifetime.


The Tartar Steppe is a very good book, but it is not "great" because it overreaches and becomes poetic at just the wrong moments and in absolutely the wrong way. It succumbs to its own story and ruins the stark effect it has been striving for by piling up the adjectives and metaphors (particular in the key moment when one of the officers, Angustina, dies on a nonsensical trip to the border). The whole book is a tremendously powerful allegory anyway and it does not need the writing to underscore the allegory. Like Henry James does in his breathtaking Beast in the Jungle, Buzzati shows clearly the absurdity of spending a life waiting for a life-changing event: life is the journey, not the destination, simply because the destination of the absurd journey is the same for each of us. If we wait around, biding our time, endlessly watching for some episode to validate our lives, our lives will pass, our life will have been wasted. But, then, as all life ends in death, a wasted life and a fulfilled life end up looking much the same.


This is a book that will linger long in the mind ... and, doubtless, it will improve there! It will become, in memory, as unalloyed and beautiful as it hopes it is on the page but, actually, on the page it often strained: sometimes too flowery, sometimes awkward and mawkish. But, goodness, much better than most of the nonsense one reads!


Readers Comments

  1. Completely agree with the Leonard comments. Being a storyteller and a novelist are completely different (do they teach that to MFA's?) Go down to the bar and tell your story. The worst writing is the type that awkwardly tries to force the transparency Leonard mentions.

  2. I hope it's ok for me to reproduce this at The Best of New Writing on the Web. I'll post the edition tomorrow, so please do say if you have copyright concerns. Wonderful post!

  3. I suspect that many writers feel this way, though few admit it to themselves, and fewer avow it.

    Your formulation reminded me of Washington Irving's (the single most self-conscious author ever, a pre-modern post-modern, always writing from the perspective of a character, and often placing himself at several further removes from the story itself):

    "I fancy much of what I value myself upon in writing, escapes the observation of the great mass of my readers, who are intent more upon the story than the way in which it is told. For my part, I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment, and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly, yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half-concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole,—these are among what I aim at, and upon which I felicitate myself in proportion as I think I succeed."

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