Recently I listened to mega-successful author Paulo Coelho on the podcast On Being. I recommend the podcast when you need calming voices discussing big questions. The interview made me think about how I write and what I might improve.
Something Coelho said resonated with me. He spoke of visiting his Japanese publisher and finding a single flower in a lovely vase in a sparsely furnished room. Coelho commented about how pretty the flower was. The publisher responded that it was elegant because no distractions in the decor detracted from its essence. It came to Coelho that elegance was found in simplicity.
This gave me pause. Intricately plotted and densely written books are often not well-received. It is tempting to break down failure to catch fire in a snarky way. You might guess that, in accordance with Chris Rock’s worldview, most people are B and C students. If you don’t appeal to B and C levels of understanding, blame the audience and claim you are too smart for them. (Please don’t do this publicly or everyone will hate you.)
Because Rock is a comedian and attributes the George W. Bush presidency to under-informed voters, condescension is a very seductive idea, isn’t it? It flatters any writer who suffers disappointing book sales. If people don’t “get it,” it’s their fault. Trouble is, writers are supposed to be communicators. If your book fails, is it really because you aimed too high or because you didn’t engage your audience?
Good communicators find broad audiences. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If you’re aiming your book at an intellectual niche, fine. Do your thing, embrace the low sales and don’t complain about it. A better way may be to take those high falutin’ ideas and share them in such a way that they are more palatable and entertaining. We must write to entertain first. If you have world shattering thoughts to share, slip that shit in between the jokes and an engaging plot, please.
For a sharp example of this kind of communication, I recommend John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. He tackles complex subjects in a way that is engaging and more understandable than most news sources ever manage. You laugh and you learn. You discover something new but you enjoy the journey. A good book can do that, too, like when Fight Club teaches you how to make soap with stolen human medical waste. Fun ride, plus some solid tips on making napalm!
Usually when we speak of elegant writing, we think of poetic, dense and literary prose. Is that truly elegant, though? Or is it a slow slog that confuses and darkens more skulls than it illuminates? When we read, it shouldn’t feel like work. Work is what we’re trying to avoid when we’re reading fiction.
And now a sour note about literary snobbery that might make you uncomfortable, especially if you’re an English major of a certain vintage:
Yes, I tried reading Middlemarch and Ulysses. Are those books so well known because we their original audiences had fewer entertainment choices? Are those books still taught in university due to some strange cultural inertia unique to academia? How many people say they like that stuff but never get to the last page? Do they say they like that kind of reading because they think they’re supposed to? I’ve heard people say they love Ulysses. They might think they’re telling the truth. I don’t believe them.
And now, a timely Woody Allen joke:
Interviewer: I really enjoyed your movie.
Woody Allen: You’re mistaken.
You can like what you like. That’s okay and not my point. Like what you like and write what you write. However, if you write like James Joyce now, don’t expect it to sell.
I once worked for a publisher committed to only creating “important books.” I’m sure he impressed his guests at fancy cocktail parties in Rosedale. Sadly, fewer important books were published because he quickly went out of business, unwilling to bend to the desires of the reading public. The books that some might call trash actually finance those niche works they claim to value so much.
My measure of a good book is as follows: Does it make me forget what time it is? I love curling up with a book that keeps me turning pages, that tells a story and makes me wonder what will happen next. I love surprises. I enjoy things happening. I want the scene to come so alive that my mirror neurons fire and I am made to care about people who do not exist. I want to chuckle or even laugh loud and long. Awaken longing in my cold black heart. Make me think if you like, but not so much I realize what you’re up to. (Read Portnoy’s Complaint, read To Kill a Mockingbird again or devour any book by William Goldman for examples.)
Assuming elegance is found in simple writing, editing is the knife that prunes the bonsai tree. We cut away the extraneous so simple beauty shines through. Write first to entertain. I used to be resistant to this idea. Now I think that sometimes, yes, I done fucked up.
~ I am Robert Chazz Chute. I’m in the brain tickle business but I generally make readers happy they found me. Check out my author page at AllThatChazz.com. Buy my stuff. Laugh. Cry. Read like crazy. Occasionally projectile vomit.
Addendum: My favorite exchange with an English major.
Student: I love reading books so I’ve just started studying English.
Me: Hate it yet?