I came across a quote from Elmore Leonard today that really struck a chord with me:
“If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.”
I’m not 100% in agreement because I think there’s a time for writing that sounds like writing, that makes itself known. Fiction can engage the reader not only through the storyline and characters, but also through the writing itself. Rich, ripe, textured, complex writing that uses all the tools in the writer’s arsenal — vocabulary, structure, structure, metaphor, foreshadowing, etc. — can heighten the reader’s experience while raising the quality of work to a whole new level.
But I also believe there are times when the words need to almost disappear into the story, carrying the reader on through the experience without ever making them think, “Wow, that’s a great sentence!”
(Most readers, anyway. I’m pretty sure any writer worth his/her salt is always aware of the writing, and pretty steadily analyzing and judging it even while fully engaged in the story.)
There’s writing that calls attention to itself …
Generally speaking, genre fiction seems to call for invisible writing while literary fiction is more likely to call attention to the writing itself. This isn’t a hard and fast rule by any means, but the need for genre fiction to cover a lot of ground, to get through a complex plot and keep the reader turning pages, leaves little time for linguistic niceties. Literary fiction, however, may be traveling at a slower pace, circling the same tight little spot over and over again, or covering a vast amount of territory. It may be pushing through boundaries (or at least nudging them) in terms of the writing itself. It’s often more character-focused than plot-driven, more inwardly directed and psychological in its approach. The writer may be asking the reader to dig deep rather than speeding along.
This doesn’t mean that literary/mainstream fiction can’t be just as much of a page turner as … well, the latest Elmore Leonard novel, Raylan.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird all come to mind as books I simply couldn’t put down. But they also take a good dealer longer to get started than your average whodunnit, and the style and power of the writing itself is of paramount importance. And, in the best tradition of literary fiction, they stand alone, each one unique and, once read, nearly impossible to imagine having been written any other way. (Can you imagine anyone but the grown-up Scout telling you all about Jem and Atticus and Boo Radley? I know I can’t.)
… and writing that doesn’t.
Murder mysteries, thrillers, horror, fantasy, science fiction, westerns, and other works of popular fiction seldom strut their stuff to such a degree. But that doesn’t mean genre fiction is necessarily less well written than its fancier cousins. It takes chops to master a genre that’s been around seemingly forever, its fundamental geometry long since defined, its character arcs and plot lines nearly petrified by long-standing traditions. The writer has to deal with pre-existing constraints and conventions while telling a new story — has to write in a way that feels both familiar enough to attract fans, and fresh enough to keep them begging for more. That requires some pretty mad skills.
One of my favorite genre writers is Dorothy L. Sayers, whose beautifully crafted Lord Peter Wimsey books will never be missing from my bookcase. It’s just about impossible to not read one of these novels at a clip — and at the same time one is never lost, confused or bored. What that woman could do with a single line of dialogue is really rather extraordinary. I encourage anyone wanting to see what can be done in genre fiction (not just mysteries) to study these 11 books. From the first, and weakest, book in the series, The Body in the Bath, to the glorious final two, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, the Wimsey novels not only show a writer coming into her power and repeatedly challenging herself — but also teach a great deal about how to craft a work that’s beautifully written without ever “sounding” like it.
I suspect even Elmore Leonard is a fan.
What’s your take on this? When writing, do you like to call attention to the work itself, or make it disappear? As a reader, do you prefer to be dazzled or just get on with the story?