Why write? Why read?
I’ve been reading Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. I’ve enjoyed it, in no small part because it takes place in the Pacific North West and there are many references to Seattle. But I’ve been puzzled by sections where Guterson develops a hairy topic in scabrous detail, without adding to the plot nor the atmosphere.
For example, chapter 15 contains a description of Fujiko Imada’s intestinal distress at the Manzanar internment camp1. Chapter 21 begins with lawyer Nels Gudmunsson, who is seventy-nine and has recently been told that his prostate is enlarged and will need to be surgically removed. In his visit to the doctor,
he had been forced to reveal a truth of which he was ashamed: that he could no longer achieve an erection. He could achieve one briefly, but it would wither in his hand before he had a chance to take pleasure from it.
Nels is self-conscious in court when it is his turn to question an attractive young widow.
he did not want to appear lecherous by placing himself in close proximity to a woman of such tragic, sensual beauty.
These sections seem like exhibitions of muscle and daring, rather than an
expression of interest Guterson may have had in intestinal cramps or erectile
issues, or in these two characters who are barely developed in the
rest of the book.
It’s the kind of stunt that elicits praise from teachers and critics, much like imitating a foreign accent for a movie, or playing the most difficult piece ever written for a particular instrument.
Authors’s motivation for something they write has a bearing on the reading
experience, I think. This is probably true of the arts in general. The best work
is often produced by artists for themselves, it has long been said. But that
doesn’t say much, and it sort of begs the question.
That some work was made “for an audience of one” is no guarantee. Lots of things come into play to make art worthy or unworthy of interest.
On that, I like much of what critic Richard Brody has to say about movies and watching them. Some fragments of reviews he’s written:
Sometimes technique is so showy that it overwhelms a movie, but there’s also technique that dominates by flaunting its modesty. That’s the kind on display in “Minari,”…2
“Lady Bird” is full of exquisite dialogue. The experience of watching it for review is the experience of scribbling in the dark as fast as humanly possible, not only to be able to quote it and describe it but, above all, to be able to savor it.3
“Win It All” has a bold and fluent swing, an easygoing, riffy spontaneity that depends greatly on his actors—on their talent but, even more, on their very way of being. Swanberg has spoken of Skype conversations taking the place of auditions, of casting actors for the way that they talk with him on the computer’s casual camera, and the ones in “Win It All” flourish in the film’s organized freedom. Johnson in particular blends warmly brash humor with a detached sense of wonder at the twists of fortune and a furtive air of impending disaster. Derbez is a charismatic performer whose expansive lyrical flair is girded with wary reserve and thoughtful precision. 4
Aside from Brody’s takes, which I often find interesting, I like his writing style. Precise but free-flowing, sophisticated but not high brow. And I realize that this is a kind of writing I admire and look for. And not just the writing style, but the substance, which is often hard to separate from the style.
Writing like this is in short supply in fiction or even non-fiction books or
articles. In science and mathematics and technology, it is rare.
What is considered good writing is more in the Hemingway school of terseness, but without Hemingway’s command of narrative. Some authors go in the opposite direction and ramble on in an effort to be more “friendly.” That often falls flat.
Michael Spivak, the author of the beloved classic Calculus, is one of the best writers in math/science. Take this fragment from his graduate-level and highly specialized A Comprehensive Introduction to Differential Geometry:5
Classical terminology used these same words, and it just happens to have reversed this: a vector field is called a contravariant vector field, while a section of T*M is called a covariant vector field. And no one has had the gall or authority to reverse terminology so sanctified by years of usage. So it is very easy to remember which kind of vector field is covariant and which contravariant—it’s just the opposite of what it logically ought to be.
This is the kind of thing Spivak does so well. With lively language, having a conversation with you rather than talking down, he happens to tell you why things are they way they are, and whether that is a good thing. Nobody else gives texts such narrative thread and such sense of place.
This is what I come for in books, be they science or non-fiction or novels: the feeling that the author wants to share the good stuff.
This paragraph from the preface of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It6 says it all:
Finally, I have published practically nothing that has not profited from the criticisms (which she calls “suggestions”) of Marie Borroff, first woman full professor in English at Yale. If you think I am wasting a lady’s time in asking her to read stories about logging camps and the Forest Service as they were half a century ago, then I probably will have to tell you the kind of thing she tells me. Before I give you an example, though, perhaps I should add that she is also a poet. Of my first story (the one about logging) she said (among other things) I was concentrating so on telling a story that I didn’t take time to be a poet and express a little of the love I have of the earth as it goes by. Compare now the two long stories I wrote after she told me this with my first story, which is short, and you should get some notion of how carefully I listen to the lady from Yale.
Michael Spivak, A Comprehensive Introduction to Differential Geometry, Volume one 3rd edition, Publish or Perish, 1999 § 4, p. 113. ↩︎
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition, University of Chicago Press. ↩︎