Thanks for your input, Sergeant. Now shut up.
Those words were once spoken to me by the Regimental Gunnery Officer, and they come to mind today as I consider the latest contribution to the flood of writing advice with which we are now inundated: “A reader’s advice to writers” at Salon.com.
Of course, readers do know what makes a good book, according to their lights, but they know it from the reader’s side; this doesn’t imply that they can advise on the mechanics. When I flush the toilet, I know that various things, which for reasons of good taste I shall decline to name here, are supposed to absent themselves from my bathroom. That doesn’t mean I can tell the plumber if his work is up to code.
I’m not going to pick on the fact that almost everything in that article is contained in any of the numerous books on writing found at your local bookstore, that said books proliferate like fruit flies, this topic being (as Russell Smith observes in the Globe) a sure-fire winner, and that those things are already, therefore, known to writers. Writing about writing is the oldest scam in the book. It’s the easy topic, what you do when you’re creatively bankrupt and have nothing else more interesting to write about.
Which is exactly why I’m doing it right now.
Moving on, then:
I am going to pick, without mercy, on the following remarkable statement: “You probably don’t go to movies to see the lighting and photography, and most readers don’t come to books in search of breathtaking sentences.”
Let me point out that if you don’t go to the movies to see lighting and photography, you’d better just close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack, because that’s all you’ll have left. Lighting and photography are what make movies movies; without them, you’ve got a blank screen. Lighting and photography are the entire medium of film. This is what defines the film experience and separates it from theatre.
You may not go to the movies and take note of the moody, high-contrast lighting, or reflect on the use of wide-angle lenses for dramatic effect, or the choice of camera angles, but these things nevertheless define your experience of the film. They affect the viewer in ways he may not consciously realize. Doing these things well won’t make a bad story good, but doing them badly can make a good story flat and uninteresting. It’s through lighting and photography, and in no other way, that the story is told.
Similarly, sentences, breathtaking or otherwise, are the entire medium of prose. The idea that you can carry a story without narrating it well is simply nonsense. People who subscribe to this notion should study comedy and ask themselves why some things are funny, and other things are not, and why the same joke can be very funny when Uncle Hank tells it but fails utterly coming from the mouth of cousin Ernest.
A good joke badly told is never funny.
It really is that simple.