Some of the best writing advice comes not from textbooks or journal articles but book reviews. Reviewers typically don’t give advice on writing, but instead identify and explain why the efforts of other writers have, in their opinion, worked or haven’t. Reviewers sometimes state their opinions straight out, but more often than not you will find their wisdom woven into their broader insights and comments. For example, about Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, reviewer Daniel Torday, in a recent edition of “The New Times Book Review,” quotes E.M. Forster to distinguish the difference between the novelist and the historian:
The historian deals with actions and with the characters of men only so far as he can deduce them from their actions. It is the function of the novelist to reveal the hidden life at its source: to tell us more about Queen Victoria than could be known, and thus produce a character who is not the Queen Victoria of history.
That’s a great description of the burden/responsibility that a novelist carries, to dig deep in order to create and describe a character who lives well beyond normal surface observations and public behaviors. It’s nice to be reminded of that. Half the fun of reading the Time’s book review section is to find these little gems of advice and restatements.
Within the compliments and criticisms of a book review, can lurk the wisdom of the ages. The sometimes weighty observations from those on the outside looking in can be very helpful to those of us who toil on the inside and occasionally look out through foggy windows.
Instructors give how-to directions while reviewers tend to focus on the efforts behind the writing process to explain a writer’s work. Even if they are wrong, they can still be helpful. The reviewer’s efforts should invite contemplation of the writing process and motivate writers to experiment with their own work—to draft a better narrative or create dialogue that fully inflates an otherwise partially expanded character.
The advice here is to not limit your reading of reviews to learn about what other writers are doing, but how they’re doing it, and extract insights on how to improve your own narrative or dialogue or characterizations. This sometimes requires that you read “between the lines” and use your analytical skills to extract the wisdom from a review.
Easy enough. The problem is that as a writer you frequently feel guilty about taking time off from your own efforts to read about the writing of others. You may be hung up on some detail, stuck on a plot point or effort to create a credible transition, or mired in one of an infinite number of road hazards a writer encounters along the way. That is the best time to take a break, downshift, explore a detour or take a side road, or pull into a rest stop and watch the traffic go by. Let your engine cool and yourself relax. The sights, of course, are the different approaches and perspectives obtained from observing other writers. I cannot tell you how many times I have suffered through a problem only to later discover that had I taken a breather and looked around—read some stuff by other writers—I would have avoided a great deal of pain and angst.
Unfortunately, pain and angst are part and parcel of a writer’s life. Sometimes it seems you’re stuck at some intersection and no matter which way you turn there you are. The problem is that when you take a little R & R and sit down to read, you don’t really read. You’re lucky if you skim, and were someone to spring one of those recall quizzes at you, you likely would flunk. How many times have you read an article and by the time you reached the end realized you had consumed words but acquired no insight or wisdom the writer may have had to offer because your mind was mostly someplace else?
Reviewers can help. They get paid to read and explain. They are fascinated by the opportunity to try and figure out what a writer was up to and assess the qualities and weaknesses of his or her efforts. You can learn to analyze your own efforts by reading the analyses of others. They can assist in removing the emotionality and inject objectivity that every writer needs to apply to their own self-observations and assessments.
However, like writers, not all reviewers are created equal. When I wade into “The New York Review of Books,” I often feel I’ve crossed into some sort of Never-Never Land where the books take back seat to the intellectual pontifications of the reviewers.
You want to read a book review that delivers an overview of a book’s content, of course, but hopefully it also offers something you can learn from the reviewer’s insights and opinions about another writer’s efforts. To a writer, that’s the equivalent of gossiping across the back fence.
I sometimes wonder why so many writers clamor to get their book reviewed because I fear book reviews can be used to avoid buying and reading the actual book, but take credit for doing so. On the other hand, an astute analysis of a book by a capable reviewer will likely enhance book sales—like a movie reviewer’s description of the action makes you want to go to the theater and find out the ending. Thus, a good book reviewer can also serve as a literary mentor—steering us towards good investments and away from wasting our time.
But that depends on the commitment—and honesty—of the reviewer. It can be a waste of time to read the work of a reviewer who is more intent more on displaying his or her own literary style rather than providing insights into the works of others. A good reviewer will explain, in detail, the whys behind his or her opinions. The less-than-honest ones use the work of another to launch their own pet theories or self-serving horn blowing. I ran across one of those aggravations recently and use it as an example of what to watch out for when you invest your precious time in the book review section.
I always considered Damon Runyon a master of characterization. From more than two dozen stories, his characters found their way onto the silver screen. Today, many of his characters and some of his techniques from the 1920s and 1930s come across a bit stereotypical—products of the Depression era romanticism—but Runyon’s style of presentation remains powerful and a writer who reads and analyzes him can take away some important lessons that have contemporary application. A tweak here, a modification there, and you give it new life.
Then I stumbled across a 2009 piece by Alan Gopnik on Runyon in “The New Yorker,” and quickly realized I had found someone more interested in grinding axes rather than helping us hone our own literary points. Gopnik writes, after reading a series of Damon Runyon stories, of “being startled by the lack of characterization.” Runyon didn’t “really study gangsters,” writes Gopnik, “he just makes up a cookie-shape called Gangster and bakes extras as needed.” All the life, he concludes, is in the language. Gee, and here I am, operating under the impression that that is precisely where a story resides—in its language—and that the best characterizations arise from words woven into the narrative and dialogue of story.
Runyon’s characters became memorable to the readers of the day and were brilliantly transferred from ink to the silver screen in such black and white gems as “Lady for a Day,” “Little Miss Marker,” and “Guys & Dolls (Broadway first).” Though products of a different era, the foundational literary qualities they contain still resonate. The qualities of the “present” of anything are traceable from the qualities of their historical foundations. That we slide into a low-slung sports car to take the freeway to the supermarket doesn’t make taking the original Model T on rutted roads to a country general store less important or meaningless. It takes a past to pave a course to the future. It’s that continuum that pauses to make our present. Prior wisdom is the key to the experience and knowledge upon which we build the future. The goal always is to make the next effort better than the one just completed. It’s myopic to discharge the past as having no value. Frequently the newest ideas come from applying new perspectives to old ideas.
The further I waded into Gopnik’s article, however, I realized it was he who failed to glean insights of value from Runyon’s work by not investing the effort to harvest and understand the lessons contained. Perhaps he prefers a style of characterization that slaps you in the face rather than whispers in your ear, or vice versa, or one you have to decode from intellectual machinations. Perhaps he suffers from a case of sour grapes. Whatever it is, I found his article an example of sophistic effort to fill editorial space—a dressed-up hack job concocted to create some “new” analytical piece to quench a magazine’s thirst for “fresh” content.
Perhaps I’m too harsh. Gopnik is no slouch, but he appeared to follow an unfortunate emerging technique of finding fault with the efforts of predecessors in order to elevate his own literary stature. To find a new hook. True criticism discovers, analyzes, and explains rather than denigrates. It’s better to credit those who built the foundations on which your efforts rely rather than try to claim them as your own by dressing them in different clothes to conceal their heritage. There is nothing entirely new and trying to make out like something is, and that you’ve invented or discovered it, borders on sophism, or fraud.
After a second reading of his article, I decided Gopnik had stated conclusions rather than presenting a thoughtful analysis supported by describable and definable explanations. I always get suspicious when I read one writer slam another less as an act of criticism than an apparent attempt to intellectually elevate him or herself. Gopnik has done the latter. He slaps the label “pop formalist” onto Runyon, then states that “Runyon’s appeal, though it has to be fished out like raisins from the dreary bran of his O. Henry-style plotting, came from his mastery of an American idiom.” I searched for but did not find any clear explanations or definitions or examples of those terms in the article.
By page three of his piece, Gopnik had sunk his literary harpoon into Runyon at least three times, using this passive-aggressive technique. Besides labeling Runyon as “pop formalist” to create a straw man to tear down, Gopnik first applies his label, adds a longer-description of his own design, then wanders off into a border-line stream-of-consciousness exploration of pseudo-intellectual rantings that likely would draw from any accomplished eighth grade language arts teacher the comment: “You need to stay on point, but in order to do that, you need to state a point clearly, then support it.” Here is what I mean—from a quote in which Gopnik criticizes a longish example of Runyon’s writing:
“Here are all the elements of Runyon’s voice: the perpetual present tense, the world without conditional moods, the stilted, overelaborate attempt at precision, and, above all, a way of life and social class evoked purely through vernacular.”
Is Gopnik saying these “characteristics,” or Runyonesk techniques, are bad, always bad, or merely bad when used in certain ways? He never explains, and that’s when I began to suspect Gopnik was trying to establish a sort of intellectual superiority over Runyon but didn’t want to come right out and say it and show himself to be a literary snob. Indeed there is a difference between the literary and the popular forms of writing, but why criticize someone very good as a popular writer because he is not a literary one? Runyon was not writing like a literary snob but as the consummate storyteller he was. Before writing screenplays, Runyon had already built a reputation as a sports writer, and probably could take credit for helping make baseball the all-American game. He told his stories using a style that matched his characters and their circumstances and situations and at the same time met the desires of a contemporary audience. His writing entertained!
Rather than share a wisdom achieved through careful study and an analysis of Runyon’s writings to describe, explain, and put it into perspective, Gopnik serves up comments such as: “Though Runyon is still in print, and still read, he has in recent years slipped into the nether land of ancient boozy anecdote and old photographs where newspapermen of his vintage end up.” Gopnick should be so lucky. The fact that “Runyon is still in print” indicates longevity, and longevity is an element of the ongoing relevance and credibility of a writer, and certainly not a synonym for having “slipped” into some nether land. Gopnik’s logic rivals the great Yogi Berra’s comment about a popular New York eatery: “People don’t go there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
Still, Gopnik does get around to crediting Runyon with having a “great ear” that, beyond the words, “also give us a license to listen—a license to listen to street speech and folk speech with a mind newly alive to the poetry implicit in it.” It was Runyon’s discovery, concludes Gopnik, “that the right way to get the soul of street-speakers was not to dress their language down but to dress it up.”
Mark Twain deserves some credit here, too. He taught us how dialogue, in dialect, can be an effective tool of characterization. By the end of Twain’s description of Tom Sawyer, you are ready to fork over two bits for an opportunity to slap some whitewash on Aunt Molly’s fence. Twain brought scenes to life by use of the vernacular and through the five senses. So did Runyon.
As a writer, you need to read the work of other writers analytically. What is it that the author was trying to do and did s/he achieve it? Why? How? And, most importantly, what can you glean from his or her efforts that might help in your own?
From Runyon, you can find takeaways of value. His techniques worked for his time and place and subjects, and a substantial percentage of them still do. Knowledge about and understanding of the art and craft of writing doesn’t suddenly become unusable due to the passage of time. Careful what you might toss aside or throw away because the paper it was printed on has yellowed with time. That shortsighted approach dampens creativity like water on a flame.
Runyon’s bigger-than-life characters stay with us. In her book Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger explores ways to achieve that in your own writing. Her list of topics includes:
- Defining the character
- Creating backstory
- Understanding character psychology
- Character relationships
- Adding supporting and minor characters
What constitutes good writing is pretty close to timeless. Runyon’s stuff did what Seger suggests we do. Runyon’s efforts still offer fundamental insights on that which good writing and great stories depend. Rather than condemn, one’s time would be better spent learning how to analyze, amend, and apply. Like Henry Ford’s Model T, Runyon’s words are reliable and durable.
[To obtain a deeper insight into and understanding of Runyon, hunt down Jimmy Breslin’s 1991 biography. Or check out the Brian Lamb’s interview with Breslin about the book, still accessible on C-SPAN.]