What Makes The Master Writer?



Thumbing through the latest New Yorker issue (March 28, 2016) turned up a pleasant surprise: a short story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” by Ian McEwan, probably today’s most highly regarded English novelist. Predictably for me, the story proved as satisfying as cold watermelon on a hot North Carolina summer day.

Then I began to wonder: What attracts me (and scores of other readers) to McEwan’s work? His stories  and novels hinge to perhaps an excessive degree on narrative and his voice, while distinct, is not an elegant one. When dialogue does appear, it’s no great shakes, either. And his storylines seem all too familiar from one to another, almost formulaic on the surface. And almost all of his work over the last decade has to do with social issues of one sort or another.

In other words, the sort of writing some 25 year-old MFA instructor-editor would reject with the usual, “This work doesn’t meet our needs at this time, but we thank you for submitting” sort of trash.

Every writer, I think, who can be seen as a master has his/her own approach to story, characterization, style, voice, etc. With McEwan I believe it’s his characterizations. He’s able to place characters into social settings with such apparent ease. In his case, his offhand narrative style prevents polemics, his characters simply acting out bits of life in the author’s chosen social context. Too, he’s a master of the story twist that underscores these given social contexts. In this particular story a mundane friendship between two writers hinges on plagiarization as the two – one successful, the other struggling – find their successes reversed.

Every writer needs to know his/her skill with the many aspects of literary writing, but in the end, as always, it comes down to the gifts of storyline and characterization.


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The Imperfect Novel

I thought it might be time to devote a couple of posts to some of the things that make for a great read, whether you’re a writer or reader — or both. I’ve made such comments in previous posts, but they may sometimes get lost in a post reader’s rush to see whether I liked the book or not, or whether the post reader would like to try a given book on for size.

Now, don’t get me wrong here — I almost never post on a book I’ve read that shows a lack of skill in writing — or the promise of such skill. I love virtually every book I post on here; but it’s the responsibility of critique to point out those aspects of a book that seem to be lacking as well as those that take my breath away. Doing so is not to disparage, but to offer another mind, another set of eyes, to a book and its author in order to improve on what’s been done there.

It’s my contention that a perfect novel has never been written, and my bet is it never will. Okay, so what’s the use in writing one if this is true? Writers, in portraying life by way of story, despite the greatest of skill sets, can only write to an audience, and that audience will vary in its reaction to what’s been written. This may sound like something of a tautology, or saying the same thing twice, each in defense of the other, but the issue here is that the novel isn’t completely the province of the author. It’s a negotiation of sorts between writer and reader.

Example: Does the average genre reader love Faulkner? Certainly not. Faulkner’s plot is there, but not in a way that will engage readers simply desiring escape, entertainment. Do literary theory geeks find stimulation in Faulkner? You bet. Theirs is to decipher Faulkner’s elliptical references to story line happenstances and making sense of his odd characters, not (necessarily) in the overall panorama of a Faulkner novel.

I’m sure you get the point, but once again what’s important here is this: what makes a great read?

I’ll give you some grist for that mill in the next post.

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The Thing About Movies

I’m a person of habit. Some of them are good – they keep me writing every day, at more or less the same time. A structured existence allows me to do many things a spontaneous one might not. After all, we only have so many waking hours in a day, so many functional years to a life. Which is why my pre-bedtime habits are so structured. Without them – and a few medicinal additives – I have sleep problems, and with lack of sleep I’m no good the next day. So right before bedtime I take a couple of sleep-related meds and turn on the TV in my man cave, wait for the meds to do their work.


For a while now, I’ve spent that time alternating between sitcoms and news cycle shows – one inane, the other all but toxic. So I knew that  eventually, I’d return to my movie collection. You see, I have this trove of movies as old as “Charade,”  as recent as “Syriana”. In between are comedies, action flicks, bio-pics, book-to-cinema movies. You name it, I have it. So the other night I came back home to movies. I pulled out my DVD of “Good Will Hunting” and slid it into the player tray. Ahhh! My heart warmeth!

Why such a benign reaction to re-tread movies, ones I’ve seen as many as fifty times? True, it’s a communal experience when watched in the theater with others, or at home with family, but this isn’t my modus operandi. I most enjoy them when I watch them alone. Here’s my odd explanation:

With books, you have to put a lot of yourself in to the reading; you have to imagine the characters, you have to allow yourself thrall to the author’s voice, his/her created mood. All this is good stuff, but not right before bed. Movies do a lot of this work for you; you can watch them passively, let your mind wander, and then come back to them without missing as much as you might with a book. Turn the sound down, and it’s almost like those noise machines some people use to lull themselves to sleep.


But the main thing for me is that if the movie is right, i.e., if it’s not claptrap, there are bon mots totally divorced from the storyline that your mind will pick up and store in the nearer reaches of your subconscious, things that grow fertile during sleep and add a bit of fascination to the next day’s often numbing routine. The amazing thing I’ve found here is that these orts of fascination don’t travel well if you try to share them with a spouse, explain them to a co-worker. They’re yours, only yours.

I doubt that, even with the most astute movie makers this is the sort of thing they try to leave a viewer with. And maybe this is such an arcane reaction that it’s mine alone. But movies are more than, well, movies. Maybe someday, some cinematographer will realize that in sufficient depth to take movies to a whole new level.

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

Mirroring Characters

Anna Karenina – Section Five, by Leo Tolstoy

I mentioned Tolstoy’s contrasting his characters in the last post, and I want to treat that in more detail. But first, a bit about the storyline in this section:

The section opens anticipating Kitty and Lévin’s wedding. He’s antsy, of course, with pre-wedding jitters, and while this has become something of a cliché of American pop fiction, if not of American life in general, Tolstoy was perhaps the first to make so much of it. Lévin is worried that he’s not worthy of Kitty – we have to suppose because of her beauty and her parents’ earlier rejection of Lévin as a spouse in lieu of Vrónsky. The wedding comes off without a hitch, however, and we find the female attendees caught up in a bit of wedding gossip.

image via bookcents.blogspot.com

Meanwhile, Vrónsky and Anna are happy to be together at last, and making their travels something of a honeymoon. They are now free to explore Russia together, and Vrónsky, who fancies himself an artist, visits Mikhailov, a prominent artist, who all but dashes Vrónsky’s artistic dreams.

But both couples are quickly caught up in some rather grounding, real-life details. Lévin’s brother, Nikolai, is dying, and Anna is suddenly missing her son, Seryózha.

Tolstoy has, I think, captured the two couples in this way in order to show that both happiness and tragedy lurk in any relationship, the conventional or the outlawed. In this respect, he presages twentieth century literature by giving equal weight to types of relationships, and the two couples. Both their happiness and their lurking responsibilities, while similar in the general sense, are unlike in specifics.

This is a way much modern fiction depicts relationships in order to draw out their deeper contrasting natures, and Tolstoy seems to be the first to make such overt use of the technique.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars




Smooth Interweaving in High Society

image via dvdbeaver.com

Anna Karenina – Section One, by Leo Tolstoy

I always start a book slowly – I have to get a feel for the writer's style, the characters, setting, and some idea of where the book will lead me. But I've now finished Section One of Anna Karenina and have these comments:

Tolstoy clearly expected Anna Karenina to be a work of some length, so he was in no hurry to get to high drama. However, he didn’t waste time in titillating his readership. After his famous beginning line, he immediately got down to informing us of Prince Stepán Oblónsky’s marital infidelity with the family’s governess.  The Prince’s outing disturbed him to no end, but being a man of privilege, he had an obligation to strike an unruffled pose.

In order to accomplish this, Tolstoy allows us to see Oblónsky contrasted with a socially awkward, rural acquaintance, Konstantín Lévin, who is in love with the very young Kitty Scherbátsky. And to show how smoothly Tolstoy weaves his story among his characters, we see Kitty somewhat attracted to Levin, while being promised to a young military roué, Alexéi Vrónsky.

image via 01varvara.wordpress.com

The Russian uppercrust of this novel's time entertained regularly and grandly. And to make character introduction even more seamless, we see Oblónsky’s married sister, Anna Karénina, making eyes (in her fashion) at Vrónsky. And, of course, the attraction at this point seems mutual.

 While introducing his characters in such a smooth way, Tolstoy also begins to interlace a commentary on the rising materialist, socialist movement in Russia. Through the device of Lévin, apparently Tolstoy’s alter ego in this book, he also begins a commentary on this rising social and political tide.


My rating: 19 of 20