Friday, March 12, 2010

What IS it that makes good writing good?

Ok, this is my last self-indulgent English-teachery pontification about writing for the moment. Oh, how easy it is to criticise and oh, how hard it is to do well!

With Anne Tyler, what I didn’t really mention was the way she turns phrases – because I was writing at work while supervising exams (they didn’t need a close eye…) and I didn’t have the book with me. But now I have.

Here’s the opening of “A Patchwork Planet”:

“I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me. Or at least, I’m guessing it is. Why else would they hand me their house keys before they leave for vacation? Why else would they depend on me to clear their attics for them, heave their air conditioners into their windows every spring, lug their excess furniture to their basements? “Mind your step, young fellow, that’s Hepplewhite,” Mrs Rodney says, and then she goes into her kitchen to brew a pot of tea. I could get up to anything in that basement. I could unlock the outside door so as to slip back in overnight and rummage through all she owns – her Hepplewhite desk and her Japanese lacquer jewelry box and the six potbellied drawers of her dining-room buffet. Not that I would. But she doesn’t know that. She just assumes it. She takes it for granted that I’m a good person.

Come to think of it, I’m the one who doesn’t take it for granted.”

That first sentence is quite clumsy – deliberately so, I’m sure. It sounds like a man musing, considering the situation. AT could have written, “My customers trust me” or “My customers see me as a man they can trust” – and that would have been okay. But I like the way she’s set up the ambivalence from the start with the declaration followed by the qualification: he is – or is he not? – a man to be trusted. Trust is one of the key themes of the novel.

Then that “Why else…?” repetition shows that he’s keen to be trusted – but perhaps can hardly believe that he is. He examines the evidence: a list of tasks that he’s trusted to do in people’s homes. This also neatly conveys the speaker’s job: he’s a manual worker – look at those verbs: “clear… heave… lug”. His youth is made obvious by Mrs Rodney’s “young fellow”. Then the repetition again: “I could… I could….” – we feel him almost luxuriating in the possibility of that “rummaging” as he lists the items he could look through. Then the paragraph ends with those four short, emphatic sentences: “Not that I would. But she doesn’t know that. She just assumes it. She takes it for granted that I’m a good person.” And we wonder: is he so emphatic because this is true, or because he wants us to think that it’s true, or because he’s trying to convince himself that it’s true? I also like that rather na├»ve wording – “a good person”, as if it were an absolute; as if everyone fell into one or other category, good or bad.

And then there’s that last, one-sentence paragraph: “Come to think of it, I’m the one who doesn’t take it for granted.” Here AT makes his self-doubt clear and leaves the reader intrigues as to why he’s so concerned about whether or not he’s good.

Ah, what a pedant I am: 313 words to discuss AT’s 169.

Now here’s the beginning of “My Sister’s Keeper”:

“When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why. The mechanics I understood – my older brother Jesse had filled me in – although at the time I was sure he’d heard half of it wrong. Other kids my age were busy looking up the words p____ and v_____ * in the classroom dictionary when the teacher had her back turned, but I paid attention to different details. Like why some mothers had only one child, while other families seemed to multiply before your eyes. Or how the new girl in school, Sedona, told anyone who’d listen that she was named for the place her parents had been vacationing when they made her. (Good thing they weren’t staying in Jersey City, my father used to say.)”

* JP doesn’t use dashes but I don’t want my blog to attract the wrong sort of comments….

Ach, it really annoys me that I can’t quite analyse what’s wrong with this. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong. She writes well, and I apologise to anyone who really likes JP – I’d love to have as much success as she’s had by writing. (Or any other way, come to that.) She’s good. This first paragraph does the job. It sounds reasonably like a young person talking (though not, in my opinion, a 13-year-old as it’s supposed to be), the rhythm is fine, it sets the situation up all right. There’s a bit of humour, though it’s the joke we’ve probably all made about the Parises of this world.

But it’s a bit… ordinary. Workmanlike – workwomanlike. Clear. Fluent. But it doesn’t make my heart sing.

Anyway. I’ll shut up now and get back to posting about cats.


  1. I love your cats ; since I now have none ; but much prefer this sort of post. You may be much closer to Anne Tyler than you think you are!

    There are piffle type people in the world....hence piffle stories.

    My mind goes into overdrive thinking up all the places in the world after which a child might be named !

  2. Can you please start a book group, and can I come? Thank you.

  3. Oooh, Loth has a great idea! We could have an online book group (run by you of course LOL!) I probably wouldn't finish my books though -- that's why I dropped out of my long time book group. That, and I have a huge list of books that I want to read and life's too short to read what other people want to read.

    I totally feel your pain. It's hard to put the finger on the piffle, but it is there!

  4. I love these posts.

    I think you would do a very decent job of writing a novel. Very good indeed.

  5. No, don't stop, I love these posts. I love the ones about the cats too, of course.

  6. Hey... I was thinking about starting an online book club, too. Just haven't got around to finding a name for it yet. sigh.

    Anyway, what's wrong with JP's writing, in my opinion, is that it doesn't ring true. The narrator is 13 and, like you said, it doesn't sound like something a 13-year-old would say. But also, she's talking about how she thought when she was younger, and it's hard to believe that young children form such cohesive and complex ideas. It also sounds a bit dramatic right from the start. Why can't she be a 'normal' girl?

    I'm kind of enjoying this discussion. Maybe I'm babbling too much, but you've started something here Isabel.

  7. I'd forgotten about Ann Tyler until you brought up Patchwork Planet. I vaguely recall reading it, vaguely enough to be able to enjoy reading it again. I'll have to load up on her next week when I'm by the library. Thank you!

  8. I have really enjoyed your literary tidbits! :) As I read through the comments, I came to Loth's book club idea! I agreed! Then Anna's comment of dropping out because she didn't get to reading the books... I had the same problem! I too loved the posts and enjoyed the feeling of brain growth as I read about Ann Tyler! :) Thank you!

  9. This is going to send me back to Anne Tyler - I hadn't read Patchwork Planet. I think the difference between her and some other notables is that they can make us believe in an altered reality, whereas piffle writers take our everyday reality and try to make us believe their contrived version of it.
    Sadly, the best writers aren't always those who attain fame and fortune, some people just have better luck or push or support - as in every walk of life - thinking of all those mediocre teachers who get the plum jobs, whilst others battle on doing a really fine job unrecognised.
    Love your post about cats, life etc, and these book ones have given me pause to think.
    Couldn't we all just do with an angel to pop in and tell us what to do occasionally though?

  10. Shouldn't type comments in a hurry and leave out punctuation. I mean the difference is that AT and some other notables can make us believe in altered realities. Agree with persiflage too, JP just doesn't get the 'voice' right.

  11. Now I know why I love Anne Tyler and have read all her books. Have not read any by J.P. I think I will read Patchwork Planet again. Thank you for an interesting post.
    Books and cats... Love them both.

  12. I love Anne Tyler and I'm also a fan of JP's earlier novels. I think JP is a victim of her own success and is under pressure to crank them out now.

    As someone who has been trying to crank out a novel for longer than I care to admit I have nothing but admiration for anyone who can see a project that big through to the end.

    I think commercial writers don't get the credit they deserve. I think it takes a lot of talent to grab someone's attention and have them turning pages, ,making people want to read just a little more because they just want to know what happens next. Yes. I'm one of the few people who will defend The Da Vinci code.

  13. Oh signed off before I added, I due agree that Anne Tyler's writing just seems more polished as well but like you can't put my finger on it.

  14. Isabelle, may I ask what you think of Bryce Courtney's books? Just curious...

  15. I love your 'self-indulgent English-teachery pontification' too. I wish I could analyse as well as this, please don't stop.

    I think Jane might be right about good writers making us believe in their alternative realities while the pifflers try to crank up what they see as ordinary reality.

    People like Iris Murdoch and ASByatt have the most bizarre coincidences happen, and people all knowing each other in ways they never would in real life, but it doesn't seem to matter. Someone once said Iris Murdoch's world was like nothing so much as Prospero's, which seemed right.

    I've not read anything by Ann Tyler, but I'd like to now. I really like that funny twisty bit of grammar in the first line 'I am ... is how they view me', it does grab you doesn't it!

  16. Sigh. While I did enjoy this post, and I understand the distinction you're making between the writers, I have to admit that when the book club I belong to read "Breathing Lessons" I thought I would actually pass away with boredom. While I do believe you that Anne Tyler is a good writer, she's simply not my cup of tea.

    Cat posts, on the other hand, are always my C.O.T. :-)

  17. Oh yes to both lines of thought. Love AT, ambivalent about JP, absolutely agree about the difference between the two and I do know exactly what you mean about making the heart sing. And yet when JP gets it right the narrative carries you along in a headlong rush of wanting to know what happens and when AT just misses it alison is right that her world is just not interesting enough for me to really care.
    Loved this.