“The Difference Between Writing Name the Boy and Writing Red Snow”
In his essay “Narcissus Regards His Book/The Common Reader Now,” Mark Edmundson argues that readers “read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained...diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled” (173). Edmundson, a cheeky academic known for his extended, bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you satirical essays, has leveled his sights at the consumer in this piece. And he’s right. Most modern readers want to read for the joy of it, the escape reading offers, not the challenge of actually learning something, of being changed by the words written by a stranger in another time and place.
That’s inarguable. The real question is, “Why shouldn’t they?”
Edmundson’s writing throughout Why Teach? In Defense of Real Education (the book is a collection of essays, including “Narcissus Regards His Book/The Common Reader”) returns to the theme of the abandoned pursuit of intellectual reading again and again. Edmundson casts himself as a sort of upbeat Chris Hedges, portraying modern people as extras in The Matrix: they’d rather plug in, log on, and check out than probe the deeper reaches of literature. He’s not wrong.
I’ve experienced the phenomenon of readers wishing for pleasurable reading first hand through two of the book-length works I’ve written. The first, a short story collection called Name the Boy, was not the kind of book modern readers seem to want to read–at least not for pleasure. Filled with painful renditions of poverty, alcoholism, and parental neglect and abuse, it’s the kind of writing that makes superficial readers want to take a shower after plowing through it. Turns out they’d rather conserve water. And that was the point of the collection. I wanted to turn a light onto the predatory character that emerges among people fighting for survival on the edge of poverty. It was writing meant to provoke reflection, and writing those stories was a gut-wrenching experience.
I wrote Name the Boy as my creative thesis while in graduate school. I read several of the stories to my classmates and faculty during the late-night student readings, where they were enthusiastically received. Most writers who have read my stories continue to tell me that they’re good, worthwhile. Fellow instructors at the college where I teach have taught my stories in their classes. But I wanted more from my writing; I didn’t want to toil in obscurity. I wanted to write stories for a wider audience. One night, while discussing this with my friend, the writer Chris Millis (and by “discussing” I mean “drinking excessively and hatching ridiculous schemes”), he suggested I try something different.
“Why not write a pot-boiler?” he said. “You know, one of those books you see on the racks at airports. Some kind of adventure/thriller. Get it out of your system.”
That second, book-length work of fiction became the novel Red Snow. It was indeed conceived as a thriller. When writing it, I had only two guiding principles: first, make sure there’s plenty of white space; second, write as badly as you wish. Writing the book has been (Professor Edmundson, please cover your ears!) fun. Fun is the word the intellectual abhors. It’s the word my parish priest scolds the flock with. It’s the thing that, as a parent, I caution against. And yet here I am, doing it. For fun. Because it feels good.
It’s a story about an writer/innkeeper and his Basque wife who happens to be a retired French spy, only spies are never really “retired,” and her past reaches out and drags them into a global cabal that threatens to end the United States as we know it. It’s got great structure, fully plotted out before I wrote a single word. It’s slavishly devoted to the three-act structure, and in fact, I actually wrote it as a screenplay before I wrote it as a novel. That allowed me to plug into the writing whenever I had an hour or two. Given my teaching and innkeeping responsibilities, that was priceless.
For me, as a writer, the difference between writing these two books was, as Mark Twain said, the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. While writing the stories for Name the Boy, I would often be immersed in a section of the text where I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t know what. I would struggle with the story, trying to divine what Ernest Hemingway called “the actual things...which produced the emotion you experienced” (Hemingway). In other words, the one true thing. The effort nearly killed me, and for all the conversation it generated, I’m not sure it was worth it. What it got me was a cool distance from everyone who read it who wasn’t a writer. In other words, the superficial readers Edmundson laments, in and out of academia.
Writing Red Snow was more of a pure experience. By pure, I mean indulgent, of course. It evoked the very feelings I–as a moral character–am supposed to shun. Feelings of exhilaration. Feelings of excitement. Feelings of infatuation, like the feeling at the beginning of a new relationship, when you can’t think of anything but the other person, the way she feels, the way she smells, the very thought of being next to her–that’s the way I felt writing Red Snow. Imagine that feeling, every day, for over a year, and you begin to get it.
Edmundson loses his cool when it comes to contemporary popular fiction. He pits academic culture against modern entertainment culture, and we know who wins. But this is nothing new. Humans have been choosing the low road forever. It’s what makes us human. The struggle to strive for the worthy describes the purpose of all religions, and it’s a struggle that plays out in every aspect of human life. Why should reading and writing be any different?
“If it makes you feel good, it must be,” Edmundson writes, his words quavering with sarcasm. “If Stephen King and John Grisham bring pleasure, why, then let us applaud them” (176). Tone aside, he makes a valid point when he focuses on the important question: What makes a book worth writing or worth reading? The problem with that question is that it takes the position that a book not worthy of this lofty goal should not be written.
Really? That sounds reversely Biblical to me, as in, “The Bible’s perfect, so why bother writing anything else?” So all the crap that was written before, during, and after Gilgamesh should not have been? Did Shakespeare simply channel his works, or did he read widely, honing his style as much by what disgusted him as what inspired him? Melville (whose works, by the way, were treated with as much contempt while he was alive as some treat authors like King and Grisham today) slogged through as much post-Colonial American codswallop on the way to Billy Budd and Moby-Dick as he did Hawthorne’s works.
Pity that he didn’t share with us what literature is actually worth reading today. What contemporary artists are producing relevant works that should be studied and argued over? And I don’t buy the bunk arguing and all the good stuff in life happened in the past–the “Good old days” argument. That’s another mythology we can do without. What about Cormac McCarthy? Haruki Murakami? Joyce Carol Oates? And, though it pains me to say it, Philip Roth? Among their works can’t there be found astounding literature to balance the abhorrence of The Shining and A Time to Kill?
I guess I know more about myself as a writer now that I’ve written two radically different works. I enjoy talking about the different processes for each one, the skills needed. I hope it makes me not only a better writer, but a better teacher. But would I have learned that about myself if I had only pursued lofty, academic goals, if I had spent a lifetime banging my muse’s head against the bulwark of canonical immortality? For me, the rich experience gained by writing both Name the Boy and Red Snow has a value far beyond anything that can be bestowed from without.
With all that in mind, here’s a tribute to an author I read for pleasure. Sing it to the tune “Baby’s Got Back.”
I like Clive Cussler and I cannot lie
Those other writers make me sigh
When a book shows up and it’s three inches thick
That shallow writing makes me tick!
You get hooked, with a plot that shook
A story that makes you wanna look
All day! Forget about James
Joyce or Ernest Hemingway
Cause they ain’t got that Cussler magic
Deep seas so tragic
And characters that make me roll my eyes!
So academics? Hit the road
Clive’s the dude that steals the show!
Edmundson, Mark. Why Teach? In Defense of Real Education. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hemingway is Winner of Nobel Literature Prize.” New York Times. Accessed October 30, 2011. Web.