The next book on my reading list is The Stand by Stephen King. Most bestselling novels share one impressive self-evident fact – they are very readable. Stephen King, John Grisham and George R. R. Martin are masters of the craft. Somehow I have only ever read one other Stephen King novel. It was The Shining, and I was disappointed. (Here’s why.)
I read bestsellers for the same reason that I watch blockbuster movies. I’ve spent a lot of time on the other side of the fence snubbing my nose at commercially successful filmmakers, writers, etc., while remaining unpublished myself, so I’ve decided to try to undo some of my pretentious conditioning. These people sell books because they are masters at writing in the active voice.
When two people speak casually they fall into rhythm without having to think about their subject. If one person tells a story, he or she speaks continually, with no pauses to think about the logical ordering of words. This natural dynamic creates a polarity between them: Person A uses short words in sentences easy to understand; Person B listens and gives minimal feedback until a break in the flow occurs, or they think of something and interrupt. Or they pull out their phone.
Likewise, most bestselling authors use short words in sentences easily understandable. Their prose is fluid and well-ordered and we, as readers, follow along quickly, understanding everything that transpires. Because the prose is so direct and active, we lock ourselves into “input” mode, accepting ideas in order without breaking off in distraction at our own tangential thoughts. We absorb the writing because it puts us in a passive, receptive trance.
I read The Associate by John Grisham very quickly. The first few chapters flew by and I went to bed. In the morning I realized I didn’t like the main character and wasn’t intrigued by the plot. Nevertheless, while I read the book I wasn’t thinking about these things, I was simply reading along. The deeper I got into the book the more greedily I read, even as I was rolling my eyes about the story. It was like an addiction, like being addicted to Fruit Loops even though they ruin your mouth for the day. At the end of the book I complained that it offered no food for thought. The reading experience was one of the easiest and most natural of my reading career. That says something.
George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is written in a very plain voice. His prose draws no attention to itself and we’re left with pure story. It took more than 2000 pages for me to realize that A Song of Ice and Fire is the work of a master. The prose is third-person and seems omniscient, but each chapter features a different character, invisibly bringing the reader deeper into each character’s reality by subtly detailing how diverse characters act and react, notice or miss detail in a complex world.
This style of writing is processed immediately, meaning A) it is comprehended at once; and B) it is not mediated by thought.
The Other Side
Another style of writing is at least equally masterful, though you don’t see people reading these books on the subway. Some writers write in a more complicated, elliptical style and effectively ask the reader to think in parallel with the prose. This risks losing the reader to distraction because readers have idiosyncratic mental correspondences, and each reader ends up thinking something slightly different. In this category I include authors like Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories open into big ideas for the reader to take or leave.
These works can be tough to digest as the reader must make leaps of thinking to understand the ordering of the prose. A book like Gravity’s Rainbow is so dense with ideas and correspondences that every reader ends up with his or her own version of the story. What I get from the book will differ from what you took from it, and that contrast will show us both something about how we perceive the world. I find that interesting.
Borges’ short stories compress such huge ideas into so few pages, each gleams like a diamond. The worlds of Philip K. Dick may seem naively constructed, but the ideas put forward make his work great. The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson happens through shifting quantum realities where characters spontaneously change names, personalities, etc., and it is only the ideas that carry the story through.
Balance matters. There’s a correspondence between symmetry with beauty. Use both sides of your brain, and read both types of literature. Then, and only then, consider going outside for some exercise, right after another cup of coffee.
A long while ago I decided would read what I wanted without worrying it might be over my head. It can be frustrating because we feel dumb when we don’t understand. But understanding things is a matter of time and will. When you come across an unfamiliar word, you have the option to look it up in a dictionary. Doing that developed my ability to “stick with” tough books. I’m positive this practice has increased my attention span. Unfortunately I can’t say whether I’ve become smarter, or better at bullshitting because I know more words. Either way, it’s rewarding to finish a difficult book.
I used to write vague screenplays and abstract stories that must have left amorphous impressions on the few people who read them. Now I make efforts to absorb the style of these bestsellers hoping to balance myself out. There is no denying that King and Grisham write clearly and precisely, and that’s admirable. That economy of style is difficult to master, and it’s one of the reasons Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize. Hopefully with this blog motivating me to write clearly, concisely, and regularly, I’ll find some balance, round out my style, and publish in a professional market.
“They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.” – Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day