Follow The Rules, Even If No One Else Does

It seems to me that writers, or at least this writer, focus a lot on the mechanics of style: your piece should have few if any adverbs or instances of passive voice, you should show rather than tell (“He trembled” is better than “He was afraid”), you need to watch out for weighing your reader down with prepositions, sentences should be a mix of long and short, you should watch out for filter words (“he felt that…” “she saw that…”). Then there’s a bit of an emphasis on plot and character—make sure your people want things, make sure they have trouble getting them, force them to choose between things they want, and maybe follow a three-act structure since that’s what satisfies most readers, even those who say it’s boring. So far as I know that is modern writing in a nutshell, those are the basics. I recently tried calculating if I had spent ten thousand hours writing in my entire life—I guessed I’ve been writing for about fifteen years—and regardless of whether that number is arbitrary or if simple luck is also a factor in success and yadda yadda yadda I found that I had reached maybe about eight thousand hours. I still feel that I learn something every time I write, edit, or read. I found I learned the most when I admitted, after graduating from college, that I sucked, and needed to eject my ego, and submit myself to absorbing the craft.

So this is the problem. Virtually whenever I pick up a classic—I’m currently reading and enjoying The Forever War—I find that the author either didn’t know about these rules or didn’t care. The Forever War in particular is full of adverbs and telling rather than showing. There are maybe two interesting characters, the narrator (a Peggy Sue) and his girlfriend, out of a cast of dozens of forgettables. The plot seems to meander a great deal. The main character doesn’t seem to know what he wants—living on Earth sucks for him, fighting aliens in space also sucks. If you were teaching a creative writing course, you would probably only use this book as an example of what not to do, despite the fact that it’s totally awesome! I find myself frequently wondering what’s going to happen next, dreaming of that moment after working all the livelong day when I can relax and lose myself in The Forever War. I’m not even sure why. There is some inexplicable magic here, perhaps a simple adoration of stortytelling, that is infectious.

The same problem exists with many other totally awesome books. I just opened Pale Fire to a random page and found passive voice. Did the same with Ulysses, passive voice. This shit is everywhere. Rules exist, I suppose, but great writers appear to ignore them, not just occasionally, but frequently. James Joyce in particular makes adverbs his bitch. The first page of Ulysses is overrun with them—but man, what a first page! Nabokov’s evolution from timid beginner to unchained revolutionary is obvious if you compare some of his first English-language novels to some of his last. Although this statement may undermine the next paragraph, popular novels like Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code might also drive creative writing teachers to throwing themselves out of their classroom windows.

I’ve also thought that the emphasis on showing rather than telling is a result of cinema’s conquest of the imagination. In the 19th century before the existence of movies when novels were the most popular art form in the western world it really seemed like authors not only didn’t care about these rules but weren’t aware of them. Perhaps they didn’t exist. Perhaps style was different. Style today kowtows to film: books should be like movies, the images should flow in our minds as though we’ve installed a projector in our brains, and although this form is also enjoyable I wonder if something has been lost in the process. Shouldn’t books be books rather than movies? Some avant garde directors also feel that movies lose their potency when they act like books: strike out the dialogue, tell your story purely with images. The lion’s share of audiences, what Klaus Kinski called “scum”, maybe don’t care. Just keep the explosions exploding, the boobs boobing, the glutei maximi glutei maximiing, and you’re golden.

As a protest against this vogue, I will now conclude in an unsatisfying way.