On Good Writing


I used to tell my students that there was good and bad in the writing game: the bad– it’s very hard to write well. The good—it doesn’t matter. I was reminded of this last night when watching a television interview with writing phenom James Patterson. He has sold 260 million books. Last year he made 84 million dollars. And he doesn’t write the books anymore!

He worked for years as an ad agency executive, which was perfect preparation for his career as a writer: advertising sells stuff to people that they very often neither need nor want. Stephan King says Patterson is a terrible writer. Since Patterson doesn’t actually write his books, I’m sure he took no umbrage at that.

I may be pressing sour grapes. I grew up with a passionate respect for good writing. It’s all I ever aspired to do in a career that has gone on for more than fifty years. I’ve never had a bestseller. I doubt that I ever will. I believe that the instinct for commerciality in a writer is something that you’re born with, just as anti-hackery is something you’re born with. You cannot teach a person to be a good, honest writer, just as you cannot teach them to be a world-class hack.

James Patterson might have been born with a lack of literary genius, but he almost certainly was born with a talent to write things that great masses of people want to read, and the ability to get them to read it, certainly not insignificant talents.

Astounding literary giant Franz Kafka sold virtually nothing in his lifetime. There are those, I’m sure, who feel that Patterson is the greater writer: he has sold 260 million books. There are those who feel Thomas Kinkade was a great painter; and the fellow who painted the kids with big eyes, Walter Keane. They sold in the millions. At the height of his popularity one American home in every twenty had a Kinkade work and Keane’s kids with the big wide eyes seemed to peer at you from every wall. Van Gogh sold nothing in his lifetime. Opinions on artistic greatness are like anal orifices, everyone has one, and if people want to say that James Patterson is a great writer or Thomas Kinkade a great painter, what can I say? They are ridiculous, but what finally does that get you?

I don’t want to be absolutist when it comes to good and bad writers, hacks and genuine artists. Certainly there have been great writers who have had enormous commercial success. Most often, unfortunately, it’s after they’ve died.

And Patterson’s corporate approach to writing, having a phalanx of writers do the work for you, is not all that unusual: a number of bestselling writers operate similarly; other people write their books for them. It’s maximizing opportunity, strike while the iron is hot, and, damn, it can be miserable sitting alone in a room trying to grind it out. Not everyone can be a Georges Simenon who used to write by his lonely a dozen books a year.

This is not new in literary history. In the 19th century, Alexander Dumas, Dumas pere, author of “Count of Monte Cristo.” and “Three Musketeers”, ran a writing factory where he employed dozens of hacks to work on his books. (Hack, derived from hackney, a plodding, for-hire horse, cheaply bought, easy to ride.) He was accused in his time of turning out “industrial literature.” And yet because of the energy and inventiveness in the work, he is considered a great writer, even though most of it was written by others. He launched the works, oversaw their execution, was the factory boss, as it were, Dumas pere CEO, forerunner of the James Patterson school of writing.

I’m sure there are others of whom we know virtually nothing beyond the books or plays they’ve left us. Shakespeare, even Shakespeare, might have been a literary poacher, a poseur! He certainly was an entrepreneur. Since we know almost nothing at all about him personally, except that he was an exception to the rule in his day, that is a successful theater owner, it’s certainly possible that he was more of a manager than a writer. It’s been posited that members of his theater company, the Globe Theater enterprise, had a hand in the writing of the plays. Indeed, the prose and comedic sections have an improvisatorial liveliness that is stylistically different from the iambics of the poetic body of the plays and may very well have been put together by the actors, improvised as it were.

Poacher or not, Shakespeare is among the best-selling writers of all time. The list of serious and fine writers throughout history who have sold very well is long and glorious. James Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Twain, Nabokov, Salinger. They were writers of genius who went to the heart of what it is to be human, how we feel and suffer and laugh and triumph. They reveal to the world what is fine and powerful in the human soul.

It’s been said that writing, art in general, works on three broad levels. The first, and most common—some say most necessary– is entertainment. James Patterson entertains certainly, Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon, all best-selling writers, entertain. They are fun. They tell a story and a story is fun. A friend who had journeyed in North Africa told me of wandering the great market in Algiers, past hundreds of booths, merchants selling everything under the sun, foods, clothing, trinkets, animals, even women and men. The place was teeming. Everything was for sale. He came to an area thronged with people, a crowd of thousands that dwarfed all the other sites. He forced his way through to see what was being hawked. At the center of the crowd was an old man. He stood very erect and spoke softly, simply. The crowd listened enraptured. “What is it?” my friend asked his guide. “He’s a story-teller,” the guide said. “A professional. ” And there was no crowd in the market larger.

Indeed, the first, most basic, most popular level in art, is entertainment.

The next level is stimulation. Writers of thrillers, mysteries, adventure books, sexual books, romances, work primarily on the level of stimulation. Thrills and chills abound, derring-do, scarifying. Vampires, ladies in distress, pirates, cops and robbers. villains and heroes.

The highest level of art is to enlighten. Shakespeare, Joyce, Tolstoy, Nabokov, enlighten us. They make us see the world in ways we had never considered. They open our eyes and our hearts.

The greatest writers work on all three levels: they entertain, they stimulate, they enlighten. That’s a worthy goal for a writer and that’s what I’ve always aspired to in my own work. I like to think that occasionally I’ve succeeded.

Shakespeare had his clowns as well as his Hamlets and Lears. Nabokov, Joyce, the great ones are funny and entertaining and stimulating and ultimately they rip away some scrim of life, of the human condition, and we get a glimpse of what’s behind it all. When Lear cries out at his daughter Cordelia’s death, it tears open the mystery of death, giving us a wrenching glimpse of what life truly, ultimately is: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/And thou no breath at all?” Lear cries out over his dead daughter’s body. “Thou’lt come no more,/Never, never, never, never, never.”

It’s said that Lear’s cry, five nevers, is the bleakest line of iambic pentameter ever written.

How does a writer enlighten? Often the process is opaque and mysterious. It works on us in powerful and strange ways. And yet, somehow, it enables us to peer into the soul of a human being.

It’s true. Ever since I was very young I had a passion for good writing. I’m not sure where it came from, but it soon dominated my life. I had a love of good writing. I ate, drank, slept good writing.

In my early teens, I memorized volumes of poetry, Shakespearean sonnets, whole plays. At age twelve I memorized Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol”, all 109 stanzas. Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” and “Minever Cheevy” Alfred Noyes, “The Barrel Organ”. “There’s a barrel-organ caroling across a golden street/In the City as the sun sinks low;/With a silvery cry of linnets in its dull mechanic beat,/As it dies into the sunset-glow…”

I started memorizing “Hamlet” when I was fifteen. I went at it through my twenties and thirties. Eventually I could almost recite the whole play.

I still remember lines from other works that I had read in my early teens: Willa Cather, the last line of “Paul’s Case”, Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”, the opening line. I was impressed that Willa Cather had been a schoolteacher in Pittsburgh, my hometown, and her short story, “Paul’s Case”, was about a troubled young student in Pittsburgh. He steals money, flees to New York, and eventually kills himself.

Theodore Dreiser wrote massive novels and his style was thick and awkward and yet there was something moving and powerful at the core of it. When a film made from his novel “Sister Carrie” came out I was seventeen or so and I rushed to the theater the day that it opened, the first showing, and sat there transfixed. Many years later, I met William Wyler who had directed the film and described for him the last scene almost shot for shot. Wyler was flattered, impressed. I have a feeling he was puzzled, also: what was it about “Sister Carrie” that so engulfed me? It was what it grew out of, Dreiser’s pulse and sensibility and rhythms.

Yes, I still remember the last lines of “Paul’s Case”: “The sound of an approaching train awoke him and he started to his feet, remembering only his resolution, and afraid lest he should be too late.
He stood watching the approaching locomotive, his teeth chattering, his lips drawn away

from them in a frightened smile; once or twice he glanced nervously sidewise, as though

he were being watched. When the right moment came, he jumped. As he fell, the folly of his

haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone.

There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water,

the yellow of Algerian sands.

“He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.”

And the opening lines of “An American Tragedy”:

“Dusk—of a summer night.

“And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants — such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.

“And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six— a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a Bible and several hymn books. With these three, but walking independently behind, was a girl of fifteen, a boy of twelve and another girl of nine, all following obediently, but not too enthusiastically, in the wake of the others.

It was hot, yet with a sweet languor about it all.”

They are indelible in my mind and are part of what formed me as a writer.

2 Responses to On Good Writing

  1. Mr. Milton,

    Thanks for a lively and straightforward description of both writers (honest and hack, along with those in-between), and the craft and art, as well. I am a rabbi (f/t for 30 years; p/t now) and college English teacher (five years now) who writes, or tries to.
    Some days, I believe I am writing something unique. And other days, I am writing simply to please myself, about my past, my Old Neighborhood (whether it be realistic or Magically Realistic), or other subjects, just to explain myself to myself. I would like, one day, to write a bestseller. Thank you for telling me I don’t have to.
    That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.
    There are parts of Shakespeare I consider immortal; other parts have not aged well– but we are celebrating his 400th anniversary this year. I suffered through Dreiser’s “Tragedy” years ago; perhaps now, older and more mature, I ought to give the old fellow a second chance. I did enjoy Cather, whom I considered a minor talent but a major contributor to women’s fiction. Wilde, Noyes, and Robinson are great favorites, even after Irving Howe tried singlehandedly to convince us grad students that Edwin Arlington Robinson deserved a lasting place in the American Poets’ Pantheon, and bristled when I offered up Robinson in his place.
    In the end, what do we have? Years ago, I read that there are two types of writers: the one who says, “I have something extremely important to say,” and the other who says, “I just want to put a subject and a verb together, and see what happens.”
    I like the second one better.
    Good luck to you,
    David Hartley Mark

  2. Jim Blake says:

    A fine essay on writing, one of the best I’ve read for its erudite concision. When discussing hacks in any art whether Kincaide( painter of hyperglycemic light but a wonderful plein-air oil sketcher!), Margaret Keane ( she did the painting – Walter took the credit) or factory writers Patterson and now dishonored memoirist James Frey, I dig out the wise words of Gore Vidal who said, after trying to write screenplays in Hollywood for three years: “Even shit has its integrity.” It was standard practice during the Renaissance for a great painter to employ studio assistants to work on various parts of paintings – the master would finish up with his signature strokes. Rubens has a big studio filled with assistants. In our era, Andy Warhol had many assistants doing work on sculpture and painting projects and now Jeff Koons, Murikami, Serra all have their final work made by others. Remember that ALL architects have ALL of their work “done” by others. Artists / writers who remain undiscovered are typically shy about stealing from the work of other artists – they try too hard to be “original” and leave themselves floating alone in their sea of treasured work. Frank Lloyd Wright, Picasso, Brecht, Duchamp, Warhol were all notorious “appropriators” of the work of other artists. They stole like magpies but they also synthesized their booty into something fresh. Undiscovered artists often stew in lofty, high quality juice squeezed with passion and care from the history of their chosen field but fail to create a new flavor. One must steal deep and synthesize with great energy and imagination-btw scarify means to scar not to scare.

Leave a Reply