Saturday, August 7, 2010

Beautiful Writing is Rare

I was in a bookstore today (Three Lives & Company in the West Village) looking for something to read. I grabbed a bunch of books at random and flipped through them, and what it reminded me is that even though there are millions of competent, even graceful, writers out there, there are very few knock-your-socks off stellar ones. That's one reason why classics are nice---they have been winnowed out by time.

I think that's an interesting thing to think about. 1) If you are a literary writer, your competition is not as great as you thought, because it is REALLY HARD to write consistently beautiful prose without being melodramatic or obnoxiously in love with your own words. 2) Because it is REALLY HARD to write this well, you (meaning me really) are probably not doing it.

I want to be a brilliant sentence-level writer, and occasionally I am, but usually I'm not. That's something I am working on.

A few randomly selected people who are really masters of it in fiction and nonfiction are:

Writing today:
Kazuo Ishiguro
Annie Proulx
Andrew Aciman (his essay Lavender is my all-time favorite.)
Patricia Hampl (full-disclosure--she was my prof)
John McPhee (Also my prof! I have been lucky.)

Past writers:
Vladimir Nabokov (possibly the best sentence-level writer ever)
George Eliot
Lewis Carroll
Whoever wrote Song of Solomon in the Bible


One author whose writing I think is exceptionally beautiful is C.S. Lewis. Here's an excerpt from the Chronicles of Narnia where the character Puddleglum has just stomped out a magical fire that was putting him and his comrades in a trance. I want to point out the quick rhythm that matches the intensity of the situation, the mix of colloquial and sophisticated language, the fact that it uses pretty basic and accessible language, and just how generally nice it sounds. Try reading it aloud to yourself.

. . .the pain itself made Puddleglum's head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. . . "One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

BTW at the bookstore I ended up choosing, sort of at random, "A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living" which looks cute but not the Best Writing Ever, and a book of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories for the beautiful writing.


  1. While the definition of beautiful writing is really subjective, I'd add to the current list: Lorrie Moore, Nicholson Baker, Michael Chabon, and whoever wrote Tinker. I guess my definition of beautiful writing is writing which sounds new and striking but completely honors the reality it is trying to express.

  2. CS Lewis is <3 thanks for sharing this. i am now intrigued to read him.

  3. I liked how the passage almost has this bouncy lyrical flow to it; but I agree that what defines beautiful writing is probably subjective and depends on the readers' interpretation and own literary biases. I remember reading 'Things Fall Apart', and the passage that describes a pivotal moment:

    "As soon as his father walked in, that night, Nwoye knew that Ikemefuna had been killed, and something seemed to give way inside him like he snapping of a tightened bow. He did not cry. He just hung limp. He had had the same feeling not long ago, during the last harvest season … They were returning home with baskets of yams from a distant farm across the stream when they had heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest. A sudden hush had fallen on the women, who had been talking, and they had quickened their steps. Nwoye had heard that twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest, but he had never come across them. A vague chill had descended on him and his head seemed to swell, like a solitary walker at night who passes an evil spirit on
    the way. Then something had given way inside him. It descended on him again, this feeling, when his father walked in, that night after killing Ikemefuna."

    I always thought this was just so crisp and perfect; the writing is in the moment, and resonated with me. I felt the agony that Nwoye felt; and academic literary review aside, that to me makes beautiful writing. The CS Lewis passage almost feels gratuitous with its (at least to me) over-use of punctuation.

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