Damage is the gripping story of a man’s desperate obsession and scandalous love affair. He is a man who appears to have everything: wealth, a beautiful wife and children, and a prestigious political career in Parliament. But his life lacks passion, and his aching emptiness drives him to an all-consuming, and ultimately catastrophic, relationship with his son’s fiancée....and was captivated, enthralled, hooked, over the moon! I recommended it and even bought it for folks. Someone asked me why I was so thrilled, and after I'd gushed for a while, he said, "Did you actually read this?"
Chilling and brilliant, Damage is a masterpiece—a daring look at the dangers of obsession and the depth of its shattering consequences.
While I was offended mightily by his snark, I was inspired to go back and read it again. It was...
Lesson learned. Now I wait before I shout about books. I'm especially cynical about The Book of the Moment-type books, because they so frequently disappoint. (I'm lookin' right at you, Gillian Flynn/Karen Russell/Jonathan Franzen/Jeffrey Eugenides. Right. At. You.) But books nominated for prizes, books by unknowns and self-pubbeds, books from the Dark Ages of Cloth Bindings...I wait on 'em all, let 'em perk gently through the sieve I call a brain, and let some synapses fire and some neuronal pathways alter before I go hollerin' hallelujah. And still, despite this care and feeding, my brain gets all flippied and damzeled about (ancient book of poems I once had, wonder where it is, was titled that and I still love it). I crow over books people look at and say, "...yeah? The author doin' you or what?" about.
I guess it's inevitable, given that everyone has different taste. But it seems to me that there are some things we should all know, like what good writing is. (It's what Chuckles the Dick and Ernie Hemmenhaw couldn't do.) Not writing that you like, that's a taste thing and it's inarguable because it's your taste. No one gets to tell you your taste is wrong. Bad, maybe, but never wrong.
And then came the real eye-opener. So what is good writing?
Hell if I know what you think good writing is. Hell if I know what to tell you to read to show good writing. People have spent much of my literate life praising Dickens *shudder* to me as superbly written! Only my innate kindliness and irreproachable good manners prevent me from saying what my long-ago friend did: "Did you actually read this?"
What makes writing good? I wonder. For me, good writing does its job of story-telling without undue fuss and bother. So why do I like Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, but not Ernest Hemingway or the nonce-book writers from all the MFA programs?
Woolf and Faulkner, and James Joyce (whose work I don't like as a matter of taste), all told complex stories in precise ways. There isn't another, or a better, way to tell those stories. Yes, the sentences curl around themselves, rubbing scales with their own nether bits. But how else could my doted-on Mrs. Dalloway or the superb As I Lay Dying or Ulysses be told? Hemingway's short, staccato sentences don't serve The Old Man and the Sea nearly as well as they served "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" or even For Whom the Bell Tolls (a thoroughly horrible book, dull and featureless and stupid, but the style suits it).
Equally enjoyable to me is Colum McCann's staccato delivery of his two most recent novels, both of which I like quite a lot, TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin. It suits the stories. It's also not the only arrow in his quiver. Read Zoli or the stories in Fishing the Sloe-Black River...different styles indeed, in those cases the delivery matches the story being told.
And that, to me, is what good writing does. It tells me the story the author wants me to hear in the most effective way, not showing off what the MFA program taught or bookhorning a story into a style.
So how do we all agree on which books achieve this goal? Ideas welcomed.