All The Books
Watching the excellent Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway last week was thought provoking. In one aspect it was sad because although his life was a grand adventure and his dedication to simple, truthful, direct writing was brilliant, he dishonored much of that by succumbing to being a drunk. The documentary explores numerous dichotomies of his life and his psyche to try and explain why. It’s a huge, lovely, tragic mix of passion, multiple head injuries, manic depression, dedication, idealism, family dynamics, douchebaggery, talent, infidelity, and addiction. He lived large in some cases, and died small in others.
In the end and despite all that, the majority of his writing is and probably will always be some of the best ever put on the page.
The documentary spent a good amount of attention (though not enough for my tastes) on Hemingway’s writing, and it did do justice to highlighting some of the things that he excelled at: economy, simplicity, depth, sophisticated detachment, honesty, terseness, etc. Obviously he had that special, almost unexplainable talent very few writers have achieved even to this day (Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison maybe?), but whatever the case good writing is just good writing.
The great American writers can probably be counted on two hands and most, if not all, existed in the 20th Century. It is exciting to watch writing evolve into the 21st and see new generations of writers attempt that greatness. If you remember, just a few years ago physical books were being declared dead and e-reader devices hailed as the new future. That forecast stalled and may very well still happen, but right now physical books are enjoying a resurgence of popularity. This is due to many many facets: the publishing industry re-structuring, electronic publication flattening, self publishing booming, demand-printing becoming easier, the expansion of media cross-overs, etc. It’s all a bit chaotic, this re-shuffling of the writing world, but also exciting.
But to repeat, good writing is good writing, and although bad writing getting out there into the world seems to have a easier time, and may continue to be the annoying burr in many a critic’s saddle, I don’t worry about it too much or call for its demise. Bad writing only highlights the good — more importantly it increases the desire, the appetite for the good. People may decry the detriments quantity inflict upon quality, but with writing, like most art, quality is rarely ever defeated.
Music is another great example of this. Curmudgeons go on and on about how bad music saturates the airways and ‘culture is dying,’ but that’s wrong. The bad only increases hunger for the good, and not only is the good always there, access to it becomes easier in the new structures that wield it.
You may remember back when the Harry Potter books were peaking as a phenom, the great literary critic Harold Bloom went on a few talk shows poo-pooing their stature. I wrinkled my nose at his arrogant pomposity, but all these years later, although his tact and distaste for the Potter series may still be questionable, his main points have validity in the function of bad literature highlighting the good. He would rather we not read the bad, but he was wrong. A quick beach book may be a nice unhealthy snack, but you always appreciate the bigger better meals.
Quantity gets a little extra sometimes, but the good stuff always shines through.
And once you are able to discern the good from the bad, the problem and its solution ironically becomes for individual readers, as Tom Waits framed it perfectly, “the world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”