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Hart Williams


The Emperor's New Clothes, Part III


After reading the previous two columns, it would not be beyond conception that this writer were a confirmed hater of all writers, determined to "take 'em all down a peg," but nothing could be further from the truth. If our writing is unreadable, there will be, soon enough, no more readers, the public contenting themselves with tissue-thin "dramas" on cable TV.

Part one was an introduction to the current (rotten) state of American literature, and part two dealt, in broad terms with the nature of the trouble. Herein, solutions might be suggested.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. More and more Americans are writing (e-mail included) and writing regularly. The economics of writing are still terrible, but every indication is that things are about to change. (Ambrose Bierce once noted, regarding the publisher Henry Holt, then living, that while publishers often suggested that writers have another source of income, Bierce had nowhere noted a publisher who felt the need to make a living OTHER than by publishing. A century later, the same holds, sadly true.)

Here are four books that are fairly decent "compasses" for a hike out of the woods.

THE PERSONAL MEMOIRS OF U.S. GRANT, with selected letters; Library of America, 1200 pp., $35.

Ulysses S. Grant was one of the best writers that America has produced, period. What?!?! you might ask. While it's not particularly noted, U.S. Grant spent the Civil War, not waving a saber, but sitting at makeshift desks writing.

Robert Heinlein once wrote that the best single course he ever took on writing was a course in writing orders that he took at Annapolis. The orders had to be explicit, and not subject to misinterpretation. This, Heinlein claimed, led to a precision of thinking and of writing. Grant's case certainly bears this out.* [*NB: Long after writing this review, I found a citation from a General of Grant's praising the unusual clarity of Grant's writing, in confirmation of the above] The letters at the end of this volume, and orders quoted within the Memoirs are masterpieces of that stripped down prose so often ascribed to, say, a Hemingway or a Dos Passos.

There is a tendency to lose track of the writing in the sweep of Grant's story--which few writers would be up to the challenge of-- but the choice of words, of style, of grammar is always in perfect pitch. The astute reader, knowing that the Memoirs were commissioned bu Mark Twain, might think that Twain "cleaned up" Grant's prose, but Twain was adamant that he had not. The words were the General's own.

Grant wrote the Memoirs after he'd been bankrupted, dying of throat cancer and trying desperately to leave his family something to support themselves, but not once does the desperation show through; or the fact that the book was completed -- literally -- on his death bed. Here is what Grant wrote, after his voice failed, when he was reduced to writing all communications to his doctor, in one of his last utterances: "The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three."

Over a hundred years later, the pen still drips liquid fire.

THE COURAGE TO WRITE, by Ralph Keyes, Henry Holt, 229 pp., $17.95.

All writing requires courage; it is little talked about, it is not often addressed in "writers' conferences," but there you have it. Keyes sprinkles his book with quotations--from writers whose prose seems effortless--talking about just how fearful they were every time they sat down to write. The mastery of fear is just as important as the mastery of language, and Keyes tackles his subject with tenacity.

The book is divided into two sections, one more successful than the other: "The Elements of Courage," and "Coming to Terms with Fear." The former is entirely too self-congratulatory for my tastes, but the latter is well-done, has practical tips, and is worth the price of admission. If you're too scared to write, you'll never know how good you might have been, though your paper recycler might bless you. Recommended.

INVENTED VOICES and PAINTED PARAGRAPHS, both by Donald Newlove, Owl (Henry Holt) Books, 203 and 171 pp., respectively, each: $9.95.

Donald Newlove has written any number of excellent books, but the two that stick in the mind are Leo & Theodore and The Drunks, darkling novels about a pair of Siamese twins that stick in the mind years after I reviewed them for the late, probably unlamented BooksWest. Newlove can write, and these two books bear witness to his love of writing.

They are not so much written as "how-to's" as they are meditations on good dialogue and good prose, salted with ample quotations from the author's favorite works. You may or may not agree with Newlove's estimation of the works referred to, but, if nothing else, either book should send you scrambling back to the library to reread authors you have either missed or whom you have read without seeing.

What is particularly engaging in both of Newlove's books (and, perhaps, the third in the trilogy, which I have not seen, First Paragraphs) is Newlove's infectious love of good writing, his enthusiasm for that writing, and his faultless ear and eye. Much like attending an art museum in the presence of a talented (and verbally adept) artist, the author's critical eye will point out those nuances and hidden glories that mere superficial reading missed.

At this, Newlove excels--by his enthusiasm, if nothing else. The prose is not dead and wooden and cold; the author is not distant and Olympian, and he draws us into his appreciation of good writing.

For isn't that what it's all about? Not tricks or awards or theories, but about writing that sticks in the heart and the mind, that moves and elevates us, without fairly shouting-- as does too much of today's "literature"--look at how brilliant this is!! In a semantic universe, when writing, good writing dies, entropy wins.

But we can reverse this trend. The above-mentioned books are signposts on the road in this direction.

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Copyright 1996 by Hart Williams
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