03 March 2006

Good Writing and Excellent Writing

The thing I liked most about Platonov's stories was that he writes well and does not need to resort to gimmicks. That's the kind of "spare" writing I love. One of those gimmicks I like the least is having too many bad things happen to the people in the book. And that's my complaint with a lot of modern fiction. I just finished rereading Karen Hesse's children's book Out of the Dust. She is an excellent writer and I didn't think she needed to have the circumstances surrounding the fire (although that set of trials was certainly a lot more realistic than other books I've read, including children's books).

That's my same complaint with The Secret Life of Bees. I very much enjoyed the story, but I thought all the things that happened to the main character were simply too much. This happens over and over in so many books. A really good writer can take things from every day life and create an excellent and engaging story without resorting to a variety of awful circumstances. From the number of times these awful circumstances crop up in fiction, you'd think everyone was dealing with these issues all the time. They use those awful things to propel the story and keep you interested. Tension and conflict isn't bad- we all have to deal with it in our lives. But it shouldn't be what makes a story, or our lives, interesting.

In short, good writers keep you reading in spite of these annoying plots. But they need some help from the gimmicks. But excellent writers keep you reading because they don’t use these gimmicks at all.


  1. wow, I just came across your blog. I'm actually planning to go to Bishkek to study some time soon, inshaAllah. It's so nice to get a first hand experience of what to expect!

  2. I agree that there is a large difference between good writing and excellent writing, although I disagree on another point.

    Perhaps the authors of books which do add all the difficult circumstances are telling a fictional story based on fact that they or someone they know had to endure, survive and come out of relatively normal. I don't think that this is gimmick or trick in many cases. I know for myself, my siblings and even in my children's lives that if I were to write true detailed biographies, some would believe it were stretched or bent to invite symphathies or add excitement. Some folks actually have these circumstances that are almost beyond belief.

    For me, The Life of Bees, and other books help bring me down to earth and allow me to see that "yup, life stinks, but hey, everyone goes through this stuff and you can change it or it will change you." For me, fiction is a life where not much happens. It's a difference of the reality in which one grew up. Some of us grow in poverty, others live in the country or city, still others have one big trial after another...just different, not necessarily sensational.

  3. I'm glad you stopped by Atiya. I hope you can come to Bishkek. It's a nice places to live. I enjoyed your blog. I'm a bit surprised that you'd choose to come here to study to be a doctor.

    s'mee, I recall that we disagreed on this point before. :) If I'm reading about real trials, I'd rather read non-fiction. Even though my life might seem easy, we've had our own trials and I've never seen anything like them addressed in any fiction. But I've found people I can understand in non-fiction.

    I just prefer fiction that has people dealing with the consequences of their choices instead of all the bad things that happen to them. To me, this is one of the biggest differences between modern and "classic" fiction. Madame Bovary, Lily Bart, what's-her-name in A Portrait of a Lady, these and many more don't have anything particularly terrible happen to them, but the authors create telling stories. Certainly there were plenty of choices involved in Bees. But she was pushed into those choices by what happened to her, not because of things she had control over.

    But you get sucked into Bees because Lily (was that her name?) killed her mother. Someone might keep reading for another reason, but they put that on the back of the book and you just have to find out how it all works out. Unnecessary in my mind. But not in yours. :)

  4. Speaking of good writing...is it possible that I just read a certain essay from you for Segullah's next issue?

    It was so intriguing...

  5. Bishkek is a rather intriguing place. :)