Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Great literature is not always "good" writing

This column was published in the Tri-Valley Herald in January 2007.

In a few weeks I’ll be greeting a classroom of new faces for my evening English class at Las Positas College. I’ve been teaching part-time for more than a decade, and I love it.

Problem is, teaching people to write is no easy task. Take the idea of delving into passages from great literature for examples of good writing. It may sound funny, but this doesn’t always work since great authors aren’t always good writers.

I remember years ago handing my students a page from William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear.” As we read aloud a lengthy passage—festooned with semi-colons and dashes that defy the rules of punctuation—I stopped to explain that Faulkner’s writing often consists of long, hypnotic sentences, or stream of consciousness writing. I also noted that Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, never received a college degree and, in fact, never graduated from high school.

“As you might guess,” I said as we finished the difficult text, “Billy Faulkner probably wouldn’t get an A for this passage in many English classes.”

Marcel Proust is another great author from whom we can learn how not to write. This turn-of-the-century French author once wrote a sentence in his most famous work, “In Search of Lost Time,” that goes on for more than 13 feet.

Of course, Proust spent his days as a shut-in, often sleeping away the day, and waking only long enough to read the newspaper. Not the best example for college students.

This isn’t to say that these great authors haven’t made a significant contribution to art and literature. Their genius is in their ability to push to new heights the limits of literature and ideas, much as Picasso did for visual arts or E. E. Cummings did for poetry.

But a student emulating the actual writing of many great authors would likely see red ink flow from the pen of his or her English teacher.

Certainly authors who lived long ago wrote by a different set of expectations than we have today. Though we can learn a great deal about human nature by studying Shakespeare, we wouldn’t read him to copy his writing style.

But what’s ironic is the number of modern authors whose style we shouldn’t try to imitate.

Take James Joyce. This Irish man of letters is considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Yet his 1933 “Finnegans Wake” consists of crytpic and nearly inscrutable prose.

Here’s part of a sentence by Joyce in a passage referencing the wake itself: “in the Nichtian glossery which purveys aprioric roots for aposteriorious tongues this is nat language in any sinse of the world.”

I dare any student to write like that in an essay.

Fortunately, many contemporary writers can help us learn the craft of writing, and in my class we read a number of stories and non-fiction pieces to discover tips to good writing.

One trait common to all good writing is the ability to say more with less. Because writers use words as their medium, many students assume the more words we use the better.

In fact, using fewer words that say exactly what is meant is more effective. We should leave our readers with crisp images and ideas, not with a pile of words to pick through.But that’s hard work for a writer because writing well takes time.

Mark Twain, whose Victorian style we wouldn’t imitate today, said it well when he wrote, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”


she said...

("he's back! he's back!")

and what a great read.

i'm planning, right now, for what disguise i'll wear, to slip into your classroom.

i can't attach "great writer" to any author i can't myself understand. i attach "great writer" to the authors whose books i can't put down

it's as individual in taste as wine or art, don't you think?

and if i were king of distributing awards and declaring to the general public who deserves recognition for outstanding work in non-fiction:

elizabeth gilbert for eat, pray love.

and fiction: mark haddon.

i'm quite tempted to retype a chapter or ten out of his books to better understand his magic.

and i'm curious jim,

what book/author has made you put your calls on hold, cancel important dates or late for work?


Jim Ott said...

Great question, she. Aside from some recent poetry I've read, the authors over the years who've captured my heart are the words of my students and the people I write about in my columns. They have so many inspiring stories to tell. And though--unlike my students who write their own words--I do the writing of the stories for the people in my columns, the words are truly all theirs.

Sure, I've read everything by Steinbeck and John Irving, poet Li-Young Lee and others, but the stories that resonate are right here around us, from people we meet, people we can't help but end up caring deeply about.

Can't wait until you visit my classroom. Anyone who reads my blog is invited. No disguises necessary!