I Know Nothing About Writing

I have been a working journalist for 30 years, I have served as a newspaper and magazine editor, and I am an author, book editor and publisher. I’ve won a number of awards for my writing and editing, and I am a judge for the annual San Diego Book Awards. I also conduct writing workshops for the SDBAA and other organizations.

But, like Philip Roth, I digress.

My point in laying out this background is not to thump my chest about a weighty career as a professional writer and editor.


american-pastoral-rothI’m saying this as a prelude to what’s coming next; to wit: I just finished reading Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral. Not far into the book I began having troubling thoughts, and, as I continued flipping pages, those troubling thoughts grew in intensity until they reached a crescendo at the end of his mighty tome, whereupon my mind reeled with the implications, spinning me into walls, whereupon I pounded my head to induce pain and obscure that dark, discomfiting deliberation. How could this be? I have dedicated three decades to my craft and my artistic endeavors. I (and others) have concluded that I’m a pretty fair writer. I’m confident I know what constitutes good writing, good story telling.

To paraphrase Roth: I am wrong.

I can only conclude, my life’s work notwithstanding, that after reading Roth’s “masterpiece” (the publisher’s word, not mine) I know nothing about what constitutes good writing.

Witness: I have never devoted the first 68 pages of a narrative to defining the central character (or, as an editor, never allowed an author to do so) without revealing what the story is actually about. That revelation, the narrative hook, is “supposed” to occur much earlier, in less than half that space (some would argue a third, or even less). But never mind those pesky, arbitrary “rules” coined by elitist literati, for such is the case in Roth’s acclaimed American Pastoral, where a pillar of Jewish society (ironically named “Swede”), residing in New Jersey, where he manufactures the finest of women’s gloves, has a disgruntled, rebellious daughter (ironically named “Merry”) who, in protest of the Vietnam War, explodes a bomb at a post office, resulting in the death of a fellow human being (a doctor, no less), thus humiliating her community-minded father and beauty pageant-winning mother, who was raised as a God-fearing, rosary-fondling Catholic.

Nor, as hard as I have tried, have I ever been able to write (or allowed the writing of) a sentence, consisting of dozens of dependent clauses and asides, that stretches to roughly 315 words and fills in excess of one entire page of densely formatted text; not even Faulkner accomplished such a remarkable achievement!

Nor have I the stomach for writing (or allowing the writing of) an entire exchange of dialogue that cloaks multiple pages with a single paragraph, without attribution to the characters engaged in said dialogue. Why, to fully comprehend and appreciate the magnificence of this literary coup, I had to read these exchanges multiple times, kicking myself all the while for being such an obvious nitwit. (I say “obvious nitwit” because the Boston Globe characterizes Roth’s book as “dazzling . . . gorgeous,” and the San Francisco Chronicle describes it as “at once expansive [agreed] and painstakingly [perhaps painfully?] detailed.”)

Nor have I ever tried beginning (or allowed the beginning of)—and this sleight of hand is worthy of Houdini—a book with the point of view of first-person narrative, the exposition devoted to the relationship between the narrator (Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman) and the main character (Swede), then killing off the main character one-third of way into the book, before the narrator actually becomes aware of the main character’s inner turmoil regarding his terrorist daughter’s actions, and—without the aid of smoke or mirrors—shifting to the third-person omniscient point of view to reveal the innermost thoughts of the now-dead main character and morbidly flesh out the corpulent remainder of the 430-page book. (See? I tried, but, alas, the sentence is a paltry 115 words in length.)

Nor would I dismiss (or allow the dismissal of), after such an expansive and painstaking buildup, a denouement with an abstruse reference to the aforementioned wretched daughter coming out of concealment to return home and, apparently, disrupt a dinner party attended by a female character, only lately introduced, who hijacks the climactic moment with fork in hand, deus ex machina, and laughs at her own joke (and perhaps Roth’s joke, assuming the joke is on the reader).

American Pastoral has a compelling and important story behind it; if only Roth’s self-indulgence, like Merry’s veil, hadn’t shrouded it with vapid ramblings.

I have been nominated for a Pulitzer, but obviously I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. No! What was I thinking? Why did I ever bother reading Hemingway, the “master of dialogue,” with his simple (some would say simplistic), unadorned writing style, and instead devote more attention to Roth and his laborious, convoluted—and by definition “literary”—style, before I completed my latest book?

What’s that? Hemingway also won a Pulitzer Prize?

Go figure.

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About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- www.larryedwards.com -- www.dareicallitmurder.com -- www.larryedwards.com/wigeonpublishing/
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5 Responses to I Know Nothing About Writing

  1. shirleyhs says:

    Larry, I enjoyed reading this post. I lean toward Hemingway (and Willa Cather) also and away from Roth. I have no desire to read this book especially after your humorous exposé of its excesses. Can you imagine Roth lugging that manuscript to NYC as an unknown writer without an MFA (and contacts in New York?). I doubt that anyone would read it, let alone call it a literary masterpiece.

  2. susanpjames says:

    Humorous and intriguing review. Come on, Larry, it won the Pulitzer prize so who can argue with that? There must be a reason apart from the fact that he’s Philip Roth, considered one of the great writers of our time. I wonder if it won the Pulitzer based more on how the book addressed social issues of the 60s rather than for its great writing.

  3. I wanted to have a little fun it, but at the same time I think it does call into question what constitutes good writing, and “literary” versus “pop fiction.” As for the social issues, you may have a point, but the social issues are largely buried (and lost) by the over-written avalanche of character backgrounds.

    I’ve a read a number of reviews that have sentiments similar to mine, and a few reviewers have suggested Roth got the prize for life’s work rather the merits of that particular book.

  4. Pingback: Show, Don’t Tell: A Writing Lesson from Stephen King | Polishing Your Prose

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