Writers Talk About Writing
Causes of Writing Death: Trivial Purposeful Falsity
We writers about writing mostly write about "good" writing; we give our readers helpful hints on how to write well and point them to masters like Homer and Dickens to show them how it's done.
Good writing, however, does not form the bulk of writing. Like islands lost in the vast Pacific, writing's great works rise as rare peaks above endless oceans of bad writing, books and journals in which the writing is so poor or feeble or dull or trivial or trite or pompous or false or malicious or stupid that it lives for a day and dies away.
Except by complete physical erasure, of course, writing cannot die. As long as the sentences obey the rules of grammar and as long as the ink sticks to the paper, we can read any writing good or bad that comes before our eyes, whether it's The Caxtons by Edward Bulwer-Lytton or Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Yet one day, despite our ability to read anything, bad writing becomes unreadable. We cannot read Tom Jones and The Caxtons with equal ease because the former delights us and the latter bores us. A few paragraphs of Tom Jones and our imaginations, pricked by Fielding's saucy wit, come alive with vivid people in vivid places. A few paragraphs of The Caxtons and our eyes glaze over, our minds defeated by his labored, limited view of life. We close the book. The writing is dead, R.I.P.
What kills writing? Not errors in grammar or weaknesses in style. Too many commas or a fondness for blowzy adjectives can bring a piece of writing to its knees, but in writing as in friendship, clumsy sincerity wears better than elegant vapidity. Here's a 1992 letter written home by a ten-year-old girl at summer camp:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I really want to come home. I hate it here. I cry every single day. Call me the minute you get this! I'm miserable, I'm wasting a summer by crying. 2 bees landed on me today. I feel like I've been here before a year. I hate the camp, the people, and being away from you. I already cried twice today and it's only 2:15.
You don't even write me. Please just let me come home! Please! How can you make me stay here when I'm so miserable? There is know-way you can make me stay here.
Write back. Please let me come home.
This scrap of writing glows with life; Shakespeare would be hard put to surpass Elizabeth's girlish passion. No matter how inexpert or unknown the pen, such writing will never die.
What kills writing is falsity, and the most common killer I call trivial purposeful falsity, TPF for short. For example, this from the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, March 25, 2001. An air of puffery inflates the Styles section week after week, its dozen flimsy pages trumpeting fashionable people and products far beyond their worth. Sensible readers know that Styles section articles are truly ads, not paid for but linked to paid ads elsewhere in the paper.
In that Sunday's Styles Rick Marin puffed "Plasma TV." To Marin's credit, he creates a consistently arch and amusing tone, and he does convey a few believable facts:
Last week Fujitsu lowered the price of its 42-inch screen from $15,999 to $9999.
Mr. Schurman, 44, is the national accounts manager for Recoton, a high-end audio company.
Yet as early as the fourth sentence, the bad writing begins:
I have become obsessed with flat, tube-free TV's, in particular those big wide plasma screens that until recently cost at least $10,000.
Why do I call this bad writing? Because I do not believe that Rick Marin is obsessed with tube-free TVs. He may get a kick out of them, but aside from needing to turn out his latest Styles piece (Marin is a frequent contributor), I believe he doesn't much care about flat screen TVs. Obsessed? Consumed by desire? Losing sleep? No, I do not believe Marin's assertion.
So what? you say. Of course Marin is not obsessed! His exaggerations are a game, a frivolous bit of make-believe, a few strokes of flattery ("You are cool. You are a better person") that we may harmlessly enjoy. I agree; we all know Marin is writing tongue firmly in cheek. Yet I still believe that Rick Marin wrote that he was obsessed with flat-screen TV's when he was not so obsessed. That TPF ensures that his writing will die.
Writing that tells the truth lives, writing that tells untruth dies; there lies the difference between good writing and bad. It is, I admit, not easy to prove that any writing is true or untrue. Perhaps part of Rick Marin does lust after flat-screen TVs. Yet whatever truth creeps into his article is at best a weak and waffly truth, worn out by Wednesday when we throw out the Sunday paper.
TPF lays waste to whole genres of romantic fiction. Despite Trollope's warning that "no terms have been more injurious to novelists than the words, hero and heroine," some writers can't resist the temptation to give readers the superheroes they yearn for. Travis McGee, the central character of a 1960s mystery series by John D. MacDonald ("32 Million Travis McGee Books in Print!"), is a remarkably resilient fellow. In Bright Orange for the Shroud, McGee gets shot: "the slug tore the whole top side of my head off." When he comes to, his right side is paralyzed and he's seeing double, but nothing daunted, he crawls across a yard and climbs a fence to get away from the bad guys. At the hospital his symptoms start to fade away, a miracle cure which MacDonald props up with a doctor spouting stilted paragraphs of medical jargon:
"The left hemisphere of the brain controls the motor nerves and sensory nerves of the right half of the body. We feel that a shock of that severity could well have stunned and deadened the synapses on that side, the nerve function, the ability to originate and transmit orders to the right side of your body. Sensation and control are returning so rapidly, we feel you should be back to normal feeling and use in a day or so."
A day or so? Good enough for most heroes, but within the hour Travis has washed the blood off his face, slipped out of the hospital, gone back to the bad guy's house, found a dead girl in the bathtub, figured out how she died (suicide), wrestled her body out of the tub and onto a bed and, using a disguised voice, called the cops to tell them where to find her. A few hours sleep and he's back on the case despite a wicked headache. "How is it now?" asks a friend. "Better" says the stoical McGee.
TPF makes writing a game gotten up between reader and writer, known by all players not to be true. Why? To satisfy our cravings for sweet deceit. So what if the puff piece deflates tomorrow? So what the hero survives certain death? We had fun today! I've enjoyed my idle hour under the spell of MacDonald's TPF as I have under Marin's, but I still predict that those thirty-two million Travis McGees, while not gone as fast as one Sunday Styles section, will one day vanish as if they never had been.