Wednesday, July 05, 2017

In which we mostly talk about work

So summer is over, I guess. I mean, Byram Hills has opened registration for its early September event. If that doesn’t mark the end of summer, I don’t know what does.

I had hoped to get some more material into the toolkit over the long weekend, but I ended up doing other things, all non-debate. For one thing, I did a bunch of reading for the DJ. The good news on that is that I found one I like. That’s a rarity.

The problem with books nowadays is that there are too many of them. Because there are so many, they all seem to be alike. The latest trend is some unreliable female narrator comes across some sort of shenanigans, in which she may or may not have a previous connection, and the reader, not given all the necessary information, has to figure it all out, usually at about the same time as the female narrator. A little of this goes a long way. It’s called psychological suspense, and if you ask me, when a writer can’t really come up with much of a plot, they resort to having some complicated backstory the heroine has to unravel. To me, a plot, including a mystery plot (unless it’s a detective story), moves forward. Things happen, and characters’ reactions define their characters. In the present glut of Girl on a Train wannabes, something happened, and the characters are defined by the way the authors describe the characters. On top of that, a lot of these books, one way or another, are overloaded with violence against women. I’m not against violence in books. I love Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stories, for instance, which are clinically mechanical in their extreme violence, and the clinical mechanics make it not violence per se but a fun approach to violence in books. Child knows what he is doing, and how to get around the potential negativity of a character really good at beating people up. Battered women, on the other hand, don’t offer much creativity. Not my cuppa.

The underlying goal of the DJ is books as entertainment. I do not personally limit books to being merely entertaining, but that is the requirement of the books I choose for the DJ. I’ve discussed before, in the context of movies, what might be the necessities of a medium, or an art form. The classic necessity of a novel is story-telling. There are novels that do not, or only obliquely, tell a story, and some of these are regarded as classic and works of art. But I would maintain that a book that does not tell a story, at some level, fails to fulfill one of the basic requirements of novelness. The genius of writing is when an author provides both a narrative and whatever we might call art in a book, probably insight into humanity, or perhaps a magical way with language. Maybe all of the above.

So, yes, a great writer has something to say. But a good writer may set out only to entertain. There is nothing wrong with that. Popular entertainment is what most of us go to the movies for, for instance. You have to go a long way down the list of the most popular movies of all time to find a message. Or, as Samuel Goldwyn put it, if you want to send a message, use Western Union. An entertaining book, like an entertaining movie, tells an enjoyable story with characters we enjoy being around. Most books, and most movies, try, but don’t deliver on either. Most writers write books because they want to make money as writers, not because they are artists with words. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. But of course, few of them succeed, either the ones trying to make money or the ones trying to make magic.

Anyhow, I get paid to separate the wheat from the chaff, or as some might put it, the good chaff from the bad chaff. Whatever. Later this week I have to make a presentation to this season’s interns on my side of the business. I wonder what I’m going to say to them.


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