Writing: Good vs. Bad

I’ve been reading Tea Obreht’s book, The Tiger’s Wife, this past week, and it’s brought up a point about writing I’ve been thinking about ever since I got into this business.  First of all, though, a little about the book.

I’d heard a lot about the book over the past year, so when I was at the bookstore about a week and a half ago and I saw it on a display table, I decided to get my own copy.  At first I put it in my “books-to-be-read pile” on the table by the window, but after I finished the book I was reading, I couldn’t resist tackling it because I’d heard it was so good.  It had made a lot of personal favorites lists, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  So far I haven’t been disappointed.

The book is about a young doctor, Natalia, in an unnamed Balkan country during wartime, probably the breakup of the old Yugoslavia of the 90’s.  She’s looking for details about her grandfather’s recent death, but the war has made finding out what happened difficult.  The tiger’s wife is a story he’d told her when he was still living, along with another story about the “deathless man.”  (I’ll leave it to you to read the book and find out what that means.)  If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it, and I’ll undoubtedly put it on my list of recommended books on this blogsite.  But enough said about the book.

The book is well-written, certainly, and it falls into the rather nebulous category of “I couldn’t put it down.”  That’s usually not strictly true, of course, but it indicates a book so well-written that a reader finds himself or herself captured in the story, and reads and reads for so long that it only seems like he/she “couldn’t put it down.”  I’ve been reading it for about a week now, and I’m fascinated by the story and the fluid way Ms. Obreht tells it.  It’s like the story flows from the page into your brain without impediment.  And that’s what I want to talk about.

I’ve always wanted to write that well.  I’ve refined my style over the years to try to write as though–as it’s usually put by the masters of writing education–the writing is “invisible” to the reader.  Other people say, if it sounds like writing, re-write it.  In other words, the information in the prose of your style shouldn’t be hindered in any way in getting out to the reader.  The author should be totally out of sight and out of mind.  I suspect Ms. Obreht’s style and work would fit that description very well.

But that’s not really true, is it?  An author can never be out of sight or out of mind.  The author is always right there in the words.  The choice of words, the way the author strings those words together, those are all a part of the author’s style, and can never be “invisible.”  A reader may like the way a particular author strings words together to form sentences, and the way he puts sentences together into paragraphs, and the info of those sentences may flow easily into the reader’s mind, but the author is never invisible.  He’s always there, always glaring back at you from the printed page, or from the screen of your e-reader.  That’s what makes a good or bad author.  That’s what distinguishes John Updike from, say, Janet Evanovich.  It is that stringing of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and so on that makes a book so good that you end up saying, “I couldn’t put it down.”  If a writer is invisible, he’s not saying anything.

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