What can YOU say in six sentences?
Wasn't sure where else to post this, but I had to share. This is from David Simon, writer/producer of The Wire, in the liner notes to the soundtrack (which is itself excerpted from an e-mail exchange between Simon and Nick Hornby from the August 2007 issue of The Believer magazine):
"My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell."
Having watched every blessed second of The Wire, I am willing to take David Simon's word on ANYTHING.
This discussion really hits home for me right now because I am the copy editor of an 800-page scholarly manuscript on Zoroaster and the author, a brilliant man born in Iran, has been tasked by his publisher to 'dumb down' his manuscript ever so slightly. Thus, it falls to me to take many of his lo-ong winding, densely written sentences and shorten them into more "Americanized" bites. The prose is marbled through and through with historical references, Latin words, references to antiquity -- as it should be for a scholarly work. It is a book for other scholars, not the hoi polloi, and he rankles with every change. BUT, I have my brief in writing from the publisher to fix his writing so that it is clearer to the untrained eye. Every page makes me smarter. I know about worlds heretofore hidden and great thinkers from Plato to the present. It's a joy as well as a job. I doubt I will ever see writing-in-the-raw like this again.
I beg to differ with Mr Simon on two important points. I have one point two children, and no cat.
This is a great quote. I think Gita said it best with her comment when she spoke of every page making her smarter. Sometimes I feel like the average reader when it comes to certain books, but I don't allow that to discourage me from making the most out of the subject matter. I think a true talent can engage both, to a degree… or at least encourage the average reader to press on and seek the wisdom of the what lies beneath the jargon that they don't understand.
I totally agree with the last sentence of your reply to Kristine and am currently struggling to complete research on my project. Even with a vpn (virtually private network for sites blocked in Middle East), I am finding myself at a dead end on all things priestly. I have a a chunk of story about the seminary that I can't write realistically.
Brittany, can I send you things? Can I find potentially helpful links (with your direction) and email them to you?
Well, with regard to exposition, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Exposition is background info on character, plot, whatever, and sometimes it's necessary, and any writer who ignores this, regardless of how perspicacious or intuitive his or her readership is, is falling down on the job.
As with everything else, it's how it's done that makes it or breaks it.
Just for the hell of it I'm going to quote an expository page from Red Harvest, Hammett's novel of a gangster-run town in Montana in the '20s. Without this exposition the story would have lacked the punch and dimension that made it a classic of American literature. In addition, it's one of the most engaging and entertaining passages ever written by anyone:
"For forty years, old Elihu Wilson, father of the man who had been killed this night--had owned Personville, heart, soul, skin, and guts. He was president and majority stockholder of the Personville Mining Corporation, ditto of the First National Bank, owner of the Morning Herald and Evening Herald, the city's only newspapers, and at least part owner of nearly every other enterprise of any importance. Along with these pieces of property he owned a United States senator, a couple of representatives, the governor, the mayor, and most of the state legislature. Elihu Wilson was Personville, and he was almost the whole state.
"Back in the war days the I.W.W.--in full bloom then throughout the west--had lined up the Personville Mining Corporation's help. The help hadn't been exactly pampered. They used their new strength to demand the things that they wanted. Old Elihu gave them what he had to give them and bided his time.
"In 1921 it came. Business was rotten. Old Elihu didn't care whether he shut down for awhile or not. He tore up the agreements he had made with his men and began kicking them back into their pre-war circumstances.
"Of course the help yelled for help. Bill Quint was sent out from I.W.W. headquarters in Chicago to give them some action. He was against a strike, an open walk-out. He advised the old sabotage racket, staying on the job and gumming things up from the inside. But that wasn't active enought for the Personville crew. They wanted to put themselves on the map, make labor history.
"The strike lasted eight months. Both sides bled plenty. The wobblies had to do their own bleeding. Old Elihu hired gunmen, strike-breakers, national guardsmen, and even parts of the regular army to do his. When the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Personville was a used firecracker.
"But, said Bill Quint, Old Elihu didn't know his Italian history. He won the strike, but he lost his hold on the city and state. To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild. When the fight was over he couldn't get rid of them. He had given his city to them and he wasn't strong enough to take it away from them. Personville looked good to them and they took it over. They had won his strike for him and they took the city for their spoils. He couldn't openly break with them. They had too much on him. He was responsible for all they had done during the strike."
Hammett had been a Pinkerton agent in Montana at this time and knew that no picture of Butte or Helena or Anaconda, Montana could possibly be rendered without this kind of expository history of what these towns had become. And I love the Italian history reference, nailing Mussolini and Elihu's gangsters as brothers under the skin.
There was a time when I had this whole passage memorized...
The Hammett material that Robert posted proves one thing: If you can make your exposition read like narrative, then you are not really interrupting the story. Explanations and "background" don't have to be clunky.
Loved this, thanks Crisman.
Well. Now I feel stupid for having enjoyed your "Average Reader" post, and actually considered taking my comment down.
I am a decidedly average reader, and primarily read for plot interest. I am not so thick as to be unable to detect a theme or appreciate beautiful language, but references to the great authors and philosophers are lost on me. Tricky structure and a lack of conventions confuse me.
Certainly, I would be pleased to know that my writing brought any other living person a sense of joy or wonder.
Not sure how I fit into this discussion, if at all. It makes me feel rather shallow and ashamed of my abilities, but I am honored to be a small part of such a fine group. I think.
Angela: Judging by your writing, you anything but an average reader. How one writes reflects how one reads, I believe, and the things one admires in others' writing are things they attempt to emulate to whatever degree their work or talent makes possible. Your work concerns the deepest, most powerful human emotions, actions and truth, and the way you write about these subjects sheds fresh, needed light on them for anyone lucky enough to read your words. It was certainly not my intent to make anyone feel badly when I posted this, as I consider nearly everyone on this site an extraordinary reader; and as far as your being a small part of such a fine group, yes, it is a fine group, but I can assure you that you are not a small part. You are essential.
And to everyone: It's possible that my pretensions got the better of me this time, so apologies all around to anyone who thought this was in any way aimed in their direction.
Nobody thought you were being pretentious. All David Simon was saying was, he wants to write for smart people. Nothing wrong with that. Your next writer might come along and want to write for dog-lovers or romance fans. Dude was being honest.
I don't feel that Bill was being pretentious, either. The notion that writing for different audiences has different rewards for different writers is a fine one to explore, which is what I hope part of the point was.
However, I think Simon is saying a whole lot more than just that. I think "Fuck him. Fuck him to hell." is pretty goddamn hostile sounding. I think Simon's tone is contemptuous toward the people for whom he chooses not to write. What follows from that is disrespect for other writers.