Analyzing the Leaves and Missing the Forest

I’m acquainted with some very smart people, and as a general rule I like to hang out with very smart people. For one thing, the conversational levels are usually higher. And, while nearly everyone has something  to teach, in general you’re more likely to learn useful things from people who are smarter than you are. One thing you eventually learn, as the Zen masters have known for centuries, is that intellect and analysis, wonderful tools that they are, sometimes just get in the way. You can wind up focusing your energy on understanding a description of a thing, rather than the thing itself. Naturally, the Zen masters’ “thing” was  satori . Here I’m talking about story, with the following example:

There’s a writer I admire. Call her Writer A. Sexes changed or not for demonstration purposes. There are several writers I admire, and what I’m saying here could apply to almost any of them. Anyway, I like this person’s work. Not in the “I wish I’d written that” vein, since if I were writing like this person I wouldn’t be writing like me, but in the “it’s always interesting to see the world through her eyes for a while” vein.

There’s another writer I admire a little less, call him Writer B. My lesser estimation is emphatically not because he’s a bad writer. On a pure craft level he may be one of the most accomplished writers working in the field today. Reading his work one is often struck by the care of his construction and his precise use of grammar and all the other tools at his disposal. However, I don’t connect with it on any other level. I admire his technical skills but I just don’t get any emotional component. I don’t think there is one and, more to the point, I don’t think Writer B would consider that a fault.

One day I was privileged to witness writer B do a total takedown of Writer A. It was, frankly, fascinating. He took a paragraph at random from one of Writer A’s stories that had gained a lot of positive attention, even an award nomination, and proceeded to tear it apart. The thing was, I agreed with everything he said. Yes, this usage was a problem. Yes, this sentence was probably more ambiguous than she intended. No, I don’t think this was the best expression of that particular metaphor. And on for et many a ceteras, all to demonstrate his thesis that Writer A just wasn’t a very good writer and thus didn’t deserve all the attention she was getting.

Didn’t change my opinion of Writer A in the least. Yes, she is a good writer and again, yes, deserves the attention she’s been getting. Am I excusing bad prose in the service of storytelling? Hardly. This was not bad prose. It was prose that, perhaps, could have been better on a technical level, and this was Writer B’s area of unchallenged expertise. Yet to say that this means Writer A is a bad writer is to miss the point in grand and glorious fashion.

Prose skill is only one thing we read for. It’s extremely important, but it ain’t the whole show. We could all be better at craft. I’d like to think we’re all trying. What a writer has to say and how they express it work hand in hand. Beyond a certain level of craft there’s simply no separating them. Note that I said “a certain level of craft.” This is a moving target, I’m afraid. For Writer B, Writer A falls too far short of his ideal.

Now, here’s where the whole subject gets a little tricky. I can’t say that Writer B’s assessment of Writer A is unfair, because there are award-winning writers in this field that I find simply unreadable for much the same reasons. I can only say that, in Writer A’s case, I don’t agree with him. Yet the reason I don’t agree is not simply because I find Writer A’s prose “good enough,” but rather I find Writer A’s prose is effective in telling the stories that Writer A wants to tell, and I like those stories. They satisfy on an intellectual, emotional and yeah, even spiritual level. The latter are two components which I find totally lacking in Writer B’s work. I admire fine prose as much as the next guy, assuming the next guy really admires fine prose. It’s extremely important. But it’s not enough. Analysis of pure craft can’t explain why one writer’s work is so striking and effective any more than a breakdown of stress and meter explains “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Work that engages on a purely intellectual level has its place. No one likes to have their intelligence insulted and there is joy to be found in the intellect at play. Yet it’s the Numinous that we’re truly reaching for. We’ll probably always fall short; that’s the nature of the beast. But that’s not the point either. A finely-crafted step stool is a lovely thing to behold, but it’s no substitute for a crude but sturdy ladder. At least, when you understand that the real goal is to reach as high as you can.

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