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Saturday, 6 February 2010

Compelling Readability

I gave up an entire weekend to "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman last month. I took the book everywhere with me, even to the smallest room in the house and other peoples' houses.
How does a writer like Gaiman achieve it? When reading the first sentence is like slipping down the Winter Olympics track on a luge, when progressing from chapter to chapter distorts a reader's perception of time.  I call this seemingly magical quality Compelling Readability.

Gaiman is not the only one: Armistead Maupin wrote of Clive Barker possessing the 'easy confidence of a tribal storyteller - an elder who has seen everything and committed most of it to scripture. '. No matter how outlandish or outrageous the tales, the reader trustingly surrenders to the writer. Those first storytellers appealed to a mass audience gathered around in a large collective.

Remember, the first stories were not written down to be individually read, their word-of-mouth was literally, word of mouth . Shakespeare would laugh if he saw students writing essays about his plays and sonnets.  Literary theory, admiration and analysis hijack sheer experience; 'How?' becomes more important than ,'Wow!'

I won't apologize that the writers mentioned in this post are are deemed popular, I never trusted the demarcation between popular and literary because the two are not mutually exclusive and a poor gauge of merit. To paraphrase Donald Maas, readers mostly want a good story, not merely fine writing. (Jane Austen's novels were not popular when she was alive, John Kennedy Toole committed suicide because of the negative reception to "A Confederacy of Dunces") But I am not championing airport novels and trashy bestsellers except to say, perhaps the readers of these books may benefit from the writers being deceased...

How does a writer cultivate this tangible yet elusive quality of Compelling Readability in his/her writing?  Classes, courses and books only teach craft and technique of words, not how to make words fly to a reader's heart.

Write your stories as if a stadium of people is listening to you. If that visual is too daunting, reduce audience size to a group gathered around a campfire. Any school kid will attest to the fact that the best stories are told around a campfire.


Anonymous said...

"No matter how outlandish or outrageous the tales, the reader trustingly surrenders to the writer."

Well said. That is the mark of a master.

simmone said...

the stadium would freak me out. But I might try the campfire... great post.

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