It’s no secret that I love Cormac McCarthy. His style and voice are very distinct and his process, as I’ve heard him describe it, is quite organic and unstructured. As a writer, my goal is to be able to do what he does in a similar fashion. But as a reader, holy lord almighty does some of his prose bore the ever living shit out of me. According to my Goodreads, his All the Pretty Horses took me four months and seven days to laboriously crawl through. In contrast, my second favorite, No Country for Old Men, took me twenty days, while, prepare yourself, my favorite, The Road, took a scant 12 days. Compare this to the first two books of Rick Riordan’s horribly composed Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which each took seven days, and it makes me wonder if something within me is horribly askew.
I want to make clear that whenever prose takes me a long time to get through, it’s not that I think it’s poorly written. The Pulitzer Prize winning book Tinkers, which is just 191 pages, took me a full month to finish, and it’s one of the best written books I’ve ever read. The problem with these books is that not a lot happens. Nothing grabs me. It’s almost as if the author has spent more time creating something written well than creating a captivating story.
Now this brings me to what I call “The Harry Potter Debate.” I’ve got a couple friends who argue that J.K. Rowling is not all she’s made up to be. She’s a formulaic writer who created a fantastically entertaining world, but her writing leaves something to be desired. One of my friends, a buddha-resembling, Jiujitsu studying, self-described philosopher that I’m going to call “Tom,” once looked at me with his serious face and said, “Dude, she’s a shit writer.”
“Well, Tom,” I said. “I disagree.”
My argument is that it takes talent for a writer like Rowling to create a world and a story that is so intriguing that anyone from children to adults can read and enjoy it. Sure, her prose isn’t Shakespearean, but it’s very good. If the recession hadn’t come in like a hurricane and I’d pursued my PhD, I’d have loved to have taught a Harry Potter seminar. Not only can writers learn a lot from her, but her novels certainly have literary merit, even if they aren’t difficult to get through. And I think that’s the point a lot of pinky lifting literati would only concede in secret: that complexity is a sign of “high” literature. As if the ease or difficulty of reading something somehow signifies its literary value. I certainly am guilty of this line of thought. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to purposely make my prose complex with the final goal of appearing more literary.
But of course, let’s not oversimplify the modus operandi that establishes the status quo of today’s literary author. Often, a complex thinker creates complex writing. Pick up any philosophy book written in the last hundred years and try to to get through a paragraph without having to reread it to fully grasp its meaning. But imagine conveying a complex idea by using simple writing. To me, that is an art far more difficult. And that’s something J.K. Rowling has down with her epic series. Indeed, it’s difficult to read and not see her raging against prejudice and inflammatory gossip. She paints the media as a hyperbolic ratings machine, which very accurately mirrors the media of today. Not only has she done this, but she’s done it in a way that is accessible to just about anyone who knows how to read.
So, what have we learned today, class? Less importantly, that I’m a slow reader (and, by the way, I’ve read the HP series twice and each books takes me about a week). And that complexity does not signify a complex concept, but it also doesn’t not signify it. Simple writing isn’t better, but perhaps it can be better if it conveys a complex concept. Philosophy may have influenced the popular but ultimately erroneous thought that complex prose is more literary, but literature itself is not philosophy. So really, just like in philosophy, we’ve raised more questions than we’ve answered. Most specifically, I think, is this: What, truly, does it mean to be a “good writer”?