Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Best Writers

I put off reading Eragon by Christopher Paolini for a long time. Though I'm a voracious reader, when it comes to fantasy, I'm kind of a snob. Under the influence of my older brother Jeff, I read Tolkein's LOTR trilogy in high school, and actually read The Hobbit as a grade-schooler. From thence, I've tried to read all sorts of other fantasy. While I was overjoyed to find there were the likes of Frank Herbert, Richard Adams, Terry Partchett, Harry Harrison and others of their fine stripe out there, too often I was dismayed to find people like Terry Brooks, who struggled to get past the fact that fantasy writing, in general, is very formulaic and not the easiest genre to pull of successfully.

Then came Eragon, borne of a 15-year-old Montanan steeped in reading the same authors I enjoy. I hear tell one of the reasons he decided to write fantasy was that he couldn't find a lot of good fantasy writing out there.

I hope that's just a legend because, frankly, his writing isn't all that good.

I know, I know. He wrote it as a teenager. We should all be duly impressed by such talent at such a young age. But I think it's too easy to peg Paolini as a genius. Charles van Doren famously quipped that you could fill Yankee Stadium with the world's mediocre novelists, and it's quite certain some novelists hailed as geniuses would be there, eating red hots and sipping beer.

Good writers go beyond understanding the formula. They go beyond plotting their stories. They go beyond characterization. All of these elements are extremely important, and the best writers who proceed without them are doomed to be snickered at and booed. But the writers who are the best writers recognize that the best story, the best characterizations, the best plotting are the skeletons and musculature to which the skin of beautiful writing is attached.

To stray from the fantasy genre -- look at the likes of Steinbeck, Bradbury, let alone Tolkein, Herbert, Adams and the others -- you find the best writers are those who have it all. They know how to turn a phrase. Herbert, for example, and Adams, to a certain extent -- you forget that most of the dialogue in their novels take place as the characters basically sit around, lounging, doing nothing but talking or walking. You get caught up in the language, which soars. Steinbeck, especially, combines beautiful language with such characterizations that you can always pick out a Steinbeck story from the pack. This is the kind of talent that wins Nobel prizes.

I'll give Paolini credit for a wonderful achievement. But as I read his next novels, I hope to see him go beyond focusing on the genre and get into the craft of writing. That'll push him out of Yankee Stadium.

Honestly, reading Paolini reminded me of this XKCD webcomic. To be truthful, other fantasy genre writers also make up plenty of words (Tolkein and Herbert come to mind) but in their craft of writing, the made-up words don't feel as forces as they do in Paolini's Eragon. It takes a lot of skill as a writer (not just as a story-dreamer-upper or plotter or maker of characters) to make fantasy sing. Eragon doesn't -- see examples in "The Best Part" on the sidebar.

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