“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. […] Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”
-Elmore Leonard, “Writers on Writing,” The New York Times
“the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still”
-Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake
I think Leonard broke my writing. He also helped form it: he has a brilliant ear for voices, and I thoroughly enjoy his novels. (I suppose most of us do a little breaking a little healing for most of the people we know). In any case, Leonard’s advice made me afraid to write “the part that readers skip.” I think I mistook him, but I understood that to mean the part that asks a reader to work. Dialogue is easy. It snaps back and forth, like the game of questions in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It lends itself to competitions, confusions, comedies. Great last lines wave their ideological flag and high five themselves, or bow. That’s great for putting stars in the sky for us to steer by, but it’s less suited to showing the slow truth, day by day, of growing.
All of The Wake asks me to work. That’s part of its gift. Kingsnorth’s intensity demands my intensity. He’s writing about the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and to tell that story, he’s created a “shadow tongue:” a language that’s as close as he can get to what was spoken then while still being intelligible to readers now. His “shadow tongue” can be daunting, but if I stay him, he’ll show me to another world–and he’ll show me how this other world helped create my own. If you want an example of the lasting influences The Wake explores, look at your food. The poultry and beef we eat comes from chickens and cows. The first two words are from French, from the rich Normans who could afford meat. The second two are Germanic, from the poor Saxons who tended flocks and herds. To tell us the story of this divide, to make us see and feel it, Kingsnorth insists that we hear what is familiar in the confusion of what is foreign.
I’m not separating Easy Entertainment from Difficult Art. Art can be entertaining, accessible, and good. It can also be hard. I think Leonard’s right to remind us to do something that matters, that’s alive, and that’s not obsessed with its own (perceived) cleverness. I think Kingsnorth’s right to have a wild idea, an idea that will make us struggle, and to dive into it with joy and determination. the night was clere though i slept i seen it. Some things we can only see strangely, passionately, bewilderingly, as though through changing glass, as though through our dreams.