“If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative. I strove to master words to make them disappear . . . .”
“Human Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out Tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.”
I love both these quotes because of their driven, aspirational sense of longing. And yet there’s a vast difference between them, isn’t there? Richard speaks of mastering words in order to evoke a response from his readers as if it were something that can actually be achieved while poor Gustave seems to despair of ever being able to accomplish what he strives for through the “cracked kettle” of language.
And yet, each of these writers in his own way was reaching for the same thing: evoking an emotional response in readers. When I think of writers I love And who have inspired me — writers like Willa Cather and Thornton Wilder, for example — I think of their ability to move readers by using language so simply and elegantly that it’s almost transparent — that it almost disappears, leaving in its wake pure emotion.
To me, this is very different from language that is precious and self-absorbed, language that calls attention to itself and seems to say more about the author than the reader. I see a lot of this in what’s known as “literary fiction.” Often, I can just feel a writer straining to come up with some artful way to describe something. When I see this I feel as if he or she is waving a red flag at me saying, “See how clever I am!” and it pulls me away from the story being told. Language in service to story — this is what great writers are striving for, I think. Language in service to language and self, this is where wannabees end up. Write on.