Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What is Good Writing?

This week I had the (always) frustrating activity of helping one of my sons pick a book for a book report. His school uses the Accelerated Reader program which, no offense, I detest with a passion. It's not that I don't think AR is worthwhile - it is to the extent that it helps the teachers steer the kids who are not proficient readers toward books that may be more challenging than they might otherwise read and it lets them easily track how much their students are reading. But my issue with AR has always been trying to find books that challenge an extremely proficient reader that are also on the AR list and eligible to be used for book reports (and don't even get me started on what it's like to find historical fiction for a boy who reads at the 12th grade level that is both interesting to him and on the AR list).

Our issue this week was finding a science fiction book for him to read. The only books that AR had listed at the 8th grade and up level his teacher wanted him to read were those in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey series and Alan Dean Foster, neither choice thrilled me having read both. The book I thought he would enjoy, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was, alas, rated at 5.2. And here is where I really take issue with AR. It's rankings are based on the length of the book and the difficulty of the vocabulary, not the complexity of issues in the book. So books by Bradbury, George Orwell and, believe it or not, Shakespeare (who wrote plays, yes, I know) are ranked below those of the Series of Unfortunately Events by Lemony Snickett. Again, please, I'm not disparaging. Really, I'm not. But when Hamlet is ranked lower than the first book in the SUE series, something is wrong. Fortunately, the teacher agreed with me and my son will be reading Fahrenheit 451. In fact, he'd already started and really loves it. But then, this is a kid I read Kafka's The Metamorphosis to as a bedtime story when he was in 2nd grade because he asked me to after I told him it was about a guy turning into a cockroach. He loved it and he understood it, too.

But here's what I really want to get at, the thing that AR misses. Books do not have to be long or contain complex vocabulary to be good. The best writing is clear and concise. The best writers are those who can take complex ideas and explain them in the simplest of ways so that the most people can understand them. (Shakespeare is complex only because we don't speak like they did in Elizabethan England, but, once you get beyond the changes in the language, you realize he's actually making quite clear some of the greatest mysteries of the human heart. Ideas that are so universal, we understand them at once.)

It's always subjective (which is the element the AR ratings are trying to get beyond - those questions of good writing versus bad). Is it bad writing because it doesn't appeal to a wide audience? Or does that mean that it's ideas are so elevated only a few people can (or should be able to) understand them? It's Ray Bradbury (who always wrote at a 6th grade level) vs. Arthur C. Clarke. All I know is when Richard Feynman talks, I understand physics because he's able to express those complex ideas in ways that are comprehensible.

Which is what I think my job is as a writer. I am supposed to make complex ideas accessible. It is my job to communicate to my readers what it feels like to be inside another person's head, another person's heart, and make them understand that person from the inside out. I think there is no territory so foreign as another person's heart. Make that comprehensible to another human being, make a reader feel as if he or she is not alone because someone else knows how it feels to be inside this skin, make it accessible and real, and that's what good writing is all about. Good writing takes the specific and expresses in a way that it becomes universal. Shakespeare knew that. That's why we can relate to a Danish prince or an English king or a pair of teenage lovers in Verona and feel as if they speak to us. It is my job to be human and to write about what it means to be this human in this particular skin in this particular time and place as clearly and simply as I know how so you, the reader, can understand it, so you can feel it, so you can live it, so, after you're done with my book, you understand a little more about the world than when you started reading. That's my job. And when I succeed, that's good writing.

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