Friday, June 27, 2014

From Charles Dickens, John Grisham, and Others, difficult ease makes it work

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the  epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was....."' The rest of the quote adds up to one long paragraph whose lines may appear to be simple or easy writing, while being far from it. That's how classics come to be, making the difficult appear easy to the point of the obvious. Yet, it was Dickens who thought of writing it that one memorable way in a form to earn rapt attention. Millions of readers have remembered the opening words of A Tale of Two Cities because Charles Dickens opened his story with a distinctive form of balance, imbalance, variety and similarity.    

The feeling and passion of Dickens enter at the first line. Since he shows such passion, we immediately sense the importance of his subject. Every writer hopes to uncover the rare quality of that first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities or the words describing a character as "Bah humbug" describes Scrooge. The latter says so much more than could be said through many words. To find that elusive, perfectly fitting kind of expression is what every practicing writer wants. 

It's likely that you and I can tell within the first paragraph of any new read whether or not it is our kind of book. If the style or flow suits what we're looking for, we willingly spend time with it. In fiction I can go from John Grisham, C.J. Box, Mary Higgens Clark and others, to Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, James Patterson and others, knowing there will be either a good story or a good story plus mind-expanding writing. 

Mainly, I think that you and I love to find the style that reads smoothly yet not too simply. We want clarity along the lines. And if you're like me you want to be intrigued. The likes of Jane  Austen, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte lead the fiction expectations of English readers.

Our brains adjust to and forgive hiccups, especially in the case of translations into English. I willingly adjust to tiny errors in books by Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese writer now living in the U.S. His stories include historical and sociological views of life in Shanghai. My eyes are opened so that I feel that I can almost touch the laundry that hangs high and low across narrow passage-ways. I bear with ubiquitous poetry lines and references far outside what I call familiar, because the writing flows toward its goal regardless of how much, along the way, I don't know where the author is taking his story and me along with it. 

This is all part of the intrigue of what minds and language can do in capable hands. We can be in familiar and foreign territory at emotional and other levels. From a still place we move with characters that seem alive and in our imaginations are living, acting, and reacting. And in Qiu Xiaolong's world, today's Chinese leaders issue new dictionaries of allowed and disallowed phrases. Listening to U.S. Conversations and arguments I relate to our version of the Chinese dictionary of approved/disapproved phrases. "PC" is here, too.

What words and style give reading meaning? You and I ultimately decide on the books we choose without wondering about others' approval. We know what we like, what we want to recommend, and the living authors whose next work we are eager to read. 

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