Saturday, March 05, 2005

Tripe or True Literature?

You’re a serious student of mystery literature (or any literature) if you can you get through the following short passage without clicking to some other place on the Web:
The Bohuns were one of the very few aristocratic families really dating from the Middle Ages, and their pennon had actually seen Palestine. But it is a great mistake to suppose that such houses stand high in chivalric traditions. Few except the poor preserve traditions. Aristocrats live not in traditions but in fashions. . . .
A few of you may recognize that unique . . . ah, flourish of the pen, shall we call it . . . as belonging to G.K. Chesterton. It’s from the opening of “The Hammer of God,” part of his Father Brown canon, and it leads into a good story. But how many readers over the past century never made it past the word “pennon”?

Erudite command of the language probably counts for less than five percent in an author’s mission to hook a reader these years. Basically, the author gets one sentence or less in which to show off. After that, most readers demand tasty bait on which to nibble, or they’ll be quickly away, all over the pond, in search of entertainment easier to obtain. It was a different world in 1911, when “The Hammer of God” first appeared in print. Readers had no television, cell phone or e-mail chat group that guaranteed instant rewards for investing a few minutes of their time. They were willing to settle down with a book or magazine, tarry and give the writer time to engage them. Today’s author must lock them in with 25 words or fewer. Example:
Marybeth was pretty and smart and she wanted to marry her brother-in-law. That’s why she talked Tricia into buying her the amphetamines.
I just now spent perhaps one minute writing and revising that. By contrast, I’ve worked as long as an hour fashioning just the right opening for one of my “Harper Chronicles.” The point: The “Chronicles” aren’t selling; this tripe would have a better likelihood of selling, with diligent marketing. But life is too short, to my way of thinking, to waste any of it cranking out saleable tripe. Better to write something I’ll be proud of later.

So which one is vanity? Writing for riches, or writing for self-pride? And which is a true contribution to society -- writing to entertain thousands of readers, or writing for the edification of only the handful who will try to understand you and will support your work?


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