Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shakespeare Can Haz Cheezburger?

I read a book by Nabokov recently and reading a book by Nabokov recently made me realize that I am not a writer. Or I am not a “real writer”, anyway.

Vladimir Nabokov is a real writer. Philip Roth is a real writer. Don DeLillo is a real writer.

Elmore Leonard – who might be a real writer – once wrote a list of Rules of Writing and they are pretty good rules, at least judged by my non-real-writer standards. And Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing include this: “Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

That sounds like good advice, doesn’t it?

But Vladimir Nabokov does not leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. And Philip Roth does not leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. At least not the parts that this reader tends to skip.

But maybe I’m not a real reader, either.

Don DeLillo wrote an 827-page book about a baseball and it won every book award a book can win. It took me all of ten minutes to get through it because there were a couple parts I tended to skip.

William T. Vollmann is a real writer, and William T. Vollmann once wrote a seven-volume nonfiction study of a bead of sweat rolling down the back of a Thai prostitute’s unshaven leg.[i] I got all the way through that one, actually, but the footnotes were a little dense (I almost said “a little hairy”). I don’t believe Elmore Leonard would approve of Vollmann’s 7-volume set. I believe Elmore Leonard would shoot up the prostitute in a rain of bullets in a bank heist gone bad somewhere around Volume 3.

But maybe he wouldn’t because I can’t say because I am not a real writer, and I am not a real writer because I am not an architect and I am not a botanist and I am not a painter. You see, to be a real writer, you really must be an architect, and you must be a botanist, and you must be a painter and you must be an anatomist and a meteorologist, to boot.

Elmore Leonard's Rules
I mean, how else ya gonna take six chapters in describing your protagonist walking out to check the mail? Hmmm? Can you picture Marcel Proust – who most certainly meets the definition of a real writer – ever managing to write In Search of Lost Time if he had not been an architect and botanist and a painter, anatomist, and a meteorologist, to boot?

I am not any of those things. If I had written In Search of Lost Time, this would have been it: “I walked by some trees. Then I looked at some little houses and some big houses. I remembered this one thing from before.”

I cannot write a thirty-page description of the shadow of a birch tree at dusk. Honestly, I am not fancy enough to have ever met a person who wouldn’t skip right over a thirty-page description of the shadow of a birch tree at dusk if they were so unfortunate as to stumble upon a thirty-page description of the shadow of a birch tree at dusk.

I believe it would be a part they tended to skip.

If I ever need a good hiding place for my drugs and my porn and my Nicki Minaj CDs – a place where no-one-but-no-one would ever in a million years manage to find them – I can’t imagine a better hiding place than the middle of a thirty-page description of the shadow of a birch tree at dusk.

A real writer would leave that part in. The birch tree shadow part, I mean, not that preposition at the end of my last sentence. A real writer would take that part out.

Nabokov would leave the shadow in. And William T. Vollmann and Marcel Proust, they’d definitely leave the shadow in. Hell, William T. Vollmann and Marcel Proust, they’d write the thirty pages and then they’d stop and they’d say, “Thirty pages? Maybe I can come back later and flesh that out a little better.”

And okay, okay, so I am not a real writer. And if this were the year 1952, then that would be sort of a tragic admission for me and that would make me sad. Nabokov could write three volumes on my sadness in four different languages and they’d all win National Book Awards.

Hemingway could have been a blogger. 
But it is not the year 1952 and this? This ain’t Steinbeck’s East of Eden or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and it’s not Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, either.

This is the year 2011 and this is a blog, and if Nabokov was out of his grave and up and standing today, I believe he’d be standing out front of Home Depot looking for day work next to the best cave painter who ever lived. And the best cave painter who ever lived would be standing next to the world’s best wooden ship builder. And the world’s best wooden ship builder would be standing next to history’s preeminent abacus repairman. And not a one of them would find day work that day.

This is 2011 and this is a blog, and as a blog writer, I can kick Nabakov and Proust’s asses all over the schoolyard.

As a blog writer, I rank below cheeseburger-eating lesbian cats, but above Vladimir Nabokov.

I leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.


[i] This is a dirty lie. William T. Vollmann never wrote anything as action-packed as a seven-volume nonfiction study of a bead of sweat rolling down the back of a Thai prostitute’s unshaven leg. It is libel for me to imply otherwise. 


  1. Yeah! What she said! I tend to read and savor every syllable of every word on every page, and never skip anything, which may explain why I am not only a slow reader, but also not a writer.

  2. @Thurman: I get into moods where I am completely won over to different kinds of writing.
    But for the most part, my favorites lately are the most simple in getting their points across - Vonnegut, Twain, Thompson, Bukowski, Palahniuk.
    You know, storytellers who don't bury their stories.
    I don't think Hemingway ever used a word with more than 5 letters in it. But still. Hemingway.

  3. Hi Katy. First time here. I'm having a lot of fun reading your blogs. There is something wrong with you but I hope it stays wrong.

    I will come back for the next one!

  4. I cannot ever recall skipping over any part of your blogs. I just finished Steven King's 7 volume Gunslinger series and I did skip large sections of the 4th book, wishing he would hurry the hell up to the end we all knew was coming. Based on volume alone, one would argue that Steven King is a real writer, but the world of blogdom you would kick his ass across the road and into a pet semetary.

    Here in the land of short attention span theater, you get maybe 2 pages of writing to tell your story. Real writers cannot manage micro-mini short stories

  5. Totally with you on Vonnegut, Twain (my favorite of short story authors) and I will toss in James Thurber to boot

  6. @Anonymous: Thanks for commenting, Anon! I seem to be getting an enormous number of page views this week from somewhere or other, but no one is commenting so it's hard for me to tell whether anyone likes what they see.

    @Brent: Hemingway once said his best story was 6 words long ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn.").
    He could have been a story-tweeter with that sort of terseness.
    But Twain and Thurber and Vonnegut and Hemingway are storytellers. They never relied on fluffy distractions...

  7. Did you mean a Thai prostitute's thigh? I would have.

    I am strongly tempted to write a thirty page description of the shadow of a birch tree at dusk, but unfortunately I have never seen a birch tree. Will a pine or fir or peach or even magnolia tree do?

  8. I'm late to the dance here - but this is probably the best thing I've read all week.

    Yeah, I don't get out much....

  9. Btw, Vonnegut's rules are much different:
    1.Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
    2.Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
    3.Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
    4.Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
    5.Start as close to the end as possible.
    6.Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
    7.Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
    8.Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
    And I dont always agree, for ex., Orhan Pamuk the great Turkish writer has phenomenal writing skills, and Biswapriya Purkayastha aka "Bill the Butcher" has put a comparative analysis on his blog here(
    Worthy of a read.
    Of course you are only talking about a blog here, But if you ever write a book, I would love to read it too, its a matter of style, nothing else.

  10. Wow, only on the day of releasing our new book do I realize that I'm truly not a writer. I apologize for the abortion we released, but please stay tuned for our next e-book, a 1700 page manifesto on a drop of semen leaking from the nether regions of a meth-addled Cambodian prostitute with one leg. Pulitzer, here I come!

  11. @Bill the Butcher: As long as the imagery is pretentious and hides the fact that there is no story to be told ABOUT the tree, I think the fir tree or the peach tree will be fine. Not the pine, though.

    @Will: Gracias. All because I didn't like Nabokov's "The Gift"...

    @Loafer: Those are some good rules! #8 makes me think of Vonnegut's "Galapagos," where -throughout the book - he puts an asterisk after their name if they die at the end.
    I'll read Bill's, too.

    @A Beer for the Shower: You'll win awards with that and you will probably end up a college professors.
    But your books will be ADMIRED and never READ.

  12. Hemmingway tweeting, interesting concept. For Whom the Bell Tolls would have looked much different.

  13. @Brent: "The Old Man and the Sea" would have been pretty much the same, though.

  14. I have been following your blog for less than a month now. Discovered you through a comment in Heresy Corner. Bewildering, the way you write. Despite Nabokov's cleverly written word plays Nabokov can eat your dust.

    Twain, on the other hand, has always been a joy to read. His short stories and essays places one in a state as if talking to one's grandfather. I was quite young when i read his piece "Advice to Little Girls". Reading it now makes it hilarious though. Enjoyable still.

  15. @Teki: I had never read Twain (except what was assigned in school) until recently. I have a book of short stories of his. The intro to "The Extraordinary twins (about how he excised that story from the pieces of "Pudd'nhead Wilson") had me rolling.
    His writing is so simple, but completely effective.

  16. James Lee Burke is very descriptive..but he does it so well, I will read and re-read 6 pages of descriptive ....poetry...

  17. @YELLOWDOG GRANNY: I'm not familiar with Burke, but I just looked him up.
    I don't read a lot of mysteries, but there seems to be something about mystery authors where they have an economy of language that other writers lack.

    Maybe I need to read more mysteries!

  18. Wow. This post made me realize that despite the fact that I am an avid reader who graduate from college when Jimmy Carter was still president, I have never read a single book by Nabokov, Don DeLillo, or Elmore Leonard. And yet, somehow, I am OK with that. I will probably one day watch the movie version of Lolita, since it is by Stanley Kubrick. Elmore Leonard's rules are stupid and by all by themselves are more than enough to convince to never read anything by him.

    Vonnegut's rules are awesome. Even the ones that are wrong, like #8, are fantastic. He asks the right questions about what to write and how to write it, and as long as these questions are taken seriously, the answer will be something interesting and worth reading.

  19. @Apuleius Platonicus: Elmore Leonard is pretty bare bones - He's the guy who wrote the books that became "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown"...
    But yeah... I'm not big on books that don't seem to have a context outside of a literature classroom.
    Vonnegut... I think I've read every one of his novels now.

    @Birds: Absolutely! Rope, school, and the boring parts.

  20. Oh. "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown" were both good movies. Still, his rules drool.

  21. So, Katy… Here is an illustration of something, although I am not entirely sure what (the small size of the world, the interconnectedness of the internet, the disturbing power of Google?): I was introduced to you through your comments on another blog. I have visited your blog several times over the past several months. Today, I was glancing at Google news. There was a story of a Lauren Elizabeth Weinberg surviving for several days in a snowbound car. I did a search on Google for Lauren Elizabeth Weinberg and ended up at a site called “Lenscratch.” Apparently there is a photographer by the name of Elizabeth Weinberg. And apparently you know this, because it appears she has photographed you!

    So now, here I sit, contemplating the connectedness of these seemingly random dots. I am nearly certain I am missing something here and/or improperly labeling some piece of this as random. How do I go from random small-town blog, to you, to completely random news story, back to you?

    At least one inquiring mind wants to know…

  22. @Apuleius Platonicus: There are a lot of good artists who don't understand their gift, though. And there are a LOT of artists who are awful people in general (just look at the director of your #2 movie of the year!).

    @Anonymous: ("Twilight Zone" music...)
    My brother is positive that weird coincidences occur when I'm around.
    Maybe they DO.
    Or maybe I am just such a bigger-than-life figure that it was inevitable you'd see me somewhere eventually!
    (This sort of made my day...)

  23. Every character Don Delillo writes sounds just like him, a professor who presumes his every utterance is going to win at least three Pulitzers and be retired in a museum. May all them, but Nabokov and Dostoevsky, and Hemingway, rot in hell!

    1. I liked DeLillo's "Underworld"... It had some fantastic writing and every line seemed to be chock full of loss in a way I can't explain or duplicate.

      But it's an awfully long book to get to the end of just to realize I didn't take anything from it...

      I need to CONNECT with a book.


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