Revisiting the Masters

With the accrued knowledge and experience from writing 3 novels and countless magazine and newspaper articles I thought to return to the works of the masters of literature (or at least the literature I had been guided to read as such). My thought was (and is) to try to determine that special style, technique, or mannerism that sets the classic author apart from, say, you and me.

This is one of the most enjoyable tasks I have set for myself. To date I have revisited Richard Adams, T.C. Boyle, Richard Henry Dana, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry, Margaret Mitchell, John Steinbeck, and Owen Wister. I’d like to share just a few of the things that I have learned.

I shall not detail my discoveries for each author listed above; there is hardly space in this blog. But let me present my findings about just a few of them. First, to generalize. All of these authors write with exceeding confidence, even hubris. Each of them is in full command of the tools of writing – vocabulary, mechanics, POV, etc. – although they may regard them in quite different ways, or even ignore them in come cases. But the effect is the same; we lose consciousness of the writing to fall under the spell of the story. Very quickly. There is a certain efficiency of word use in common, a leanness that contributes to the reader’s growing hunger. Even the wordiest of the authors – McMurtry, Adams, Mitchell perhaps – proliferate not in ad-words but in action, the sentences themselves remaining lean.

But some have definable personal mannerisms and characteristics to set them apart. To some Hemingway is known for his short, declarative sentences and tough terse prose. But I find he is masterful in presenting multiple related ideas within one properly structured humongous sentence. Here, from Green hills of Africa:

“But here we had not seen a white man for two weeks, not since we had left Babati to go south, and then to run into one on this road where you met only an occasional Indian trader and the steady migration of the natives out of the famine country, to have him look like a caricature of Benchley in Tyrollean costume, to have him know your name, to call you a poet, to have read the Querschnitt, to be an admirer of Joachim Ringelnatz and to want to talk about Rilke, was too fantastic to deal with.”

Ninety-eight words. And he ends with a preposition. But honestly, he could have continued that sentence for the remainder of the book and I probably would not have noticed because he had me with the import of each clause at it related to his story. So I say, so what?

I love the sense of intimacy T.C.Boyle achieves with the simple technique of a question attached to a sentence. We are led deep inside Bev’s mind in this passage:

“Then she got up, fumbling for her blue jeans and a sweater, Till’s sweater, rough as burlap but the warmest thing she could find, and how had it gotten so cold?”

Owen Wister’s The Virginian has always enjoyed a sanctified place on my shelves, so much so that I designed my wife’s engagement ring around the Virginian’s description of his own design, an opal surrounded by four diamonds so that her month stone joined his. Wister is a master of dialogue, which is generally eavesdropped by the first person POV. Each vernacular is sculpted, each mannerism detailed, each personality presented fully and completely without the need for exposition. Deep philosophies and layered theologies and profound political observations all find themselves expressed in a cowboy twang or southern drawl and lose nothing by the conveyance.

My most loved story is Hombre from Elmore Leonard. How perfectly he captures the mysterious essence of the dangerous, self-sufficient western man. Again the first person POV – are all the great westerns from that point of view? Mysterious men described only by their exteriors and their actions, never to relinquish their inner mysteries? The obvious advantage to first person POV is the ability to express emotions without it coming from the protagonist. The narrator feels this, senses that, observes this, but Hombre remains in his mysterious single dimension. What is he thinking? What will he do? How will he react? We will never know. He will never tell. But the narrator will go through every sort of emotional upheaval on his behalf. This is where Elmore Leonard shines. He is a master of first person POV, one of the most difficult presentations. He is the puppet master. Through his narrator he pulls the strings that bring Hombre to life.

There is more, but it must wait.

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