Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Letter To Holly Martins

Dear Holly,

A great man once said "you're full of shit". He said it to me about 5 minutes ago. I'm pretty sure he was drunk. The argument was that great writing is based on economy of word. That's a cliche originated by someone who can't write, no matter what Plithy The Elder may have said. Nobody asked Faulkner and Steinbeck to 'keep it simple, stupid". Great writing makes the reader feel, makes them connect to something that's bigger than both the author and the reader. There's a bigger energy to be tapped into. The goal is to make the reader feel. Whether it's to feel what the author feels, to feel what the author wants the reader to feel, or to feel an imagined idea that emanates from neither is irrelevant. Ultimately, it's art. It exists independently of either, to hopefully succeed in whatever the author's intent was, but ultimately successful simply if it can represent anything. Anything at all. After all, these are just complex lines on a blank page.

However, what a reader wants is ultimately at stake. No audience will ever be swayed if they've decided what they like. I once gave a great man an album by Johnny Cash that based on evidence, was convinced he would like. It was a masterful comeback album, and no matter how much I pushed, he wouldn't listen to it with open ears. No matter what The Man In Black was saying, this listener decided it wasn't for him, and no amount of convincing would sway the mountain. A year later, the mountain called and offhandedly mentioned just how good it was after they'd picked the album up on their own. The audience must come to the art, and the art cannot move that mountain, and a smart artist should eventually realize that they've got better things to do than waste their time trying.

Writing cannot exist without a voice. It loses its life, becoming merely lifeless adjectives on a page, waiting to be strung together. Every writing has a voice, and no matter how prominient, it must be present.

I've spent the first part of this first-person narrative deyning that voice and find as a reader that it's insufferable, boring reading, suitable for fans of encyclopedias and Dan Brown novels. This great man argued at great length with me, over a great deal of wine, that a writer must get outside themselves to be truly great. This writer finds that to be completely ignorant of turly great writing. A great writer must be they eyes of every reader. If that makes said writer selfish by inserting themselves into a discourse, then that writer be damned (and I am, many times over). Let the audience read the true-to-fact adventures of Graham Greene and be happy that the details were accurately portrayed. Thank goodness Van Gough accurately portrayed the blaze of brilliant stars, and thank those stars that Monet was able to trace the finest, photorealistic detail of his landscapes.

Of course, the above is laughable in many ways. While brevity is critical (not to mention the soul of wit) , it's not everything. If brevity and economy of writing were truly the be-all-end-all of written communication, there would be no poets other than William Carlos Williams, and his writing is as awesome in its technical skill as it is boring. "Jaws" was on TV last week, and could easily be contained in a 30 minute serial where 3 men board a boat and kill a shark that has attacked people. "The Third Man" is simply a story of a drug smuggler faking his death, and not telling his friends. Had Welles (or Reed, depending on who you believe) not included the infamous "Cuckoo Clock" soliloquy, there might be no soul to the film, there might be no heart that makes the reader think that any of this matters either way. Simply conveying information in a effective way is the sign of a weak writer (which I have to do in a different fashion professionally), and if that pleases the reader, it may have achieved exactly what it was supposed to with who it's supposed to, but will never transcend that feedback loop and become art. Which is why I've never read more than one and a half John Le Carre novels. They're engrossing from a structural plotting perspective, but read like a transcription of a spy mission from back at HQ. There's no point in recounting details unless they make the reader understand the human element. I want to feel Smiley's heartbeat as he evades the enemy, to smell the fish stand next door, to taste the blood and feel the ache in his ankle. A writer must balance being an everyman, while still being themselves, giving every OTHER man a perspective from which to pinpoint where THEY stand. We've all smelled fish tasted blood, been afraid. Those who care about the (non-plot-essential) name of the fish stand or what type of bandage is on the ankle miss the point, and aren't who should even waste their time reading. They'd be better served doing something themselves, or at the very least, finding a writer who will give them what it is THEY want. Writing about that objectively is a waste of time and/or ink. You can't please everyone all the time, and it's a fool to try.

As this is a blog, it's selfish writing. I could have re-edited this as a series of wonderful third-person senteces that gave the reader the details, but that would be doing them a disservice. I don't assume my writers are stupid, or aliens coming down to earth and I have to explain things to them, because I don't want to waste my time writing to idiots. People are not evil, nor stupid. People consume art because they want to know what THAT artist's perception of the world is, and any other choice is simply collecting details like so many blank stamps. Can you picture a museum full of identical paintings? Sure, they fit the criteria, but are worthless to anyone who cares what it means. It's the difference between a bureaucratic memo and a poem. Why spend an afternoon looking at paintings when you could look at photographs that are much more accurate, right?

Apparently, by that logic, the true poet of the 1960's was not Allen Ginsberg, but Walter Cronkite.

That's a perspective that I do not share. As a person rather than simply a writer, it's recently been suggested that my personality is hung up on itself. The irony of mentioning this in my writing is not lost on me, after all, sir, as I told you earlier, I may be naive, but I'm not blind. As heistant as anyone SHOULD be to consider themselves an artist, no artist can truly remove themselves from the creative equation and remain an artist of any stripe. I write because I have to, and I'm pretty sure some of you will, if not follow, at least understand the persepctive. If not, you're wasting your time with this, and I suggest you look elsewhere.

See you in Vienna, and I'll call you if I make it to the States again... tell Valli I said hello.




To have someone apologize for giving you a gift that helped you become who you are is a humbling thing. Humbling and tragic, because to have a gift you value described by the giver as a mistake is crushing.

"Thanks for that dog you gave me all those years ago."

"Oh, no problem... it was a terrible dog, I wish I'd just put him down."

"Oh.... well, thanks anyway."

An artist (and again, implying that I am one is certainly bringing up some bile in my throat) should never forget where they're from, but sometimes, they realize that their life has moved to a different place. A place where their understanding is different. A place where they truly become themselves, and a place that they couldn't be had they not been given what they were, even if the giver doens't understand what they gave.

Sometimes the greatest gifts are accidental and misunderstood. While they may cherish what they once thought and where they once were, it snaps into focus that no one can truly go home again, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. And there comes a time in everyone's life where they have to face that fact. Maybe, just maybe, they'll be able to read between the lines and know when to call a cab.


  1. All that vitriol and not a single comment; shame on Harry.
    I appreciate and understand your anger, well defined by this long piece. But a writer who wants to convey sore ankles and smelly fish markets would certainly explore the perspective of the antagonist in this blog. I wish you luck on that.

    Richard Hannay

  2. I'm so confused by this.