Friday, January 6, 2006

A Hack With Pretensions

... it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

I'm afraid this idea is rejected by lots of critics and plenty of writing teachers, as well. Many of these are liberals in their politics but crustaceans in their chosen fields. Men and women who would take to the streets to protest the exclusion of African-Americans or Native Americans (I can imagine what Mr. Strunk would have made of these politically correct but clunky terms) from the local country club are often the same men and women who tell their classes that writing ability is fixed and immutable; once a hack, always a hack. Even if a writer rises in the estimation of an influential critic or two, he/she always carries his/her early reputation along, like a respectable married woman who was a wild child as a teenager. Some people never forget, that's all, and a good deal of literary criticism serves only to reinforce a caste system which is as old as the intellectual snobbery which nurtured it. Raymond Chandler may be recognized now as an important figure in twentieth-century American literature, an early voice describing the anomie of urban life in the years after World War II, but there are plenty of critics who will reject such a judgment out of hand. He's a hack! they cry indignantly. A hack with pretensions! The worst kind! The kind who thinks he can pass for one of us!

Critics who try to rise above this intellectual hardening of the arteries usually meet with limited success. Their colleagues may accept Chandler into the company of the great, but are apt to seat him at the foot of the table. And there are always those whispers: Came out of the pulp tradition, you know ... carries himself well for one of those, doesn't he? ... did you know he wrote for Black Mask in the thirties ... yes, regrettable ...
On Writing by Stephen King
I am not really reading this for the writing tips, valuable though they are. I am reading this because I simply love reading Stephen King's nonfiction writing. I remember how much fun he made the history of horror in Danse Macabre, which I will be rereading sometime this year. I read it long ago when it first came out and was enchanted. This is just as enjoyable.

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