You Don’t Have to Be a Virtuoso

By Barry Willis

Received wisdom has it that successful writers are gifted geniuses, rare specimens endowed with rare talents.

An hour spent in any library or bookstore will prove how wrong this is. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to enjoy a rewarding career as a writer. You don’t even have to be a very good writer to succeed. You simply have to be competent and consistent.

Virtuosity, in fact, may limit your appeal, especially among an American readership steeped in simple narrative-and-dialog style. True literary geniuses such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera) and Cormac McCarthy (Child of God, The Orchard Keeper, All the Pretty Horses) have legions of loyal fans, aesthetes who love their tumbling play of images and their arresting, unexpected descriptions and associations, but their astounding literary abilities present difficulties for ordinary readers.

Their books will always have an eager audience, but in sales numbers they can’t compare to the works of pop writers such as Sidney Sheldon, author of more than a dozen novels. Here’s a sample plucked more-or-less at random from the middle of his The Best Laid Plans, published in 1997:

“Friday night, Dana was seated next to Jeff Connors in the press box at Camden Yards, watching the baseball game. And for the first time since she had returned, she was able to think about something other than the war. As Dana watched the players on the field, she listened to the announcer reporting the game . . .”

Simple style, simple vocabulary. Nothing elaborate that might force readers to go to the dictionary. Sheldon would never use “avaricious” instead of “greedy,” nor “quotidian” instead of “daily.” His purpose is to present a tale about ordinary people in a way that won’t force an audience of normal intelligence to work very hard. His tone is comfortably conversational.

Most best-selling novels and almost all general-interest non-fiction works are presented in a conversational tone: blockbuster best-sellers such as Erich Segal’s Love Story or Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County are written in this tone—storyline and character development deemed sufficient to sustain readers’ interest. Conversational tone also sustains What Doesn’t Kill You, a novel about a forty-something single mom reinventing herself in the business world, jointly authored by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant: “So I threw myself into mounting my career campaign—sounded a lot like war. I realized later it was. I worked to assess my on-the-job strengths, analyze my skills, define my objectives—it felt a lot like I was back in the guidance counselor’s office, and I wasn’t sure I had any more idea what I wanted to be when I grew up than I did then.” The book adheres to this style throughout its nearly 300 pages.

Some very successful writers simplify almost to the point of absurdity. James Ellroy is a master of the staccato tough-guy voice of mid-century crime fiction. A tidbit from his enduringly popular American Tabloid: “The hut was matchbook-size. He had to cram the table and two chairs in . . . Kemper handled Gordean with kid gloves. The interrogation dragged—his subject had the DTs.”

Compare this to the sometimes lyrical style of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: “He walks with her through the indigo markets that lie between South Cairo and her home. The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows, one minaret answering another, as if passing on a rumor of the two of them as they walk through the cold morning air, the smell of charcoal and hemp already making the air profound. Sinners in a holy city.”

This is no simple sketch of two people walking along. In this elegant passage, Ondaatje evokes sight, sound, scent, ambiguity, and potentiality with exquisite skill: indigo markets, songs like arrows, profound air—allusions that work beautifully for readers attuned to nuance.

New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman strikes a lovely balance between lyricism and straightforward journalism in his book The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. Here he is discussing the background of the contentious fate of Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection, established by eccentric doctor Albert C. Barnes and bequeathed to a school in Chester County, Pennsylvania: “ . . . he amassed great Cézannes, Matisses, and African art, along with metal knickknacks and folk doodads like door locks and a tiny sculpture in the shape of a cricket. Famously, he displayed these all together in a mansion outside Philadelphia, in odd, mixed-up arrangements seemingly arbitrary to the uninitiated . . . Nobody looked at art the way Barnes did. Self-taught in this regard, from a working class background, having earned his way though medical school playing professional baseball, he developed an enormous chip on his shoulder toward what he considered the art establishment, and he feuded publicly with anyone he thought hoity-toity. “

That’s Kimmelman simply providing background, and it’s a delight to read. He might have dumbed it down for ordinary readers or gussied it up for art-world academics, but instead he took the middle path and crafted his work to reach the largest audience.


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