The old favorite mystery novel I was re-reading this morning has no relevance in today’s world. Why? Because at least one pivotal scene depends on having no access to a telephone (you know, one of those ancient things that was connected to the wall by a cord) and the protagonist is assumed to be superior in intellect to everyone else because he can figure a way around that.
This irrelevance doesn’t spoil the story for me, though. Good writing remains good even if the reader has to shift reality a little bit. The wonderful words, the fervent phrases still get the adrenaline stealing vicariously through the corpuscles. How can one not be intrigued by:
Movement on the edge of my vision made me turn my head, and in a flash of a second that ordinary day became a nightmare. (Proof, Dick Francis, 1985)
Okay, I cheated. That sentence is not one of the kind that gets dated. It was designed to stir the senses and make us wait for what’s coming next. Because it’s Dick Francis, I know I’m not going to be disappointed, but if I read this even from an author whose work is unfamiliar to me I’m going to stick around to see what happens in the next few sentences.
Of course, if I’m desperate, I’ll read anything. It’s an old cliche, but true. “I’ll even read the toilet paper wrapper if there’s nothing else,” she says. (Not only that, but I’ll probably correct the spelling mistakes, if any.)
But why do we still find joy in reading (again!) Poe or Dashiell Hammet, or Agatha Christie, when there are so many fresher novels out there clamoring for our attention and our dollars? It all has to do with the words, and the marvelous way a good author can put them together. There are some writers who make a great deal of money these days from books I won’t give shelf space; the words–many of which I wouldn’t say out loud–seem to be stuck on the page just to up the word count. Where is the majesty of the phrase? Where is the cadence of the prose? I’d rather read toilet paper wrappers, or an old familiar tale.
Sometimes one can date a story by the way the words come together. No one would mistake The Murders in the Rue Morgue for a contemporary piece. There is no Facebook, no Twitter, no mention of smartphones anywhere between the covers; the protagonist doesn’t jump into bed with twelve different women before the second chapter. Still, the story is viable. The language dictates the time frame, and the author’s words carry us to where we need to be for everything to make sense.
If I’m going to write–and I hope I am going to write one of these days–let me write things that work now and will still have some validity a little way down the road. Let me arrange the words so that my reader can feel what my character feels. Let me write the kind of story that will be read, with pleasure, more than once.
Isn’t that what all writers want?
I’ll see you again, after the commercial.