I recently read a pair of books by Arkady Martine, a writer who is new to Science Fiction. A Memory Called Empire (2019) and A Desolation Called Peace (2021), each won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
I like Arkady Martine and I like her books. She is an extraordinary storyteller.
But she is not yet a great writer.
That was not intended as an insult. Dan Brown sold a staggering number of The DaVinci Code, but he is not yet a great writer, either. We tend to read the book of a great storyteller only once. Knowing the story, the magic is gone. This is why every thrift shop in the world is stacked with countless copies of 50 Shades of Gray and The DaVinci Code.
But we read the works of great writers again and again. A great writer could write an instruction manual and make it captivating.
Literary evaluation is wildly subjective, of course, so I owe an explanation to Arkady Martine and to you.
I never read borrowed books because I intend to circle passages and make notes in the margins along the way. To deface my own books with circles and notes is a sign of respect for the author, but for me to deface the book of a friend would not be a sign of respect.
I will not finish a book if the author is not a great storyteller. I will not circle any passages if the author is a not a great writer.
The hope of every great storyteller should be to also become a great writer. To win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize in literature, you have to be both.
John Steinbeck was both.
J.R.R. Tolkien was both.
Tom Robbins is both.
Bill Bryson is both.
Barbara Kingsolver is both.
I am currently on page 26 of Barbara Kingsolver’s 546-page novel, Demon Copperhead,* and I have already circled 10 passages. Indy will transcribe those passages into the rabbit hole when I have completed the book. (The Random Quotes database is now 6,108 quotes and climbing. – Indy)
The stories that comprise One Thousand and One Nights were compiled a thousand years ago. In one of those stories, Prince Husain travels to Bisnagar and buys a magic carpet.
Do not let Disney mislead you. Husain’s carpet is not a ‘flying’ carpet that rides the air like a raptor. His magic carpet is like a good book. All you have to do is decide where you want to be, sit down, and you are there.
Good writing engages all your senses as it moves you to another place, another time, another life.
You are at a spongey 100-year-old seaside resort favored by the idle rich in the tropical south.
“The air was heavy with oleander and sea mist colliding with mold and wood polish and hotel soap and the metallic vapor of Diet Coke and the alcoholic ferment of generations of cougars in Chanel No. 5.”
– Olivia Nuzzi
You are now in the brittle north.
“It’s FREEZING cold; like the air is made of broken glass. Our English cold is all roly-poly snowmen and ‘woo-hoo! it’s a snow day!’ a hey-there friendly kind of cold. But this cold is mean…”
“It’s getting so hard to breathe, my lungs are filling up with ants and there isn’t room for air any more. There’s a monster made of cold, hard as the edge of a pavement, coming towards us in the dark and it’s cutting through the windscreen and doors and windows and the only weapon against it is heat, but we don’t have any heat.”
“…she felt it now as vastly, cruelly impersonal; a frozen darkness absorbing you into itself. She felt it filling her hollow spaces, embedding itself as icy marrow in her bones and then consciousness seeped away from her into the Arctic blackness.”
– Rosamund Lupton
You stood in the rain sixty-five miles north of Seattle.
“And it rained a sickness. And it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder. And it rained pale eggs of the beast.
Rain fell on the towns and the fields. It fell on the tractor sheds and the labyrinth of sloughs. Rain fell on toadstools and ferns and bridges. It fell on the head of John Paul Ziller.
Rain poured for days, unceasing. Flooding occurred. The wells filled with reptiles. The basements filled with fossils. Mossy-haired lunatics roamed the dripping peninsulas. Moisture gleamed on the beak of the Raven. Ancient shamans, rained from their homes in dead tree trunks, clacked their clamshell teeth in the drowned doorways of forests. Rain hissed on the Freeway. It hissed at the prows of fishing boats. It ate the old warpaths, spilled the huckleberries, ran in the ditches. Soaking. Spreading. Penetrating.
And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure…”
– Tom Robbins
You are exploring Africa in the 1930’s.
“The trail ran north to Molo; at night it ran straight to the stars. It ran up the side of the Mau Escarpment until at ten thousand feet it found the plateau and rested there, and some of the stars burned beneath its edge.”
– Beryl Markham
You are learning from your friend Bill what to expect when visiting Rome.
“I love the way the Italians park. You turn any street corner in Rome and it looks as if you’ve just missed a parking competition for blind people. Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the sidewalks and half off, facing in, facing sideways, blocking garages and side streets and phone booths, fitted into spaces so tight that the only possible way out would be through the sunroof. Romans park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.
All over the city you see drivers bullying their cars into spaces about the size of a sofa cushion, holding up traffic and prompting every driver within three miles to lean on his horn and give a passable imitation of a man in an electric chair. If the opening is too small for a car, the Romans will decorate it with litter – an empty cigarette packet; a wedge of half-eaten pizza; twenty-seven cigarette butts; half an ice cream cone with an ooze of old ice cream emerging from the bottom, danced on by a delirium of flies; an oily tin of sardines; a tattered newspaper; and something truly unexpected, like a tailor’s dummy or a dead goat.”
– Bill Bryson
You are looking into the eyes of Jorge Luis Borges as he philosophizes about the dimension of time and his own place in it.
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.”
Indy Beagle, alas, is real; I alas, am
Roy H. Williams
*Demon Copperhead isn’t about a demon or the paranormal. As of page 26, it is about a boy growing up with a teenage Mom in a mobile home in the mountains of southern Appalachia. I find it incomprehensible that a 67-year-old woman is able to know the thoughts of a 10-year-old boy in Appalachia, but having once been a 10-year-old boy in Oklahoma, she nailed it. – RHW
Stephen Semple, an internationally respected marketing wizard, says that if you want your advertising campaigns to attract large numbers of new customers and generate plenty of sales, you need to rip a page from the playbooks of Google, Amazon, eBay, and Airbnb. Where are these cutting-edge Titans shifting their promotional dollars? To radio and television advertising, direct mail, and billboards. Why are major online businesses using traditional media so heavily? Stephen has a three-word explanation: “Because it works.” Better still, Stephen tells roving reporter Rotbart that old-school media offer greater control over messaging at inexpensive pricing when compared to online advertising. Listen and learn at MondayMorningMemo.com.