Last time, I borrowed a column from the Washington Post opinion writer, Catherine Rampell. It was a marvelous, fun, insightful commentary on grammar and writing. In that post, I covered the first four of her six rules. They’re on-point advice on mechanics and process. I said I’d comment on the last two rules in the next post. Then, I wrote, rewrote, trashed, wrote again, and finally came to this:
Rampell’s Rule 5 is: You must be willing to write, say and even be things that are unpopular.
“Writing well,” she says, “takes moral courage.” Bret Stephens, the New York Times opinion page writer, digs deeply into this idea in a piece called “The Encroachment of the Unsayable” (10/19/20). “Our compromised liberalism has left a generation of writers weighing their words in fear. (…) The result is safer, but also more timid; more correct, but also less interesting. It is simultaneously bad for those who write, and boring for those who read.” Both Rampell and Stephens are commenting on reportage, not fiction. But Stephens’ “boring to those who read” is a knife in the heart of a novelist.
When do a few trenchant words become the rhetorical slap on the sunburned shoulder of a reader’s sensibilities? And when does that matter? What do I do about the fact that I am being told, usually politely, to worry about things that may offend readers? (And why the hell would they be reading a novel if they didn’t agree to risk being offended?)
My first draft of this post was a long response studded with examples of comments made on my writing. It sounded a lot like whining, so I cut it. Currently, I’m using the operating rule that if the criticism requires an assumption about the person writing (as in me, an old, semi-priveleged white male), I ignore it.
So we can pass on to Rampell’s rule 6, which appears like the hope that was last to escape Pandora’s box:
Rule 6: Be kind, even when you don’t need to be.
We could all do well to follow that, couldn’t we?