NLP Writers Blog

“God guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone.” Yeats

Hidden Riches

Sequels often fall short for many reasons. One is the characters and their behavior are known quantities, which limits new plots and actions. History gives Steinbeck’s Cannery Row a higher place than its sequel, Sweet Thursday. Yet ST is a better book, in part because Steinbeck was a more skillful writer nine years later. An indicator of that skill is how well he disguises it while expanding the characters of CR.

On the surface ST looks like it merely extends the story of CR, but it is much more. Its characters have a greater depth and the story has a more complex structure—and both are done in ways that conceal his skill.

Here is an example of this subtle skill. One of his characters frequently abuses words. Nothing unusual there. However, one of her mis-sayings reveals a literary insight second to none. But Steinbeck has her do it so casually, if you didn’t know the reference you’d think it was just another malapropism.

He has her say “new roses” instead of “neuroses.” This offhand throwaway is Steinbeck’s comment on the confusion of “blue roses” with “pleurisy” in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Steinbeck understood Williams was substituting this for “new roses” and “neuroses.” Clearly the latter was personal for Tennessee but too personal to use in the play.

It’s not just that Steinbeck recognized Williams’ substitution. He wanted his readers to understand what it must have meant to Williams, thereby deepening their appreciation of the play. Or at least it does if you’ve read ST. So, I’ll ask: Have you?

You see, that’s the real reason for this post. The lesser known (through the collapsing telescope of time) works of great writers are probably also great. In fact, I think they’re more worth your time than most popular stuff of the moment. I have rarely been disappointed delving into unfamiliar works of great writers. (One exception: Fitzgerald’s play The Vegetable—an inexplicable disaster.)

I could give endless examples from ancient to modern, but I’ll leave you with just one. A guy I know said he really liked Philip Roth, yet when I mentioned two of his earlier, offbeat works (Our Gang and The Great American Novel) he drew a blank. I said if he liked Roth. he should try all his books. This is my advice to everyone: if you like a great writer, try all of his or her books. You won’t be sorry.

The Structure of Bullet Park

When I first encountered the second section (on Hammer) I wondered if John Cheever had cobbled together two short novellas. I didn’t see the reason for this section of the book being so different in style and structure from the first one on Nailles. But I began to see. The more I read, I more I saw.

And the shorter, third section, really brought it all together. So what we have is One: Nailles as a horizontal story encompassing not just Nailles and his family but his entire suburban environment. Two: Hammer as a vertical story, all about him, his past, his changes, his directions.

Then comes Three: the intersection of horizontal and vertical. It presents the intersection of the first two sections as a cross made from the horizontal and the vertical. Joined by Hammer and Nailles. And the denouement—in a church, no less. One helluva a structure for a book. Or, if you will, structure as metaphor.

The Serial Comma

Some things in this world are worth fighting for. Like ending a sentence with a preposition if you feel like it. (Look up the old joke about ending a sentence with a proposition.) Anyway, the serial comma is, for me, one of those things. Not because this is what I was taught; wasn’t. Not because I’m any kind of a grammatical purist; ain’t. One reason only: it makes sense.

First: a series is a list of items, greater than two. (Two items are a pair, not a list.) Second: the serial comma says you put a comma after each item in the series except the last. After the last item (to end the series), you can use all sorts of end punctuation: periods, semi-colons, full-blown colons, exclamation points, question marks—or even dashes.

You notice in that last list I did use a conjunction before the last item. That’s one of the beauties of the serial comma: it even works without a conjunction for the last item. (I’m assuming you noticed I end the list with a dash, an em dash to be specific—and readable.)

Back to my argument: first with a definition; then with an example. A list contains, as stated, more than two items. I did not mention that an item could be a pair. (Could an item be a list? Not unless you’re willing to overwork your semi-colons.) Now for a simple example: My favorite comedy duos* are Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, and Bob and Ray. Read the example again but this time omit the last comma. This was the rule I was taught and have been told by many people (even writers) that it is the rule. I’ll repeat my example using their rule in case you lost your place: my favorite comedy duos are Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis and Bob and Ray. Huh? You can only parse this sentence by backing up and adding a mental pause between “Lewis” and “and.” All because I avoided the serial comma. Simple proof as to why you should use the serial comma and not force your readers to insert their own virtual punctuation.

* I said duos and not teams, because that would open the door to The Three Stooges and The Ritz Brothers. Chaos.


Of all the modernists of the early twentieth century (e.g., Joyce, Proust, etc.) I say the most literarily successful was Virginia Woolf—because her innovative methods were more accessible. While many critics claim the title for Joyce, as great as he was, he was often inaccessible. Accessibility must be a criterion. Otherwise, it would be possible for a handful of critics to declare a writer as the greatest even though that writer was only accessible to those few critics! Therefore, I say accessibility is a necessary requirement when judging relative greatness.

Greatness is More Than Story or Words

Between the story and the specific words in sequence on the page, is how the author unfolds that story. That those words can be chosen and arranged in varying degrees of artistic expression is obvious; that the words can be distorted in translation, is also obvious. What makes the story successful depends more on the unfolding than either the details of the story or the literary quality of its telling. Great fiction is great not because the story, in summary, is great or even if the writing is of the highest quality. The former is insufficient, and even if the latter is lost or mangled in translation, the greatness persists. The unfolding of the story transcends bad translation, and even minor abridgement. It, the unfolding, rather than the story or the words on the page, is what determines the real quality of a work.

Oblique Reference

In Donald. E. Westlake’s The Road to Ruin, a character offers the opinion on Hollywood that, “It isn’t the pictures got worse, it’s the audience.” Not too unusual a comment for a mystery genre book. But in the same work is this reference: “Treadmill to Oblivion, 1954, Fred Allen’s grimly-titled memoir of his life writing and starring in a weekly radio show.” Sixty years after, Westlake is telling us, in an entirely unrelated venue, the effect Allen’s book—and career—had on him. Why? Because he appreciates good writing and wants to inform his audience.

Writing and Drinking?

How did all those famous writers of the first half of the last century drink so much and still produce such good books? (Of course, none lived to be old writers: Faulkner, 64; Fitzgerald, 44; Hemingway, 62; Steinbeck, 66; O’Neill, 65; and Lewis, 65. (Henry Green, a highly esteemed but lesser known contemporary, lived to be 68—but stopped writing at age 47!) Some writers still claim they can write and drink. (A Google search for “writing and drinking” produces 2.7 million hits.) But I’ve never heard a writer claim the ability to drink and edit.

The answer to the above question is easy: the creative component of writing is less hindered by alcohol than the rational process of editing. But problem-solving and decision-making require both creativity and rationality. Reason, by itself, can no more result in good decisions than in great art. Without creativity, imagination, wisdom, and common sense (to mention a few useful human attributes), reason alone is grossly inadequate. And only those believing in the Myth of Rationality think otherwise.

Writing a Book

“The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first.” — Blasé Pascal, Pensées

V. Woolf on English Teachers

“[she felt] the teaching of English in Universities was idiotic. I believe also that she felt, in the case of certain teachers of English, that they showed in their writings so little understanding of the language that they could hardly discuss their betters, the genuine masters of English, without being guilty of arrogance.” —Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography

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