Readers of my books often ask me what I like to read when I’m not writing. And whenever I post a Thought lamenting our aesthetic culture’s descent into exalted mediocrity and irrelevance, the email correspondence usually includes queries like, “Well, if you don’t think Dan Brown is a good writer, who is, smarty pants?”
I think several commercially successful authors are good writers. (Dan Brown isn’t one of them.) Stephen King is a good writer. David Foster Wallace is a good writer — no, a great writer. Malcolm Gladwell is a good writer. Good writers tell their stories and explain their ideas and make their arguments with clarity, elegance, and strength. They do not pander. They do not mistake their readership for the same people who are fascinated by the haircuts of celebrities. They write what they think and hear and see, and the audience finds them.
When I’m asked about where good writing regularly resides, I recommend the New Yorker magazine. This isn’t exactly a radical notion, I know, but there’s a reason this august periodical has survived for more than 75 years. Everyone who produces the weekly issue — the scribes, the editors, the brilliant cartoonists — loves language and ideas. You can almost smell the intelligence in each carefully crafted paragraph. With a few exceptions, I like the work of nearly every person who is published there. I’m particularly fond of Adam Gopnik, the art critic turned chronicler of Parisian and New York life, and Hendrik Hertzberg, the political commentator. If either chap has ever written anything bad — or even less than great — I haven’t read it.
In my local paper, the Los Angeles Times, we have a columnist in the sports section named TJ Simers, whose Page Two rants are so caustically funny that dolts from around the country send him hate mail — which he prints. Simers may be the best writer on the paper. (He’s certainly as good as his much-awarded colleague Bill Plaschke is bad.) The media columnist Tim Rutten is a good writer. Patrick Goldstein, on the film beat, is a good writer. Paul Brownfield, in the Calendar section, is a good writer about popular culture. The regular columnists on the Opinion page, a rotating cast of pundits representing every political bent and ethic niche, are not. We don’t have a Frank Rich, who, yes, is a very good writer. (And one of my former teachers.)
Jeffrey Eugenides, Alan Gurganus, George Saunders, Rick Reilly, Nick Tosches, Anthony Holden, Charlie Kauffman — they’re all good writers. So are a thousand others that you probably haven’t heard of; they’ve been crowded out of the attention marketplace by lesser lights. Nonetheless, they’re worth reading. Because, as with music and every other art form, why waste your time on mediocrity (or worse) when goodness (or better) is ready to fill the breach?