Great Writing

Relatives sometimes discover a book that brings them so much enjoyment that they want to share the experience with everyone they meet. That’s cool. Unfortunately for me, most of the books they like, despite glowing accolades from literary critics such as Oprah Winfrey’s intern and the editors at Vogue, are painfully difficult to read, since I have this weird predilection for great writing.

It’s hard for me to explain to my impassioned aunts and uncles, cousins and in-laws, why Wally Lamb and Mitch Albom and the countless “chick lit” scribes who dominate the best-seller lists are as difficult for me to digest as uncooked pork. These folks are super talented and super successful at selling their market-tested stories to easily distracted shoppers. But they’re not very good writers. 

I tried once to explain why this was so. But it’s no use. People like what they like, and they’re entitled to their preferences. No amount of highfalutin blathering from someone who has never been a suburban book club selection can change convicted minds. No matter how patiently one explains, educates, or browbeats, it’s not as though folks who dig The Bridges of Madison County are suddenly going to embrace David Foster Wallace.

Having learned from my political betters that “going negative” can have dire consequences — especially when you’re talking with someone who thinks Nora Ephron is our century’s Mark Twain — I provide, instead, examples of writers I consider worth reading regularly and repeatedly, folks who have mastered both the craft and the art of organizing arguments, ideas and feelings into chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and words.

I’m talking about people I read every week, sometimes every day, writers whose work is readily available for public consumption. People ask me, “Who do you like to read?” Here’s a partial list.

Unlike many former New Yorkers, I can survive without the New York Times. My local paper, the Los Angeles Times, is a very good broadsheet, filled with many excellent craftsmen, including the brilliant and irascible sportswriter T.J. Simers, whose grouchy, mocking tone borders on shtick, but which is so elegantly expressed, with such a recognizable voice, that it’s easy to forget how masterfully he constructs his entertaining Page Two column. Thousands of readers call him a jerk (and worse) and plead for him to be fired, but they keep reading him, anyway. Simers’s greatness as a writer is amplified by the earnest horribleness of his columnist colleagues, most notably Bill Plaschke, who, naturally, wins all the sports writing awards for his dreadful columns that vainly attempt to illustrate just how important and illuminating the NFL and NBA are in our rudderless lives.

On the opinion page, Tim Rutten and Jonah Goldberg are powerful, eloquent writers, even though I think Goldberg, a baleful reactionary, is wrong about nearly everything. These guys shine like disco balls in a coal warehouse whenever their writing appears in the same edition as Sandy Banks, Al Martinez, and Steve Lopez, whose Royko/Breslin/Runyon aspirations outreach their modest talents. Similarly, since most of the calendar section writers and critics are PR-infected literary blowjob-artists, smart, incisive writers like Paul Brownfield and the increasingly scarce jazz critics Don Heckman and Greg Burk stand out.

These newspapermen — and all aspiring writers — ought to study the usual suspects at the New Yorker, where Hendrik Hertzberg consistently delivers the most cogent, elegant political commentary in America. He’s joined by the master synthesist Adam Gopnik, the thought-provoking and playful Malcom Gladwell, the effortlessly funny Nancy Franklin, the masterfully restrained Calvin Trillin, the impossibly erudite yet accessible music writer Alex Ross, and the leader of them all, the magazine’s editor and valuable contributor David Remnick.

For harnessed outrage and poetic cross-examination of the hypocrites and evildoers who are wrecking our democracy, you can always count on America’s greatest essayist, Lewis Lapham, the longtime editor of Harper’s. His front of the book missives now appear quarterly; those who treasure incisive, densely constructed arguments miss his hilarious monthly eviscerations of the rich and powerful.

I think Nick Tosches is an intriguing writer, with an individual point of view and a voice as distinct (and cool) as Dean Martin, one of his biography subjects. George Saunders writes the kind of humorous (and dark) fiction that makes me glad I’m literate. Although David Foster Wallace is a celebrated novelist, it is his journalism that excites me, so rich is it in allusion, wit, and honesty. I feel that way about the screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, and Todd Solondz, though, admittedly, his work is not a good idea if you’re prone to depression.

With so many great, truly great, authors in print, I’m finding it difficult to justify reading mediocre ones. Lucky for me — and anyone else who still cares about the art of stringing together words — a fresh batch of indispensable writing comes to life every day. You just won’t find it at your Auntie’s book club.

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