Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Richard Stark, or a discussion about a writer that touches on writing

I never cease to be amazed by how seldom discussions of writers turn to writing and by how frequently readers seem to equate overwriting with good writing. That's why I was so pleased by the response to my citation on Facebook of a simple, beautiful bit of description from Richard Stark's novel Deadly Edge.

Here's the passage:
"Keegan had thick dry brown hair and the outraged expression of a barroom arguer." 
Here's the discussion so far:

Sam Belacqua "barroom arguer" is a mouthful Unlike · Reply · 2 · 3 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky It's a beautiful, telling, concise bit of description, far better than bits of crime novels often cited as examples of fine writing. The opening of The Last Good Kiss comes to mind. Like · Reply · 4 · 3 hrs

Diane Williams Shaw lots of rrr's! Unlike · Reply · 1 · 3 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky R is the fourth most common consonant in English for a good reason! Like · Reply · 3 hrs 

Jack Getze "He looked like a high risk, the kind of guy who falls asleep smoking in bed." -- Elmore, the opening of Cat Chaser. Unlike · Reply · 4 · 3 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky That's terrific. I haven't liked Leonard as much as some readers do, but I may give Cat Chaser a try. One bad sign: A reviewer called it "quirky," but that's not Leonard's fault. Like · Reply · 1 · 3 hrs · Edited 

David Magayna I don't care for that simile, but then who am I to "argue" with Richard Stark? I might have used "barroom agitator". Unlike · Reply · 2 · 3 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky Your suggestion of "agitator" reinforces what a master stroke "arguer" is. The word is mildly jarring; no one would use it. That makes the reader sit up and take notice. A writer has to be pretty confident of his or her chops to try something like that. Like · Reply · 2 · 3 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky "Agitator" is also a bit elevated for what barroom loudmouths do, isn't it? That's another reason Westlake's choice works, I think. He is yet another crime writer upon whom reviewers, critics, and writers heap praise, without, however, highlighting the writer's prose style. Like · Reply · 2 hrs 

David Magayna Well, I approached it from two different angles. One, it rolls off the tongue easier and sounds better, but, Two, the guy he seems to be describing (in my head) is someone who doesn't look to argue a point, but just run his mouth and take the opposite viewpoint of whatever might be discussed. Like · Reply · 2 hrs 

David Magayna And I guess "arguer" could fill that bill, too. Like · Reply · 2 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky David Magayna Your guess describes the character perfectly, which is evidence that Stark made the right choice. To my mind, an agitator looks to start arguments, as opposed to an arguer, merely a peevish type who disagrees with everything. Stark knew what he wanted, and he knew the right word to get it. Like · Reply · 2 hrs · Edited 

Lanny Larcinese Peter Rozovsky re your point "arguer" as master stroke: I agree, and such word selection is critical to authorial voice. It makes me crazy when others purport that words "that make the reader sit up and take notice" pull them "out of the story." When I see unique (not including torrents of weird) language I want to keep reading. Vanilla may work for intensely plot-driven, but when it comes to character, give me rich. I'm down with "arguer." See More Unlike · Reply · 1 · 1 hr 

David Biemann How about, barroom goad? Too agitatorish? :) Like · Reply · 1 hr · Edited 

Peter Rozovsky Hey, everybody: I'm enjoying this discussion. Do any of you mind if I turn it into a blog post? Like · Reply · 2 · 2 hrs 

David Magayna Fine by me. Like · Reply · 2 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky David: Thanks. I love discussions like this. I never cease to be shocked by how infrequently discussions of writers deal with writing. Like · Reply · 2 hrs 

David Biemann ...and the outraged expression of a man four drinks into a five drink barroom argument (?) Barroom too much like broom (?) arguer - agree with the too many r's. Still works... just gives pause (?) Like · Reply · 2 hrs · Edited 

Peter Rozovsky David Biemann Those are not bad, but Westlake's choice was better. He chose well when he chose the pen name Stark for the Parker novels. Like · Reply · 2 hrs David Biemann Less is better. Like · Reply · 2 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky David Biemann I'm similarly predisposed. But the question is not less (or more) is better, but rather of creating a tone appropriate to the story and of sticking to that tone. Westlake did that, and, for all the deserved praise he gets, that aspect of his work is rarely recognized. I suspect this is because people don't know how to talk about writing. Like · Reply · 1 · 2 hrs 

David Biemann True. Lines out of context are hard to judge on their merits in general but when you're creating context with them, it's a different story. Unlike · Reply · 1 · 2 hrs 

David Biemann Did you see Erin Mitchell's, if you could ask any living author question? I wish Westlake were still around to join this conversation. Like · Reply · 2 hrs 

Peter Rozovsky I'd have been happy to schmooze with Westlake, but he was good enough that his work can speak for him. Like · Reply · 1 · 2 hrs 

Linda L. Richards It seems a bit self-conscious to me. Like he had to work a bit too hard to get there. Also it puts me in mind of The Rural Juror: a bit too much of a mouthful. Unlike · Reply · 1 · 1 hr 

Peter Rozovsky I think the word shows signs of being a deliberate choice, so I understand your observation that it seems self-conscious. But that self-consciousness only accentuates how well chosen the word is, Like · Reply · 1 hr · Edited 

Linda L. Richards To my mind, a metaphor should evoke something effortlessly. You read it and just get it in your gut or heart or wherever good metaphors are digested. To me, this type is heavy handed. Klunk. It lacks delicacy and/or subtlety and makes me think about it too much. Unlike · Reply · 1 · 41 mins 

Peter Rozovsky I got it in my gut with a brief stopover in my brain. I've seen debates over whether style ought or ought not to be noticeable. It probably ought to be invisible most of the time except im rare instances where it calls the reader's attention to new possibilities. This example does that for me. Like · Reply · 24 mins 

Steven Parker I go for "brawler", obvious I suppose, but it goes with being an arguer... Like · Reply · 1 hr 

Peter Rozovsky Brawler is several steps beyond arguer and not at all what Stark wants to convey about the character. Like · Reply · 1 hr 

Steven Parker I must admit I was visualizing Trump in that role: "“Trump had straw like hair and the outraged expression of a barroom brawler.” It's the eternal outraged expression that gets me... :-) Unlike · Reply · 1 · 24 mins 

Steven Parker Besides, having run a few rock clubs while in my youth, in my experience the difference between an "outraged arguer" vs. "outraged brawler" is rougly 2 seconds! ;-) Unlike · Reply · 1 · 22 mins · Edited 

Darren Shupe Perhaps not quite the same as resembling a blond Satan, but hey. ;) Unlike · Reply · 1 · 5 mins 

Peter Rozovsky Though the image of Humphrey Bogart has driven the blond Satan description from most people's minds. My favorite part of the description is the Hammett says Spade looked "rather pleasantly" like a blond satan, which shows that in the hands of a deft enough writer, adverbs can do wonders. Like · Reply · Just now 

Thanks to everyone who has weighed in. And here's a blog post in which I suggest that "reviewers and other people are uncomfortable talking about writing at best or wouldn't know good writing if they saw it at worst."

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Blogger Art Taylor said...

Very much enjoyed this discussion!

February 22, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. On the one hand, writing--prose style, that is--almost never comes up in discussions of crime writers. On the other, every list of great openings is going to include those creaky perennials The Last Good Kiss and "Red Wind." One can imagine that critics, reviewers, and readers, embarrassed by their discomfort with the subject of prose style, fall back on those old chestnuts to show that they appreciate Good Writing after all.

February 22, 2017  

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