I don’t go to a lot of fancy restaurants. I’m more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Or meat and rice to be more precise.
If you’ve ever spent time in Hawaii — where I grew up — and had the local food, you’ve probably encountered plate lunches. A plate lunch is food at its most basic: meat, rice, macaroni salad. And if you go to the right places, like Rainbow Drive-In or Grace’s, the gastronomical experience is akin to athletic sex with the Girl Next Door.
Needless to say, I love plate lunches.
There are a number of fancy restaurants in Hawaii as well. Honolulu is big on Asian/European hybrid dishes, created by local cooking stars like Roy Yamaguchi.
Roy’s restaurant, which sits near the ocean in Hawaii Kai, serves exquisitely tailored meals that are the equivalent of, say, bedding that Exotic Movie Star you’ve always dreamed about — without the inevitable letdown.
But to my mind, Roy’s is an exception. Many of the other fancy restaurants in Honolulu try very hard to reach such heights but often fall flat. The atmosphere may be great, the service may even be top notch, but the meal itself leaves something to be desired.
What does any of this have to do with writing or publishing?
I recently read a novel that tried very hard to be a fancy restaurant. There were enough clever similes and tortured metaphors to choke a rhino, and it took three pages for the hero to walk across the room. The prose, while sometimes brilliant, was mostly borderline purple. As I read, all I could think was let’s get on with it! and finally ended up tossing the book aside.
There are writers who can pull this kind of thing off. Make their words sound like poetry and still manage to compel the reader forward, creating a meal that’s both exotic and satisfying.
But more often than not I prefer the meat and potatoes (or rice) served up by guys like Donald Westlake or John Sandford or Elmore Leonard, where the words never get in the way of the story. I have little tolerance for fancy prose. And just to prove to you that I’m not a complete ass, I’ll admit that this may well be my failing more than the writer’s.
I believe you can be clever without being pretentious. You can turn a beautiful phrase without calling so much attention to it that you might as well be wearing a sign that reads, AREN’T I BRILLIANT?
There is nothing fancy or clever about my prose. I always write from inside a character’s head, feeling and seeing only what he or she feels and sees, and speaking in a voice that reflects his or her attitude toward the world. This isn’t necessarily the correct way to write — there is no correct way, only what works. But it’s MY way.
So, barring a few exceptions, I think I’ll continue to avoid fancy restaurants and stick to plate lunches.
The Girl Next Door may not be as gorgeous as that Exotic Movie Star, but she rarely disappoints.
I realize, however, that not everyone shares this particular bias or sentiment or whatever you want to call it. So I’m curious to know:
What type of meal do you prefer?
I think we all like smart writing, but you’re right that there’s a line between “smart” and “smug.” A clever metaphor or a beautiful turn of phrase is one thing. Getting whacked in the head repeatedly by someone out to show how clever/beautiful/cute they can be is another. That’s not storytelling — it’s posturing.
I’m right there with you. I enjoy good writing, but that means it has to communicate, not impress. There are several writers, and I can think of one bestseller in particular, who once wrote with clean, effective prose but now bog their stories down with knots of prettiness that obscure the story. The stories are still good, yet it’s hard to tell with all that purple splattered on the pages.
My favorite books are those that tell a story using lyrical, poetic language in a consistent, genuine, gorgeous voice.
I devour and love stories told well in straightforward language, too, and stories woven seamlessly are also a particular love of mine, but the books I go back to and read again and again are not necessarily the ones that move me forward, they’re the ones that dangle me along the way.
I love having to stop because a passage is just so perfect I want to read it again right that moment. Or because someone has taken a normal, everyday occurrence or moment I’m familiar with and made it unique by the way they describe it. Conversely, an occurrence new or strange to me made familiar/illuminated by the way it’s described.
I agree that there are only a few writers who do this well, and not all of them can do it with every book.
I’m intrigued with the idea of the exotic meal versus the plate lunch. For me, the gorgeous book that knocks my socks off might not *be* the exotic meal – it might well be hearty fare served on a heavy pottery plate, with a fork and a knife and a thick cloth napkin no longer stiff because it’s been washed so many times.
In terms of reading, I like both. A good gourmet meal can have that element of surprise, even irony, leaving you hungry for more. In terms of writing, I think it’s obvious that I’m on the simple meal plan. Again, I think that it goes back to voice. I beat myself for many years because I didn’t have that fancy literary style and finally I realized that like children, you get what you get and it’s all precious and valuable.
I tend to read a bit from both menus (and I write the same way). I like straightforward language, but I also enjoy a clever or poetic turn of phrase. The exception comes when the author takes his writing to a level where he’s beating you in the head with his richness of language. Or to keep with the menu metaphor, when he drowns his work in sauces and you can’t taste the meat. ;o)
Plate lunch? Mo bettah, yeah? Always ono.
And Indigo is one of my favorite restaurants in Honolulu. Damn close in quality to Roy’s.
I describe the difference you’re talking about as the Wordslinger versus the Storyteller. I read both. I aspire to be both. But in your food analogy, it would a simple dish, beautifully seasoned.
And who’d a thunk macaroni salad was its own food group?
The girl next door with the occasional movie star thrown in, as long as the movie star isn’t TRYING to be more than the girl next door.
Richard Barre writes movie stars who are girls next door, and it’s not obvious–all of a sudden you realize: Whoa! That’s good! Then go over it again to see how it works.
Years ago, when reading one of my very favorites, MOBY DICK, for just under the umpteenth time, I had an “aesthetic wow,” and in scrutinizing the passages (many, many of them), I realized they read like poetry; then, checking again, I discovered they were in iambic pentameter. Talk about your mind-blowing orgasms….
Rob, another great post. I love those books that surprise me, ones that I expect to be meat and potatoes that slip in a brilliant turn of phrase or description of a scene that leaves me breathless. Eilser does that, so does Child. They are deceptively straightforward, the unsaid can be as profound as the said. But I’m a huge Connolly fan too because of his more literary style. Guess I’m a greedy reader, I want it all.
And what ever happened to the BOY next door?
Tom, totally agree with you about Richard Barre. It bums me out that he doesn’t seem to be publishing anything these days…..
I eat and read both, Rob. Depends on my mood and how much I want to savor/think.
When I’m feeling impatient, I want tasty, unassuming, dependable food.
When I’m relaxed, I want to take my time, to drink that fine wine, to enjoy the sprig of fresh shiso on my sea bass.
Same with reading. Sometimes, I want a fast-moving and fun story that sweeps me up in its world. Othertimes, I want to pause and revel in each sentence.
Vive la difference.
The world would be awfully boring without variety.
i am a meat and potatoes reader. tell me a damn good story. forget the fancy descriptions.
Gotta agree with Simon, here. When the fancy descriptions start up — and I won’t name any names — I just roll my eyes.
This is not to say I don’t appreciate great language, but I guess the minute I find myself paying more attention to the “beauty” of the language, you’ve lost me. To my mind, I should be paying attention to story and characters only.
Yes, it’s nice to come across a unique phrase or whatnot, but only, as Louise suggests, as seasoning.
And yes, macaroni salad is it’s own food group.
And JT, boy’s just don’t do it for me. Sorry.
I can appreciate elegance in writing, but rarely do I find it done well. Rarer still is some one who can deliver both in the same book. Give me clean, clear writing with short words full of meaning.
James Lee Burke is someone who serves up both the simple and exotic on the same plate. You’re with him eating ham and onion sandwiches, drinking down Cherry Dr. Peppers, and suddenly a Belgian chocolate soufflé comes out. When Burke does it, the combo aint’ bad.
Well, I’ll be contrary because I just finished Janet Fitch’s gorgeous PAINT IT BLACK, and you can give me poetry like that any day. Just luscious.
The opening to Fitch’s White Oleander is one of my favorite passages in fiction.
Yes, Rae, it bums me out that Richard Barre isn’t writing anymore. I’ve been told that he called it quits after Capra Press (his third publisher?) closed their doors. I keep hoping he’ll change his mind.
It’s bad enough to think there may be really good authors out there not getting published because of the state of the industry today, but to have tasted something excellent and having it taken away….
Now I gotta get some kahlua pig, fried rice with bacon, macaroni salad and maybe some shoyu chicken on the side. There goes my diet today.
As to the reading? I think the girl next door’s got some Hollywood moves if you just pay attention. And the starlet probably stepped off a bus from Kansas at some point.
Prose doesn’t have to beat you over the head with its brilliance to be good. In fact, I think it shouldn’t. It draws too much attention to itself that way.