Clever me. Or not.

“Clever” is a relative term, especially when it comes to the creative arts. From a purely practical standpoint, my most clever writing moment was probably whatever got me published. But then someone else might think that exact same passage was drek, because they would have preferred reading about naked space aliens doing the Macarena and spraying each other with Antarean massage oil. You just never know.

I used to review books for a local paper. Most of it was what is fondly referred to here as Canlit—Canadian literature often produced by a small press, usually serious, often filled with despair, weighty allusions, and landscapes that devour people via snow, bears, an excess of wheat, or the CBC. I enjoyed some of it, was puzzled by some of it, and sincerely disliked the balance. While we do have some brilliant humorists in the Canlit field, none of them sent their books to me (either that or my arts page editor kept all the good stuff).

But just because I didn’t like those stories, that didn’t make them bad. A lot of them set out to achieve their story goal and, while they might have depressed the bejeezes out of me, I had to give them credit for doing a good job. A lot of them were, in a word, clever—just not very warm and fuzzy.

In fact, I think the very cleverness of some of them put me off. I like to be surprised, and I don’t even mind knowing that the author is trying to surprise me. I just don’t like to be aware of it all the time, because then the whole act of reading becomes a strictly intellectual exercise with me trying to anticipate the author. I can’t relax into the story world but kind of skulk around in it jumping at shadows. (Example: The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. By Robert Coover. I forgive this book because it really is a genius piece of fiction.)

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What I like is a book that sucks me in so completely that I forget I’m reading and leaves me ready to stake anyone who interrupts the trance. This requires a combination of intellectual pleasure and emotional pull. Clever, but with the gears and cogs hidden well enough that I don’t see them from chapters away.

So, do I ever write that well? I like to think I manage it once in a while—but everything is so subjective, I’ll never have a cut and dried answer. When I hear from a reader that I hit the right chord for them, I’ve received the best external validation possible.

What’s the cleverest thing I ever wrote? Whatever it was that made someone buy the next book.

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