In the middle of his game-changing bestseller Miami Blues, Charles Willeford takes time out from crime and chaos in order to offer advice to would-be-authors. “Write simple sentences — subject, verb, object…Use concrete words that convey exact meanings.” Most importantly, “Force your reader to reach for something.”
Willeford is talking about himself, of course, but also a certain kind of literary tradition. Kafka and Beckett. Twain and Hemingway. Hammett and Westlake. Authors who state things simply, but also force the reader to reach for images, ideas and emotions not on the page.
For my money the greatest stylist in Young Adult fiction is Daniel Pinkwater, who recently turned 70. He is funny and surreal. He selects each subject, verb, and object carefully, ensuring the audience must participate in getting the most out of the text.
From Lizard Music:
Anyway, Walter Cronkite isn't on very much in the summer because that's when he takes his vacation and Roger Mudd fills in for him. I watch the show anyway, because if something really big were to happen, Walter would come straight from his vacation to take over. Another thing I like about when Roger Mudd does the show is the possibility that Walter will die (not that I wish him any harm) on his vacation, and a news flash will come in while Roger Mudd is on the air. Or he wouldn't have to die–he could be trapped underwater in a Volkswagen bus with only enough air for two hours, and Roger Mudd could describe the rescue attempts. Then the Navy divers would get Walter out, and he would say, "That's the way it is," and sort of salute into the camera, and the news program would fade out into the coffee ads. Or it might be good if he did die after all, just after the Navy divers got him out of the sunken bus. Then he could say, "That's the way it is," as his last words. There are a lot of possibilities to the Walter Cronkite show. I used to try to get some other kids interested in it, and maybe set up a Walter Cronkite fan club, but they didn't even take it seriously, and I got a reputation as a crazy.
From Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death:
Everybody ate in silence until the Bullfrog Root Beer was served. Then the conversation at the table got started. Aunt Terwilliger began making a sort of speech about grand opera. She was against it. Later, Rat told us that her aunt had just about every opera recording ever made. Her aunt spent hours in her bedroom listening to them, but all the rest of her time was spent arguing that people shouldn't listen to operas, and, above all, they shouldn't go to see them performed. Rat said that Aunt Terwilliger makes regular appearances in Blueberry Park, where she tries to convince people to live their lives opera-free. She feels that operas take up too much time. Also, she has an idea that people who like opera will become unrealistic, and not take their everyday lives seriously. Most of all, she believes that operas are habit-forming, and once a person starts listening to them, it's hard to stop, and one tends to listen to more and more operas until one's life is ruined.
Aunt Terwilliger has pamphlets printed up that she hands out. Her most popular one is called "Grand Opera: an Invention of the Devil."
The Story of the Rabbit and the Eggplant
Once there was a race between a rabbit and an eggplant. Now, the eggplant, as you know, is a member of the vegetable kingdom, and the rabbit is a very fast animal.
Everybody bet lots of money on the eggplant, thinking that if a vegetable challenges a live animal with four legs to a race, then it must be that the vegetable knows something.
People expected the eggplant to win the race by some clever trick of philosophy. The race was started, and there was a lot of cheering. The rabbit streaked out of sight.
The eggplant just sat there at the starting line. Everybody knew that in some surprising way the eggplant would wind up winning the race.
Nothing of the sort happened. Eventually, the rabbit crossed the finish line and the eggplant hadn’t moved an inch.
The spectators ate the eggplant.
Moral: Never bet on an eggplant.
At first I was pleased to see Pinkwater’s name in the New Yorker last week. He’s a cult figure but the literary establishment usually isn’t that interested in him. (The essential anthology 5 Novels is blurbed by a dozen readers and no critics.) Nor is he a particularly hot property in the business. (The modern YA “thriller” serves it all on a plate; the reader doesn't have to reach for much in J. K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins.)
After my initial gratitude that Pinkwater was getting noticed, I became astonished by the context. Briefly, the fable from Borgel above was recently mutilated by the New York Department of Education for their eighth-grade reading exam. After changing most of the words, they tacked on a nonsensical multiple-choice question that understandably confused the students. Since they left Pinkwater’s name on the “excerpt,” the author started getting calls and emails from students wanting to know about owls, sleeves, and pineapples — three concrete words that weren’t Pinkwater’s.
The best line is by Pinkwater, who is understandably cranky. “If a pineapple were funnier, I would have used pineapple in the first place.” The rest of Ben McGrath’s piece is a contemporary and amused adult take on the vagaries of education. Nowhere does it say that Pinkwater is a great artist; indeed, McGrath seems a bit skeptical. Myself, I’d call Pinkwater a genius, but by any standard he’s not just any children’s author, or, in McGrath’s words, a “specialist in nonsense.”
Pinkwater’s own humble account of the brouhaha was posted by the Daily News. He’s devoted his life to making children laugh and think, and even under pressure he is more concerned with protecting them than himself.
Well, I’m concerned with protecting Pinkwater. In addition to changing his hard-fought subjects, verbs, and objects, there were other violations perpetrated by NYS Dept. of Ed.
The revision does away with the obvious satirizing of Zeno’s Paradoxes. The original sentence, "People expected the eggplant to win the race by some clever trick of philosophy," glows like a golden sunbeam. It’s simply glorious. You can almost see the centuries of accumulated argument slink away into dark corners. While you don’t need to know anything about Achilles and the Tortoise to enjoy Pinkwater’s fable, a youngster who reads Borgel before getting to Zeno (or Lewis Carroll's interpretation of Zeno) will come to the table just a bit more prepared. (I can’t understand how the New Yorker piece mentions Aesop, Mad Men, drugs, and Chomsky, but not Zeno.)
The revision appropriates the humorous side of Pinkwater without honoring his anti-establishment voice. Many of Pinkwater’s books are about surviving school. His lead characters are outsiders that never fit in with the masses. Those including Pinkwater in an average curriculum must respect that “otherness,” because Pinkwater has helped many students more than many teachers.
A common comment from fans to the author is “One of your books saved my life.” The relief and validation that washed over me from repeated readings of Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars was worth a thousand therapy sessions. Acting like Alan Mendelsohn at school also did wonders socially: I went from being a wimp easily hurled into lockers to an artistic weirdo that bullies thought best to leave alone.
(My wife was a bit younger when she discovered “her” Pinkwater, the picture book The Big Orange Splot, nominally for elementary readers but great for adults, too. The refrain of creative empowerment is still Sarah's song today.)
If putting Pinkwater into a test isn’t bad enough, the revision assigns Pinkwater to multiple choice. When you ask the reader to reach for something, whatever is found at the tip of that reach could be different for everybody. Certainly there are no right or wrong answers in Pinkwater! There aren’t even heroes and villains, just a bunch of unusual people. When Uncle Boris refuses to parse a cryptic home movie to Alan Mendelsohn and Leonard Neeble, he says, “It’s a work of art. You don’t have to know what it means.”
I could go on and on about the Department of Education’s misreading of Pinkwater. Presumably this is enough for now, but, fair warning: If you are the one responsible for “The Hare and the Pineapple,” make sure I don’t find out. Because if I do, I will be at your house bright and early the next day, with opera records and Walter Cronkite VHS tapes and the right equipment to enjoy them, and our interaction will last far longer than you want it to. I won’t threaten or hurt you, but you will be very uncomfortable.
It’s really too bad that Pinkwater says,"…After 40 years of authoring, and more than 100 books, I got interviewed by all the major newspapers in New York City…Everybody knows what Andy Warhol said about everybody getting his 15 minutes of fame. Is this mine? Do I need to ask that? Obviously it is. I think I’m happy about it. I feel like a real celebrity — real in the sense that I got a whole bunch of media attention, and I didn’t actually do anything."
Well, Mr. Pinkwater, this dumb test may have resulted in an unprecedented number of interviews, but this was not your fifteen minutes of fame. For many, you are immortal.