Or you can go here for a picture of Death By Cotton Candy
Recently, I took a delightful writing class, which I have mentioned before. But there was one thing that came up in the class that I found disturbing.
We reached a section that spoke about Cotton Candy Writing. Ah, I thought, the bane of every good book, the perfect description of exactly what a good writer never wants to do.
So, you can imagine my shock and amazement when the following paragraph made it clear that Cotton Candy Writing was what we, the students, were supposed to be shooting for. Writing that offered no “speed bumps” to the reader, that never slowed them down.
I sat there, stunned. My favorite books always slow me down. They make me stop and think. They are not like cotton candy, they are like a full steak dinner from soup and salad all the way to flavored ice and nuts. They make you put the book down and muse over the ideas with a thoughtful or, occasionally, stunned look on your face, before picking they up and diving in again.
But…Cotton Candy Writing sells. Sells like hot cakes–or like cotton candy. People love things that flow through their mind like spun sugar in the mouth, that offer no resistance.
Now, to be fair, I like cotton candy, had some just two weeks ago at a pool party (okay, I had a bite and gave the rest to the Cherubim…but it’s still tasty.) I even like some cotton candy books. Who does not enjoy sitting down and reading something that requires no thinking upon occasion? Nearly everyone I know has some kind of cotton candy-like book they love.
But I forget those books. I could not tell you a year later what they had been about.
I do not want to write things that will be forgotten. Ideally, I would like to write something that would make it onto the St. John’s College Program and last forever. That particular goal is probably beyond my ability. I have not yet had any ideas that strike me as SJC Program worthy. But it strikes me as a goal worth shooting for.
When I was at St. John’s, I spent time trying to figure out what makes a Great Book. I came to the conclusion that a Great Book is one that has the Great Ideas in it. (Mortimer Adler made a list of some of them. His list ishere: ) Great Ideas make you think. They make you reconsider your own ideas, your values, your opinions, your life. They change you, not necessarily because of the opinions of the author expressing the ideas, but because of what happens within you when you contemplate them.
The greater the ideas in the book, the more they challenge or mystify or awe the reader, the longer the book lasts. The really great books last forever. The Iliad and The Odyssey are between 2000 and 3000 years old. People are still reading them.
But they are not Cotton Candy by any stretch of the imagination. It takes work to get through them. The Catalog of Ships, alone, requires excavation tools and full body armor. They are full of speed bumps at every turn…but they last.
Given a choice, I would rather write a book that lasts than a book that melts in the mouth like spun sugar and vanishes, never to be remembered again.
But how would one learn to do it? No writing class or book I have seen deals with how to make your story last. There are classes on how to make your story melt like spun sugar, and classes on how to make your stories have literary value—complex symbolism and the like. There are books that tell you how to remove your adverbs so as not to trip up the reader, and books that do a really good job of analyzing what is in a bestseller and ways of emulating their success. But if there are books that do the same thing for books that have lasted, books that have proven their worth through time, I have not seen them.
Ironically, books that last often do not sell well right away. In his whole life, Milton only got 10 Pounds (sterling) for Paradise Lost. Many of the great books were not even acknowledged during the life of their author. And yet, they continue to delight readers hundreds, even thousands of years later—a wonderful outcome for the works, but not so good for the author’s dinner table.
So one can see why writing instructors are less than eager to push this kind of writing on their students…especially since there is no way to check to see if it is working. If a writing teachers gives advice and his students hit the Bestseller’s List, that is instant confirmation of the usefulness of the advice. But no one can wait five hundred years to see which modern books have lasted, and even if they could, they would have to invent time travel before they could report back…and time travel is an entirely different area of study from writing. Chances are that the average writing teacher may not be suited for both.
Still…seems like there is room there for something: Writing the Great Books Way? Lessons In the St. John’s Style? How To Write A Great Book? Spinning Candy Into Steak?
Because the ideal, of course, would be to be able to write a book that read with ease AND included great ideas, something with the sweetness of Cotton Candy and the nutrition of salad and steak—thus allowing it to sell both to a wide audience and through the depths of time—but whether this is possible, only God knows.