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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The discipline of simplicity

It’s much harder to write short than long. So why do we assume that fatter books must be better, or that slender novels can’t be great?

In a used bookstore in my town this week I picked up a slim novel, Shiva Naipaul’s Love and Death in a Hot Country, that is making me think about this — about how powerful a piece of work can be when the writer has the discipline, and I think also the courage, to make sentences and scenes that are spare. When this is done very well, when the writer can pare back skillfully, leaving a lot just sketched and implied, my imagination and emotions are lit up as much by the gaps and spaces as by the words themselves.

I wasn’t looking for Naipaul’s little novel. In fact, I’d never heard of him; turns out he was the younger brother of the better-known V.S. Naipaul, whom I have read, a little. The brothers came from Trinidad and Tobago, and Shiva passed away in 1985, at only 40, of a heart attack. I guess he drank, and he resented his brother’s greater success.

But how can you not be impressed with paragraphs like these, on the opening pages of this 185-page novel, about a fictional nation based on Guyana:

They were a reminder of the vastness of Cuyama; of the wilderness that lay behind their backs.

The jungle at their backs — and, facing them, the Atlantic, rolling its brown waves: a tepid, sullen sea laden with the silt of a continent’s great rivers.

Cuyama, a tract of land perched uneasily on the sloping shoulder of South America, a degree or two north of the Equator. Cuyama, a tract of land on the fringe of an Empire whose interests had always lain elsewhere.

On their blue copybooks were portraits of British kings and queens.

Last night I had to stop reading right there, and admire the space between these words, the choices of exactly the right, simple phrasing: “perched uneasily,” “a brown, sullen sea.” So much comes through these simple sentences — geography, history, the feel of a hot, neglected place, even the psychology of a drowsy, unlovely former corner of an empire.

It’s so much easier to throw in everything. Our tendency, trying to write something, is to fill paragraphs and pages with everything you hope will stick, to try noisily to corral your meaning into a crammed-in space. The best discipline so much centers on what we are willing to take out, to leave out, to trust to implication. Great short novels can be triumphs of this. I’m thinking of The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, Elie Wiesel’s Night. In the YA world where I try to work, I admire The Cay, Freak the Mighty, and Jacqueline Woodson’s short novels.

It’s really hard to do this well. As a working writer, doing publications and so forth for nonprofit organizations mostly, I seem to spend most of my time compressing, trying to work a complicated story or message down into 500 words. Or 250, which is impossible — but sometimes you have to do it anyway.

And when I look for good books to read, I find myself looking mainly for writing that brings life and meaning through simplicity. When this is done very well, the pages are like a Caribbean water, so clear that you can see to depth: you witness the life at levels, and you almost forget the water is there.

Try to do that sometime. I’m still trying, I try every day. It’s the hardest thing of all. 

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