"Sentenced to Death" and "Rock 'Til You Drop" by John Strausbaugh

Readers respond to Laura Miller's essay about good writing vs. good novels and Paul McLeary's take on baby boomer rock.

Published August 24, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Read "Sentenced to Death."

Laura Miller is wrong about one thing. I am neither a novelist nor a would-be novelist, but I much prefer beautiful writing to a "good story." Usually the story is in those beautiful sentences, which, like a drop of water, can contain a whole world. Contrary to Miller's claim, I do actually "pick up" a book because it got good reviews -- in fact, I often order books for that reason alone. Conversely, I can't finish a badly written book even if it has a swell plot. Life is too short to read bad writing.

-- Mary Geisert

A paragraph beginning with "what literary authors are after is the esteem of their colleagues" and including "simply a desire to succeed in the eyes of their peers," immediately discredits Ms. Miller's article. She must understand this. What literary writers intend to do, when they set upon the idea of writing, is improve the art. They seek innovation and undiscovered subtleties in style. Or, new stories about old insights, or new insights into told stories. A writer who seeks the attention and admiration of his peers isn't a writer; he is an exhibitionist and a pornographer. Writers do not, as a rule, attempt severe lengths of literacy in the wheel ruts of pornography.

-- Doug Stillinger

The major problem with modern writing, as I see it, is not that it is unreadable. Almost all writers that I can think of write well enough. You don't see any writers -- even the most popular -- making the kind of howlers that Edmund Wilson discovered when he went "Ambushing a Best Seller" in the '40s. Universities have smoothed over the potholes of bad prose through workshops and comparative writing classes. What bothers me is what I think they have put in the place of bad writing, which is defensive writing, writing meant to be impervious to criticism.

What I most want our modern novelists to do is stop worrying about the critics and start thinking of their readers. Tell me something that only you know and don't be afraid of being a fool.

-- Bob Holmes

Great essay but I have to talk to you about "Crime & Punishment." The only reader of Russian lit who says Dostoyevsky reads poorly in Russian was Nabokov. I always wondered about this and recently had the opportunity to talk to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky the husband and wife Russian translating team. "Nabokov envied Dostoyevsky," Pevear told me. "Every time Nabokov wanted to write something, he found Dostoyevsky had already written it." Pevear also said Nabokov had Tolstoy-like nobility aspirations, and scorn for Dostoyevsky's lower-class position. "He doesn't like Dostoyevsky's religion either. Nabokov was -- what did our friend call him? -- 'pseudo-aphoristic.'"

"He also hadn't read Dostoyevsky since he'd been a young man," Larissa added. "Nabokov writes from memory about Dostoyevsky. He makes big mistakes."

Nabokov also raged (correctly!) against Constance Garnett, the woman who had a monopoly on translations of Dostoyevsky for most of the 20th century. "She made everyone sound the same," Pevear told me. "Tolstoy sounds like Dostoyevsky and they all sound like Chekhov ..."

"Dostoyevsky's humor," Larissa added, "is lost in Garnett, and he's extremely funny." She also said, "Garnett actually influenced a lot of English-language writing. Hemingway, for instance, thought he was influenced by Dostoyevsky, but he was influenced by Mrs. Garnett."

Maybe you could say the following about French or German literature, but I know that none of us really know the richness of a Russian sentence unless we read Russian.

-- David Bowman

Thank you for Laura Miller's wonderful article on "snooty prose." Allow me to add my own thoughts: Today's authors should spend more time involved in plot and character and not in spinning elaborate prose. I read a lot of today's authors and am wowed by their prose style but, when I finish the book, I feel as though I haven't really met any new people or been drawn into a new world. In short, I don't really care. Henry James wrote in "The Art of Fiction" that the first obligation of a story is to be interesting. Dare one say that novels should be ... entertaining? Is that a crass demand made by a member of the great unwashed? Many of the novels we revere today like "Pride and Prejudice" and "Huckleberry Finn" and "The Great Gatsby" were written, in their day, for the mass market, as entertainments. That they later became regarded as great novels comes from their substance, not their styles. I'm not saying I want to read poorly written prose, but I want, after I read a new book, to feel as though I've been brought into a world that I never want to leave.

-- Tony Dunlap

I haven't read Mr. Myers' essay, nor have I ever read any of the authors Myers chose for his examples. That's because, as a reformed aficionado and practitioner of so-called literary fiction, I try to avoid it like an ex-smoker avoids ashtrays. The shit makes me gag. Listening to the newest literary hotty read on NPR or Radio Reader is an intensely painful experience, one reminiscent of trying to pop a particularly stubborn zit. I have to turn down the sound or switch to something a little less jarring, like death metal or pipe organ music.

Literary fiction is written for creative writing teachers, critics and other writers of literary fiction. This is because so much of it emerges from creative writing programs. I saw this trend many years ago in my own college writing classes, where the entirety of the coursework concentrated on writing elegant prose, while ignoring such things as characterization and plotting. I longed for someone to explain what it is that makes a good story, yet all I was ever taught were the things that aren't done.

I don't know who made up the rules. They sounded good, and they gave us a sense of superiority over popular mainstream writers. We would sneer at books and movies, saying how such and such would be laughed out of any college writing workshop. Yet in our own stories, nothing ever happened. Some people argued. Someone left or was killed or committed suicide. Someone had an epiphany. All in 5,000 words or less.

That's why I had to quit. In order to write, I had to forget everything I had ever learned in creative writing classes, then relearn it on my own. Many of the "rules" were good rules, but I had to learn that you always abide by the "rules," except when you don't. I had to learn that there is more to characterization that a shiny pinky ring. But most of all, I had to learn what makes a good story. This is something that, after three novels, I am still struggling to understand.

-- James Crook

Although relegated to a sentence or two, I think Ms. Miller's comment on the state of poetry is extremely accurate. Poets do vastly outnumber poetry readers and I don't know anyone who actually shells out hard cash for thin volumes of the latest work from directors of poetry workshops. The whole endeavor of poetry seems to have fallen into an academic swamp these days. I plodded through Paul Hoover's overly erudite introduction to "Norton Anthology of Post Modern Poetry" and was thoroughly discouraged from ever reading a poem again.

-- David Edelberg

In his Atlantic essay, "A Reader's Manifesto," B.R. Myers isn't attacking "elegant" prose, or poetic prose, or even pretty prose. Myers objects to the way it has become "fashionable ... to exploit the license of poetry while claiming exemption from poetry's rigorous standards of precision and polish."

And Myers demonstrates that much of what book critics celebrate as "elegant" is in fact inelegant and ugly, because it is meaningless. A lot of pretty words get strung together as the writers struggle to make poetry out of every sentence and the result is gibberish. Yet the critics swoon over the nonsense.

Myers didn't use this example, because it hadn't been printed yet, but it's typical: In a recent Esquire review, Sven Birkets praised Barry Hannah's new novel, "Yonder Stands Your Orphan," for the "sizzling poetry of his every phrase and sentence."

One of Birkets' examples of this poetry frying on the page like bacon is this mawkish muddle: "In this state live men and women nostalgic by age eleven. For things rambling, wooden, rain-worn, wood-smoked, slightly decrepit. The heft of dirty nickels."

You would need at least a couple rolls of nickels and they would have to get awfully dirty before they had any heft at all, and children nostalgic at 11 for the trappings of their poverty sounds like it ought to be profound, but what it really is is not the least bit likely. Yet Birkets calls this sort of blockheadedness "inspired."

As long as critics like Birkets are at work praising writers like Hannah, then rotten writing like Hannah's is going to be what gets written and what gets published and what gets remaindered in a hurry while readers who enjoy good writing turn more and more to nonfiction and mysteries and science fiction.

-- Dave Reilly

As a person who wrote his college honors thesis on the importance of Stephen King on America's literary and pop cultural landscape, this article made me laugh. What is all this convolution?

Here is a simple idea I've come to embrace: Sentences are for writers. Stories are for readers. Appeal to both. In general, I believe that fellow writers appreciate eloquence, while a readership appreciates development. When the two ideas egg each other on, you have a glorious read.

Stephen King has been maligned for decades as a pulp horror writer. Critics have worn furrows into their scalps with their constant head-scratching over why and how he sells so many books. It's easy: He develops plots and characters masterfully, almost every time, while accomplishing something near impossible: turning superb phrases that scare the shit out of his readers.

Oh, and he has also written the clearest manual on how great storytellers write that I've ever read. Spending time with "On Writing" might just end this silly squabble once and for all.

-- Oliver Griswold

Laura Miller's "Sentenced to Death" covers the fictional landscape quite adequately, but (trust me) the ravaged terrain of nonfiction is far worse when it comes to sending the notion of the book to hell in a purple handbasket.

Salon's own Maria Russo reviewing my book "The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams" makes the point that all too often authors tell us that writing is a way for them to come to terms. Sometimes with the past. Unfortunately, nonfiction as it is defined by the powers that be in contemporary publishing today, strictly limit "coming to terms" to the stupidity of "Touched by an Angel," and where literary fiction is allowed to dance however precariously on the heads of literary pins, writers of nonfiction had better be hopeful in what they write or they simply won't be published.

Publishing reality is an accident. I just spent the better part of three years writing about life in migrant camps, specifically how life in migrant camps (there are no good migrant camps, OK) affects the lives of children. This was not a hopeful book. It was hardly pretty. It didn't need abstract sentence structure to make the point that migrant camps (there are over 2 million migrant workers in America) are landscapes that breed everything from tuberculosis to the sexual abuse of the children who are condemned to live in them.


Miller complains about "reprehensible trends." Let me tell you about one. In my memoir about growing up in migrant camps (I called it "Geronimo's Bones" because at the end of his life, Geronimo was turned into a farmworker), I note the irony of hunger in a place where food is picked. The food that America puts into its belly is often picked by children who are hungry. Child labor laws are a joke and every migrant kid knows it. But hunger is not a joke although my references to it in "Geronimo's Bones" were summarily removed by a publishing company that seems to be summarily afraid that hunger will not play anywhere in Peoria.

Although Salon named "The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams" (where I tried my best NOT to describe the real horrors of fetal alcohol syndrome), one of the best books of the year, the book didn't quite fare so well in marketing campaigns like "Booksense" where it lost the competition humbly to a book on architecture.

I noted this on my Web site. In the world of nonfiction, a book on architecture is considered far more worthy, and has more value than a book on a Navajo child who dies from fetal alcohol syndrome. I would believe in angels if I could, but I've just never touched one.

My book publisher asked me to take the Web site down. I was alienating my public.

What public.


I complied. I took the Web site down. No writer in his right mind wants to alienate his publisher.

In the world of literature, publishing does feel that ordinary people are too stupid to read complicated prose, and in the world of nonfiction, publishing likewise feels that ordinary people are too stupid to understand complicated issues. Miller is right.

I took my book back. In "Geronimo's Bones" I refer to my life as a child in the migrant camps as a "shit hole life." That phrase had been changed to read: "life."

If I had wanted to say that I had a life, I would have said "I have a life."

I did not say that.

As a migrant worker, my life was a shit hole. As a writer, my life is still a shit hole.


I spent too many years in migrant camps hungry and being abused to allow any description of it now to be touched by a goddamn angel. So, I got the book back, and have arrived at the inevitable conclusion that if you don't make it pretty, you ain't gonna get it published.

Miller claims that writers, critics and other supporters of serious fiction would be better off peeking over some of the arbitrary walls they've erected and recognizing that pleasure needn't be anathema to art. The world of nonfiction, too, could use some peering over some of the same walls publishing has erected as barriers, and recognize that vision needn't be anathema to reality.

-- Nasdijj

Read Paul McLeary's review of "Rock 'Til You Drop."

All arts, and indeed technological and social development patterns, have periods of revolutionary activity and sudden upsurges, followed by periods of consolidation and slower advancement. It is unrealistic to think that we must always be in constant artistic revolution, with the impetus surging out of youth, à la the '60s. So what if the musicians, critics and listeners are older? Did anyone knock Beethoven for his age when he composed the Ninth? The belief that "if it isn't young it isn't valid" is itself a flawed holdover from the '60s, and is behind phenomena such as 21-year-old dot-com CEOs being showered with VC funding by boomer execs -- as well as articles lambasting older musicians and their fans.

-- Michael Martin

In regards to Salon's latest blast at aging rock bands -- why is it OK, even admirable, for bluesmen to tour into their golden years and beyond, but it's pathetic for rock 'n' rollers to do so?

Is it that the rebellious attitude of rock doesn't sound right from people with receding hairlines, but blues laments about love and loss fit nicely into middle age and beyond? Or is it (a disturbing possibility) that white baby boomers like me, who make up the bulk of rock and blues audiences, are more comfortable with nonwhite old guys acting crazy than with white old guys acting crazy?

-- David W. Brooks

OK, let's put this tired aging-rock-star rant to bed -- for good. Look, Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe and, just the other day, John Lee Hooker all died with their boots on and their picks in their hand. I'd be sorely disappointed if Keith Richards and Carlos Santana and Neil Young did any different. No, rock 'n' roll isn't about a counterculture, or the Hall of Fame, or how old you are, or -- least of all -- rock criticism: Rock is about people who love the rootedness of the music and love to live in its groove. If you want to skip the next warhorse road show -- hey, no problem! I'll go, and you can stay home, watch music video channels and suck your thumb.

-- Ben Dickinson

I have noticed that most articles like this (whether about music or lifestyle or politics) begin on topic and end up with Boomer Bashing. Is there anything more boring and pointless than more Boomer Bashing?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact: rock music in general. The repetitive wailing's of rock stars new and aged as well as the tooth (or gum) gnashing of their critics is wearisome.

Mr. McLeary misses the essential point. Rock is a very limited form of music. It can no longer be done, only redone. That's why its appeal is to the very young who hear whatever is current and lacking any history longer than their own attention spans are sure that it is the coolest ever.

And that's also why Boomers can't get into newer music. Why bother if everything they hear is blatantly derivative? Why listen to some hip new band refer to the Byrds when they can just go listen to the Byrds?

That is why his assertion that "great rock music will continue to be made ... it's out there, and the young are making it" is just wrong. It is out there, they are making it, but it isn't "great." It wasn't that great 30-plus years ago. Now it is just more of the same.

-- Mike Essig

Oh, you are going to get letters.

After reading Paul McLeary's review of "Rock 'Til You Drop," I'm not sure which pisses me off more, the reviewer or the book. I suppose as a boomer I should have expected the young'ns to rise up and attack. After all, that is what they do. But the revisionist history being spewed here resembles nothing at all to the truth. Yes, we boomers are getting old and some of us do have protruding tummies but the late '60s did produce music that will never be heard again. In addition, I suspect that the current generation that McLeary/Strausbaugh belong to is just pissed because they don't have a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yes, the acts are old but they are not selling out concert halls as the reviewer/writer claim. The absolute brilliance of masters like Hendrix, Page/Plant and others is apparently not worth mentioning. In short, this book and review clearly was written by those who do not understand what went on. It is poorly researched. Someone else said it better than I ever could: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. These guys did not.

-- Rich McIntosh

According to Mr. John Strausbaugh, rock music is somehow reserved for the young. Older performers and older fans just don't have the right to continue to listen and enjoy rock music. Well, that is a load of crap. Age has little to do with entertainment. So what if the stars of the past are overweight or a little weak-voiced. Rock music is supposed to be fun. It's entertainment. As long as a band is entertaining, I will continue to listen. I am not really interested in the "pain and suffering" of being a teenager. I am interested in hearing the bands that I grew up with play the music I know. That's fun. John Strausbaugh is just mean-spirited. He needs some fun, too. I won't be buying his book.

-- Ken McElhaney

It's about time! ... that someone called "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" for what it is -- the antithesis of rock 'n' roll. I am 51 years old and, so, came of age at the time of rock 'n' roll's most meaningfully creative period. The Rolling Stones were my absolute favorite band. To see them performing now is shameful. Back then, even Mick Jagger said he didn't expect to be "jumpin' around on stage" at this age.

McLeary is right about current music, and it does seem only Tool and Radiohead have validity since Kurt Cobain died and Pearl Jam failed to move beyond its early success in synthesizing the sounds of Zeppelin, Hendrix and the Stones.

What now for one who followed the path trailblazed by the Beatles, Dylan and the Stones (the Dead, the Who, the Airplane, etc.)?

I'm listening to the likes of Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and others, who are doing what the pioneers of rock once did -- synthesizing disparate forms of music without regard to its lack of genre label (alt.country? no depression? Americana?) and not worrying whether it gets played on radio.

-- Neil Carver

Paul McLeary's analysis of "Rock 'Til You Drop" was convincing and enlightening.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as McLeary concludes, while noble in its agenda, is just one part old age home, one part relic gift shop and three parts time warp, where aging rockers of yesteryear can forget that their heroin injections of the '60s and '70s have been replaced with biyearly prostate exams.

-- Taffy Akner

By Letters to the Editor

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