Monday, July 28, 2008


Why should we (as readers/audience) care (about what we read/see)?

Some years back, never mind how many, as Ishmael of call me fame was heard to say, you became the editor of a writer who'd written his way up the ladder from the early half-a-cent-a-word pulp magazines to the point where he was turning out two hardcover mysteries a year in addition to being story editor an chief writer for a then major TV series, a man who still had time to write books for you, memoirs largely, such as The Pulp Jungle, reflections about the storytelling trade as well as collections of his earlier work. Around this time, and because you'd had a visible relationship with this writer, you were assigned the task of luring another writing machine away from his publisher, shifting his enormous productivity to the company that paid your weekly salary and expense account.

The first writer was Frank Gruber, the second Louis L'Amour. Neither was what you would call a prose stylist, which says it all for the placement of prose style in the hierarchy of writing DNA. Although largely unknown today, Gruber's work then found a target audience, attracted readers.

At the time of his death just a tad over twenty years ago, all hundred one of his books were in print. His works have literally sold hundreds of millions of copies, are still popular and finding new readers today.

They both substituted story for style; their work had so many other qualities that it did not require style on that level of aesthetic nicety. From each man I learned a way of looking at the central figure in a story as a platform for qualities and goals that caused readers to stop what they were doing in order to sign on to the text. Each writer spoke of traits and quirks that caused characters to get up a bit earlier to get a jump on the day or to relish an extra guilty hour of sleep when they should be up. Each had an instinctive appreciation for a person who needed to feel right about "things," which is to say the details, rules, and morality of life.

Jack Schaefer's Monte Walsh was such a man, a cowboy who wanted the life of the trail more than anything else, a man whose very epitaph spoke his life's story: A Good Man with a Horse.

The men and women we care about are men and women who care about others, who care about things, who have some built-in hard drive for what is right and what isn't. Stories are subversive by nature; they work away at the things these men and women know to be wrong, pushing them up against the odds of being forced to break from their code one or twice then pay the price of rue or guilt or some need to atone, some way to get back on track with The System, whatever The System may be.

We readers should care because the authors of works, even inelegant works, evoke care and concern within us. We writers should care enough about something to write about it with the passionate force of abandon. If storytelling is an exercise, it is an exercise of the muscles of passions and caring about things and loathing other things and empathizing with the conflicting forces within humans that drive them over boundaries.

A story does not have to be gift wrapped in style to leave a lasting effect on our reading self; it is gift enough that we have been made to care.

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