Rage, Goddess, Sing, & Recommended Reading

Our joint read of The Brothers Karamazov having passed quite pleasantly, Ted and I now are reading The Iliad, in the Robert Fagles translation. And it is magnificent:

And out he marched, leading the way from council.
The rest sprang to their feet, the sceptered kings
obeyed the great field marshal. Rank and file
streamed behind and rushed like swarms of bees
pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst,
bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms,
dark hordes swirling into the air, this way, that way --
so the many armed platoons from the ships and tents
came marching on, close-file, along the deep wide beach
to crowd the meeting grounds, and Rumor, Zeus's crier,
like wildfire blazing among them, whipped them on.
The troops assembled. The meeting grounds shook.
The earth groaned and rumbled under the huge weight
as soldiers took positions -- the whole place in uproar.
Nine heralds shouted out, trying to keep some order.
"Quiet, battalions, silence! Hear your royal kings!"
The men were forced to their seats, marshaled into ranks,
the shouting died away . . . silence. (Book 2, lines 100-118)

Goodness, this is glorious writing. Straightforward but just-right words; big, strong, muscular verbs; vivid, appropriate imagery (the soldiers pouring out of their ships like "swarms of bees"). I love how Homer and Fagles establish sentence rhythms suited to the content of the sentence: See how that sentence about the bees rolls on and on and on, just as the soldiers do, so the very structure of the sentence conveys the action it's describing; but once they're all gathered and need to get down to business, the sentences are short and sharp: "The troops assembled. The meeting grounds shook. . . . 'Hear your royal kings!" The passive voice is used only once, and that when "the men were forced to their seats" -- in other words, forced to passively obey. Just this one short passage fills me with awe and delight: I want to read this entire book aloud.

It also makes me think about the uses of good writing. Writers at conferences sometimes tell me eagerly "Oh, I never read anything but children's and YA books," or confidingly "Children's books are so much better than all those adult books," and seem to expect me to praise or agree. Quite often these writers are new to the field and just discovering the delights of modern children's and YA literature, and in that case it certainly is important to get a sense of what's out there and what's good. (In fact, I recently added a recommended reading list over at Talking Books with some novels a beginning children's book editor is expected to know; said list might prove useful for new writers as well.)

But the best thing a writer can read is good writing, especially writing that expands the reader's sense of writerly possibilities: the subjects that can be addressed, the forms a story can take, the perspectives from which it can be told, the way various effects can be achieved, above all good language and how it can and should be used -- all things to get that writing brain and muscles energized and exercised. And -- to state the obvious -- children's books do not have a monopoly on good writing. In fact it would be a fascinating exercise to take the narrative structure or technique of a modern or postmodern adult novel and recast it for a children's book, with a child protagonist: the poem-plus-analysis-gone-insane setup of Pale Fire, for example, or the jumps in time that make Atonement so excellent and devastating, or the unique non-fantasy languages of Everything Is Illuminated or Riddley Walker or A Clockwork Orange, or stream of consciousness like Mrs. Dalloway or magical realism like One Hundred Years of Solitude . . .

I am setting the cart before the horse here, thinking about how technique could shape a story when the story and its function should drive the form; but my point is that knowing all those forms and techniques adds new tools to the writer's toolbox and widens one's field of vision, the things that can be said and the way that one can say them. And of course they offer so much pleasure, these writers, their mastery and their intelligence and humanity, their gift for capturing a moment or image (the soldiers like swarms of bees! -- I'm still marveling at the rightness of that). They challenge you, but they're never work.

So I hope you are all reading children's books. But I hope you're reading Homer (and Austen and McEwan and Munro and The New Yorker and McCullough and Dostoevsky and Sedaris and Mankell and Susanna Clarke) too.