Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Peter Rozovsky’s peerless blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, had a thought-provoking post yesterday. Peter does this several times a week, but the thoughts he provokes are often for more eloquent minds than mine to articulate, so nothing happens here.

This post was titled, “What separates the superlatively great from the merely very good?” The post ends with one of Peter’s periodic displays of gauntlet throwing: “What distinguishes a great author from one who is merely good, even very good? Examples welcome.”

My comment: This may lower the level of discourse, but, to me, the mark of greatness is when a writer can consistently give me moments or entire novels where, after reading, I shake my head and think/say, "Damn, I wish I'd written this." Anyone can do it once in a while, but some do it so often I expect it. Those are, to me, the greats.

This was, in fact, somewhat lower than the accustomed level of discourse on Peter’s blog, but, were it not for the likes of me, how would you appreciate those who actually know what they’re talking about? Peter threw me a lifeline with, Dana, the question then becomes: What defines that writing that makes you thing, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"? It's elusive, isn't it, and each writer who achieves it probably does it in his or her own way, revealing new possibilities. If we could nail it down, we'd be doing it ourselves.

I immediately thought, “F. Murray Abraham!” A worthy comment immediately came to mind, but, needing a blog post for today and being a selfish prick, I saved it for here. (At least I gave credit.)

You may remember F. Murray Abraham as the actor who played composer Antonio Salieri in the movie Amadeus. (If you saw the movie, you remember him; it was a brilliant performance.) Salieri was a contemporary of Mozart, and had established a nice reputation for himself when the wunderkind came to Vienna and pushed him aside, not just for the time being, but for all of history.

Salieri was a fine composer. You’ll hear music every day on classical music stations not as good as his, written by composers better known. A musicologist can compare his scores to Mozart’s and see no material differences. Put one score of each composer side-by-side (assuming neither piece is known to the observer) and one would be hard pressed to say which was whose.

Listen to them, and everyone knows in a heartbeat which is Mozart’s.

I sang in my college glee club for a year. The conductor was Bob Lloyd, a small, energetic man who was primarily the oboe and saxophone teacher, but loved him some glee club. Mr. (later Doctor) Lloyd was always going on about “singing into the wire,” making a face while pushing his index finger forward to show intensity. What he looked for was “stuff,” which he indicated by rubbing his thumb across his first two fingers in a symbol also used to designate money. “Stuff” was what turned a competent reading into a Performance. It elevated pedestrian material, give it charisma, because it was…it was…it was undefinable. You knew it when you heard it. Hell, you felt it when you heard it. He never had to tell us when we’d achieved Stuff; everyone in the room knew.

Every principal trumpet in every major orchestra plays his (or her) ass off; Georges Mager, Bud Herseth, Charlie Schlueter, Bill Vacchiano had Stuff. That’s why their names resonate with trumpet players years after their careers, and even their lives, are over. Good players play a piece with the attitude, “This is how I think it goes.” Great players sound like, “This is how it goes. Period.” Even when different conductors ask them to do it different ways, the end result is, “This is how it goes.” Stuff.

Great writers have Stuff. (Unlike me, they could probably define it.) Like Salieri and Mozart, they use many of the same conventions, grammar, tropes, and archetypes as the rest of us, yet you know as their prose falls on your reader’s ear they’re different. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, Declan Hughes: their grocery lists are worth reading. Every book is filled with examples of “I wish I’d written that” until you get to the end and can’t decide whether to be elated over having been in their world or depressed by the knowledge you will never, ever be able to do that.

And then you get back to work, because anything that can be done that well is always worth getting better at.


John McFetridge said...

The afternoon DJ on the classic rock radio station here in Toronto is Kim Mitchell who was in a band called Max Webster in the late 70s that had a few hits and he had a couple of solo hits ("Patio Lanterns" and "Go For a Soda" most well-known) and he has a segment on his show he calls, "Wish I'd Written That." He talks about a song and what makes it special to him. It's always something different, always some combination of things that come together in a way he really likes.

I find that with books, too, it isn't the big things, it's not the amazingly clever plots or the really unique detective or things like that, it's the way everything works together.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Salieri and Mozart is a brilliant example, and your discussion highlights what a difficult question this is. We are all more or less Potter Stewarts when it comes to greatness: We know it when we see it. Max Webster was also a great name for a band, and their song and album "A Million Vacations" one of my favorite titles.

I defy anyone to fling a gauntlet my way, bub.

Peter Rozovsky said...
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Dana King said...

Good point. I sometimes find I'm well into a book before I realize I have something special on my hands. No one thing struck me, but at one point I'll lift my eyes from the page and think, "God-damn this is a good book."

Dana King said...

On my way there now...

Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...

A great book is a state of mind!