Sunday, April 22, 2012

Writing You Don't See

Guild House, Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia, April 18, 2012
Last week I found myself sitting in a parked car on a drab section of Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. I was there for awhile before I recognized the very ordinary brick apartment building across the street.

It wasn't an ordinary building at all. It was the Guild House, designed by architect Robert Venturi as one of his first major buildings and built in 1964. If I hadn't read about its restoration, I never would have guessed its importance. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia writes:
In the world of architecture, Guild House is one of the most famous buildings of the 20th century. As John Farnham, Ph.D., of the Historical Commission noted in his outstanding nomination essay, Guild House is not just an important example of a style of architecture, it defined the architectural style of the late 20th century known as Post Modernism.
Really? That plain brick building is one of the most famous buildings of the 20th century? Once I recognized the building, I studied it. And studying it made me think of writing, as almost everything does.

The Guild House looked ordinary because it was so successful. Venturi was one of the founders of Post Modernism, which takes lessons from historic architecture and puts them into the context of modern life. He used brick because that's what Philadelphia has been built from for more than 300 years, combining the city's vernacular building material with classical architectural forms. It fits right in with its next-door-neighbor, the Edgar Allan Poe House, the Federal-style home where Poe lived while writing “The Tell-Tale Heart,”“The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

One thing I found remarkable is the chain link fence. Venturi had a limited budget in 1964, and so he chose chain link for the perimeter, the diagonal lattice echoing the brickwork of the Guild House's balconies. To most modern eyes, chain link is utilitarian and even ugly, used for security, often rusted and choked with weeds. If the Guild House had not been historically preserved, most property owners would have replaced the fence with high-end wrought iron or aluminum. Instead the original chain link was restored. Instead of choosing something ornamental, the restorers stuck to authenticity. The fence does its job, and it's true to the architect's vision.

Good writing isn't always visible. It's not always fancy. It builds on classical structures. It uses the same words and emotions other writers have used before because they're comprehensible. But when done well, it can be new and surprising, causing readers to look at something in a different way, the way I looked at the Guild House's chain link fence. If done really well, good writing will be copied so that the innovations are hard to recognize -- true for Venturi and for Poe, a progenitor of horror genre.

So as I revise, I try to remind myself not to show off. Novelty isn't my goal -- it's clarity, authenticity, and originality within the context of the writers who have come before me.

What books or authors do you admire for writing that's invisible, where you notice the story and not the words? What innovative writers in your genre have been so copied that it's hard for new readers to recognize what's special about their work? 

TWILIGHT might be an example. Another is Tamora Pierce's ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE, whose main character was a revelation for young girls at the time but now seems like a Mary Sue. 


  1. I think THE HOBBIT was incredibly innovative for its time, because Tolkien wrote the story as if he just assumed the reader would accept his fantasy world. It seems like other stories at the time were written in an obvious "I'm telling you a fairytale story" style, like Dr. Dolittle. Even though Tolkien wrote with an omniscient narrator, there's much more of a natural feel to it. His style has clearly influenced children's fantasy far more than Hugh Lofting's style. Interesting post-I've never really thought about this before.

  2. I think that's what I love about reading Middle Grade books overall. For the most part, they don't get caught up in fancy writing, and the stories really stay with you. I think that's what makes the Harry Potter series so successful--the prose is unremarkable to a certain extent, but the story, and especially the characters, stay with you long after you put the book down.

  3. I have to say anything written by Judy Blume. She influenced my greatly as I was growing up. I devoured all her books. "Forever" portrays young love in such a realistic way, and if you go back and look at the writing, it's so simple, really. Yet every nuance rings so true.

  4. Great examples. It's impossible to imagine fantasy without Tolkein or YA without Blume. Their influence is pervasive within their genres and those that emerged later.

  5. I was probably one of the few sf&F readers who managed not to read Gibson's NEUROMANCER when it first came out. I knew its place in pop culture and the cyberpunk genre, but somehow avoided it for 27 years.

    I read it in February, and it blew me away. For the first time, I saw firsthand the inspirational wellspring of so many movies, plot elements, writing styles, and even real-world scientific advances.

  6. Marian, I haven't read that! I will put it on my list.

  7. I love "Neuromancer". William Gibson is still cranking 'em out, too, so now's our chance to see if he's still got it.
    Rod Serling's brilliant balance of sci-fi, horror and fantasy still rings true for me (not a novelist, sorry). Elmore Leonard's clean and fast paced books kick my butt all over the place.

  8. For me it's always got to be LeGuin, and in particular The Tombs of Atuan. When I was 8, I read that book and LOVED it. It wasn't until I re-read it 20 years later that I realized how very skillfully written it is. It's a small book full of simple prose that paints an astounding view of a sprawling, ancient religion and the very real people who are forced into its service. Nowadays it gets filed away as a fantasy "classic," lumped in with the other books from the Earthsea series, but that book stands out like a beacon. I occasionally see some fantasy that begins to dare the sorts of things it does, but it's still practically revolutionary in its approach to a female MC in a magical fantasy series.

  9. Whenever I think of the new upswing in the dystopian genre - both adult and YA - I can't help but think back to Orwell's 1984. Classic.

  10. Bryn, I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read LeGuin. I didn't read much fantasy as a kid, and I've been trying to make up for it. I've been studying recent books but now I need the ones that started it all. I'll request that from my library.

  11. I'm having a hard time thinking of anything on my own, but I have to agree with the Judy Blume comment.

    Well... The Hunger Games, perhaps. It's not a revolutionary concept, but it spawned countless imitators, none of which (imo) come close to capturing what makes Collins' series great.

  12. Great blog post, Kell, and as a one-time architect major in another life, I can appreciate the notion of hidden beauty in utilitarian work. Innovative writers I read years ago and see the influence to this day include Frederick Forsyth, Philip K. Dick, and Anne Rice. I loved Forsyth for his intricate plotting, Dick for his mindtripping premises, and Rice for her mastery of language.


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