Someone called Jonathan Franzen America’s greatest living novelist the other day, and my immediate thought was that he wouldn’t even make my top 25.
Actually, that’s not true. My immediate thought was that Stephen King spells his name funny nowadays.
OK, that’s not true either. My REAL real reaction was that I didn’t know Cormac McCarthy had died.
Fine, you caught me. In reality, it didn’t faze me much. There are writers who get critical acclaim—writers very few “real” people read. By real people, I mean folks who might work at a real job—as opposed to people who spend the majority of their days navel-gazing and pondering whether Hamlet was really referencing cunnilingus when he asked Ophelia if she thought he meant “country matters.” (For the record, he was totes referencing cunnilingus. Also, cunnilingus is fairly fun to type. Well, not just type.)
But for me, the real writers are the guys who are doing the work, and sometimes in near obscurity. No one really remembers Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho and about a dozen other horror or suspense-type novels. He also penned one of the best short-story collections I’ve ever read: Out of the Mouths of Graves. Bloch’s short stories were often very short, and they punched the reader hard right from the get-go. There’s a story in the aforementioned collection that will leave goosebumps crawling on your flesh for a couple of weeks. And then you’ll forget it, until one night when you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night to take a little bathroom break. And then that story will come slithering back in all its glory to paint your skin in gooseflesh again.
Writers like Bloch, many of them beginning their work in the middle of the last century, hold a special place in my heart. I often think I was born in the wrong time period. I would be perfectly happy stopping by the newsstand and spending a nickel (or maybe as much as a quarter) on All-Story, or a copy of Manhunt, or Weird Tales. It was a simpler time, when a guy with talent and a drive to make it as a writer could live in a Greenwich Village apartment for the princely sum of about $65 a month.
But to talk about that author, we’ve got to move on from where Robert Bloch plied his trade, all the way to a completely different block. Lawrence Block, actually. (Yes, that was a horrendous joke. Yes, I’m leaving it in here. I found it funny.)
Lawrence Block writes like Rolex makes watches. I mean, that’s it. That’s the whole thing. Every piece fits. Every word is chosen well. If anything, reading a Lawrence Block novel (or short story, which I’ll get to in a minute), is kind of like watching a master mason build something. A brick here, a brick there, everything fitted together perfectly, and suddenly, there’s the novel. Part of it is experience, at this point. Block has been writing longer than I’ve been alive. He knows what a story is supposed to be. He knows how to make those words deliver. He’s done at least four successful series characters: Matthew Scudder, whom you may have seen impersonating Liam Neeson in the film adaptation of A Walk Among the Tombstones; Evan Tanner, a a spy (for lack of a better term) who can’t sleep as a result of a war injury; gentleman thief Bernie Rhodenbarr; and the stamp-collecting hitman, Keller.
Do you know how hard it is to write ONE successful series? Four … that’s so awesome, it’s ridiculous.
But here’s the thing I really love about Block: he’s the ultimate professional, in a business crawling with amateurs. (Hell, I’m one of those amateurs.) Block’s purpose seems to be to write entertaining, smart, and sometimes funny fiction—and get paid for it. That last part is important, if you want to be a professional writer. Getting paid is the point. Or at least one of the most salient points.
In the nearly 50 years since Block began his career, I wonder how many novels he’s written “on spec,” as we amateurs do it. Very few, I would imagine. And in those years, he’s written a lot of damned fine fiction.
(And so, Bobby finally gets to the point.)
I’m trying to catch up on Block’s backlist. I was browsing the other day when I came across a short story collection of his called One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, showcasing Block’s early short fiction work. The stories were the kind banged out over the course of a single night, and sold to publications that paid, at most, a nickel a word. But here’s the thing: those stories, written as if the typewriter were on fire, did sell. That’s the point. I bought the collection yesterday morning, and I’m about halfway through with it already. Let me tell you: Lawrence Block had the stuff, right from the very beginning. Reading this collection is like getting a crash course in story. There are neat tricks and turns in this book. Many of them I see coming. Some of them, I don’t. And when those hit me, I’m always pleasantly surprised, and a little chilled, too.
Lawrence Block isn’t ever going to be a National Book Award winner. He’s never going to win the Pulitzer or Nobel. (Their loss, more than his, quite frankly.) I wouldn’t say he’s “America’s greatest living novelist” (but he’d be in my top 25, easy). But what he does—and what other writers like him do—is point the way for those of us who want to be professionals at the craft of fiction. Any writer who understands that craft is as important as inspiration, who knows that you can’t write the goddamn book without sitting your ass down and WRITING THE GODDAMN BOOK, can learn something from Larry Block.
He’s a pro’s pro. A prose pro, even. (And yes, I hate myself a little for that joke.) Lawrence Block is what I aspire to be—a true professional.