Monday, March 1, 2010

Nice Writing

This article is over ten years old, but it made me think. The bulk of "Sweet and Low" is a critique of Barbara Kingsolver, whom the author claims is a "Nice Writer," meaning someone who writes shallowly on social themes. No one can criticize "nice writing" because it seems so virtuous.

I am not talking about hypocrisy. I am talking about the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art. The trend is everywhere. It is to be found, for example, in Lorrie Moore's short stories, especially "People Like That Are the Only People Here," the longest tale in Birds of America, her acclaimed new collection. The story is about a newborn baby dying of cancer. That is, the story's emotional register begins, from the very first paragraph, far beyond the reader's capacity to develop his or her own response to it. The effect is to place the supremely empathetic author in a protected niche, far beyond the reader's capacity to criticize. In this way Nice Writing fosters Nice Criticism. Anyone who writes nice writes with impunity.

Full disclosure: I really liked the Poisonwood Bible. But I see what the author is saying too. What do you think?

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