“Never open a book with weather”

"In the Rain", Sascha Kohlmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“In the Rain”, Sascha Kohlmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Every profession, hobby, and field of study has its share of lore, that is, its own body of unsubstantiated knowledge distributed by word-of-mouth and emails, often winding up in textbooks and reference material. Most “common knowledge” is lore. Everybody knows that Macs can’t get viruses—but they can get malware, and they do. Everybody knows that the French eat better than Americans—but watch the Parisians line up at McDo’s for their Quarter Pounders and pomme frittes. There’s even office lore, the shared knowledge of how to unjam the printer and get around that bug in Excel. The thing about lore is, even if it’s accurate, no one knows why. If it works, the lore is reinforced; if it doesn’t, the lore may still survive. Lore is superstition for a modern world that thinks it’s shaken off superstition.

Lore shared among fiction writers is the worst. These received chestnuts of “wisdom” that all writers must adhere to continue to go unchallenged, both individually and as a body. Why is that? Why are we as writers so beholden to a list of unproven, unsubstantiated do’s and don’t’s?

Inevitably this writing lore is attached to the name of some Big & Important Author. If Carver or Faulkner or Flaubert said it, it must be true—or, more significantly, it must be deep and thoughtful. Another reason for the bulletproof status of this lore is that their rules are regularly reprinted in definitive texts and repeated by other authoritative authors.

Lore replaces thought. Instead of considering each and every sentence in your story, examining word choice and sentiment and motivation, lore is a handy feather-stuffed cushion to fall backwards onto. Lore in writing becomes a shortcut in an art form that is all about decisions. Ignorance of lore is to risk ridicule from peers and scorn from editors. Defying lore is to take a risk. That’s why it’s passed around so earnestly in workshops, writing groups, and creative writing classes.

It doesn’t help when a reputable literary bastion collects and collates this body of lore into a central location, even using the long-sapped form of the Top Ten list to help the practitioners organize their thoughts. Now, not everything on these lists is lore—plenty of it is hard-learned personal wisdom—but inevitably someone (“Elmore Leonard” being that someone) invokes that tired hand-me-down: “Never open a book with weather.” I’ve heard it phrased so many different ways I’ve lost count (maybe I should make a Top Ten list), but every variation involves “never”, “open”, “book” (or “story”), and “weather”. (The Guardian cribbed his list from The New York Times, incidentally.)

Elmore Leonard isn’t so stupid as to pronounce this absolutism and move on. He offers a justification (“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long”) and an exception (“If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want”). When you contemplate both of his exceptions, suddenly that “never” in “never open a book with weather” melts away like the warming Kilimanjaro snow.

Speaking of, this is what Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos:

Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.

Hemingway managed to open “A Very Short Story” with a mention of the weather:

One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.

Here’s his rule-breaking opening to “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

Papa again, in “Cross-Country Snow”:

The funicular car bucked once more and then stopped. It could not go farther, the snow drifted solidly across the track. The gale scouring the exposed surface of the mountain had swept the snow surface into a wind-board crust.

I could go on. In fact, if you think of a story’s title as its true opening, Hemingway is even more guilty: “The Snows of Kilamanjaro”, “Cat in the Rain”, “After the Storm”, even perhaps The Sun Also Rises.

You might object that these openings are reflected in Leonard’s exceptions and provisos, but the lore of “never open a book with weather” that gets passed around somehow fails to mention any of them. Someone brings a story into a workshop that opens with rain drizzling onto a window pane and someone else pounces on the faux pas.

Worse, the lore of “never open a story with weather” is often misattributed to Hemingway, which is crazy: the man made a career and an unstoppable reputation based on writing about the outdoors. A writer of outdoors adventures would never respect “never open a story with the weather”—it’s like a mystery writer admonishing “never open a story with a murder.”

The prohibition against opening with weather is one more bit of lore designed to mystify and codify the craft. It bedazzles young writers who commit it to memory as the key to publication, and it offers easy ammunition to every hack who’s gone into a workshop oh-so-smug in the knowledge of why the story up for review is mortally flawed.

Twenty Writers, Twenty Books: Introduction

See the “Twenty Writers” home page for the current list of “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books”

The Treasure of the Sierra MadreEvery so often an Internet-age chain letter makes the rounds on the social networks that asks the recipient to list their top ten books. Most people are game because it’s fun to make these lists. Sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy have built media empires on list-making. David Letterman and “Top 10” are synonymous. We like lists. They’re oddly cozy.

Generally my friends’ lists of books are a little of the familiar, a little of the unfamiliar, and a bit of the unexpected. Lists are a kind of self-expression. For lists of works like books or music, we’ve even adopted strategies that are similar to the strategies used to make those works in the first place. There’s a tension between highbrow and lowbrow, a fear of being too obvious, a la producing a mix CD of nothing but #1 Top 40 hits, or too obscure, a la a mix CD of Central European filk music. No one wants to put a The Da Vinci Code or The Great Santini at the top of their list of books, even if you love either dearly. If you include that book that doesn’t use the letter e, you should probably add something more accessible, like The Great Gatsby, and maybe even feel clever that both have a similar family name in their title.

When I considered my own top ten books, I realized three things. (Yes, another list.) First, I knew I couldn’t keep my list down to ten, and I certainly didn’t want to number them. A linear ranking just isn’t an accurate diagram for great books. I don’t want to make a catalog of the best to not-the-best, I want to make a “web” of book titles that together represents something larger.

Second, if I was going to make a list of books, I wanted to write about each of them rather than simply present their titles. Some of my motivation here is that I’ve read about these authors and thought a lot about their books, probably more than I sanely should. Writing forces me to make my own decisions and dig a little deeper into the work. I have to take a stand or two, what I feel is important, where I think the work missed the mark. In turn, those decisions have an impact on my own fiction.

Third, my list of books is more driven by authors than titles. To borrow terms from computer science, I’m a depth-first rather than breadth-first reader. When I find an author I like, I tend to dig into their backlist. If an author leaves a palpable impression on on me, I start searching for biographies and book reviews. I don’t buy the notion that we should detach the author from their writing. Fiction is the product of continuous decision-making. The author’s decisions are characterizing of him or herself, just as the decisions of his or her characters accrete to form personalities on the page. I want to tangle with those authorial decisions.

One proviso: I like poetry but don’t feel conversant enough to include any in my list. I’ll just leave it at that.

So here goes, my top twenty books (not ten) and their authors, each written up as a separate entry, unnumbered to avoid creating a sense of best and not-the-best. I’m releasing these as I write them, which means it might be some time before the list is complete (assuming I finish this at all). My list begins with B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a book that surprised me in its quality and scope. When I went to learn more about the author, I discovered his name represented one of the great literary mysteries of the 20th Century.

In some ways, I’m writing these entries for myself. I hope they’re informative or enjoyable for you. If you get anything out of them, please leave a comment and share with your friends.

See the “Twenty Writers” home page for the current list of “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books”.