Mark Twain, Snooki, and the decline of American literature

Renee James Contributor
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Given the literary muck we find ourselves mired in, I thought it might be prudent to take a step back and think about just what makes a writer do what he or she does. I started by reading about two of the writers in the news last week. Both are barometers of their respective ages; both have a distinct view of what the creative, exhausting, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding process of capturing the word on a page means to them.

Let’s starts with Mark Twain. Twain’s autobiography is now in its tenth week on the Times bestseller list, and his novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is about to be republished.

Here’s what Twain had to say about his profession: “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

I love that he acknowledges that writing well is difficult and challenging — that although we all have ideas, expressing them in the best way possible takes work. He also tells us that a good writer’s voice will become known to the reader through the language and the story at hand. In a letter to Cordelia Welsh Foote, he writes: “Don’t explain your author, read him right and he explains himself.”

Consider one passage from Huck Finn where Huck contemplates his friend Tom’s plans to help free Jim, a slave, from captivity:

Here was a boy that was respectable and well brung up; and he had character to lose; and folks at home that had characters; and he was bright and not leather-headed; and knowing and not ignorant; and not mean; but kind, and yet here he was without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody. I COULDN’T understand it no way at all. It was outrageous, and I knowed I ought to up and tell him so, and so be his true friend, and let him quit the thing right where he was and save himself.

Huck is confused and frustrated, but ultimately understands the right thing to do.

Which brings me, sadly, to the second “author” swirling around the zeitgeist these days, one that also evokes confusion and frustration: Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.

Ms. Polizzi’s approach to writing is something of a departure from Mr. Twain’s, although perhaps “reading her right will explain her” to us. According to USA Today, her novel, A Shore Thing, was a “back-and-forth process by phone with her collaborator, Valerie Frankel. … I just gave her scenarios, (a character) possibly working at a tanning salon, there has to be drama in it, fights. She would write it up, I would read it, and if I didn’t like it, I would change things, and then she would fix it for me.”

Fixes, apparently, that yielded literary gold like this:

“Yum. Johnny Hulk tasted like fresh gorilla. Any juicehead will get some nut shrinkage. And acne.”

And this:

“Gia had never before been in jail. It wasn’t nearly as gritty and disgusting as she’d seen on TV prison shows.”

Or this, God help us:

“Gia danced around a little, shaking her peaches for show. She shook it hard. Too hard. In the middle of a shimmy, her stomach cramped. A fart slipped out. A loud one. And stinky.”

I think that’s enough for now.

Unfortunately, books like A Shore Thing are all too common today.

Considering Snooki’s wardrobe choices and the way her “voice” has emerged in her first novel, here’s one final thought from Mark Twain: “The older we grow the greater becomes our wonder at how much ignorance one can contain without bursting one’s clothes.”

Even at her tender age, Snooki appears to contain a lot.

Renee James writes social commentary and keeps track of the things that mystify her on her blog: It’s not me, it’s you, found at reneeaj.blogspot.com. Her email address is raaj3@msn.com.