When I finally began pursuing my fiction writing career in earnest, I decided, with a risible combination of arrogance and self-delusion, that I was going to model my style after that of the better Nobel laureates. The philosophical heft of Saul Bellow, the political fearlessness of J.M. Coetzee, the stylistic derring-do of José Saramago—all of these would be hallmarks of my work, only more so. I had no time for the frivolity of lesser writers who tackled lesser themes. My work would be serious, significant, weighty. Governments would pay heed.
I showed some of my early stories to a friend of mine. A couple of weeks after I had given them to him, we went out to dinner. He said nothing about my work, seemed, in fact, to be avoiding the subject. Near the close of our meal, I asked him if he had read the stories. He said yes and then hurried in another spoonful of dessert. When I asked, “What did you think of them?” this friend, who is not a writer, gave me the most astute writing criticism anyone had ever shared with me.
“They’re not you,” he said. “I mean, they’re OK, but they don’t sound like you. They’re not about anything you care about.” He paused. “You’re a funny guy. Why don’t you write something funny? Your stories might be better if you did.”
He would not be the last person to make this suggestion. My wife, who is fond of my more serious pieces, has told me more than once than my daily discourse is at its most vivid when I indulge my sardonic sense of humor. Why not inject more of that into your writing? You don’t have to write farces or slapstick, she said, although those could be good, too. Just give yourself permission to be funny. Don’t worry about those other guys. See what happens.
So I have. My recent first-person narrators are less refined than their earnest predecessors. They use slang and don’t shy away from making impolite remarks. My earlier preoccupation with relevance at all costs has given way to the simpler pleasure of letting scenes evolve more naturally. I’m having more fun writing than I’ve ever had before.
And now that I’m no longer trying to be profound, my stories are more significant, at least to me, than they were when I tried to cram them full of relevance. They speak truths that the narrators of the past were too shy and tongue-tied to utter. They are fresh in a way that many of my maiden attempts were not.
I don’t know yet what agents and editors will think of my emerging style. All I know is that I think it’s better, and that can only lead to better and richer stories, more experimentation, more fun.
There’s nothing wrong with emulating any of the writers I cited earlier, if that’s the type of writer you are. But if you’re not, your stories will probably be leaden and untrue. Mine were, anyway. I know now what I should have known a long time ago: I’m not Bellow or Coetzee or Saramago and shouldn’t pretend to be. But perhaps that’s the sort of discovery that can only come from trying on another writer’s style and realizing that it doesn’t fit.