The most useful writing advice, like a doctor’s script, is always specific. It doesn’t widen, it narrows. “Those sentences that begin with the word ‘Although,’” writes Joseph Epstein, “or those sentences requiring a ‘however’ somewhere in their middle, are almost always dead on arrival.” That’s thrillingly precise. So, too, is critic Stephen Metcalf’s urgent warning to avoid overuse of em dashes and, especially, semicolons. Epstein and Metcalf, in other words, aren’t giving permission. They are shutting down otherwise tempting avenues. The greatest teachers I ever had always held firm opinions about the books you should bother with and about how to read and write. You didn’t have to agree with them to be energized by the charge they threw off. The charge was the point.
The call to “read widely” is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices. . . .
Instead, shutter your ear against mediocrity. To fall in love with language, don’t fan out. Fall down a rabbit hole. Cynthia Ozick wanted to be Henry James. Nicholson Baker has a whole book about his obsession with John Updike. For a period in high school, all I could countenance was David Foster Wallace.
Jason Guriel. I would apply this to other art forms like music as well. Perhaps truly brilliant people can have a taste for enormous diversity of styles and not have their tastes degenerate to mush. The rest of us should probably commit to a rabbit hole.