Arthur Plotnik not only kills sacred cows, he skins them, skewers them, and jars their organs. Don’t believe me? Try this:
“Even as the writer’s voice somehow transcends the electronic static, it is muffled by a Neo-Puritanism—from left as well as right. In the name of family values, fundamentalists have unleashed a new crusade against the erotic, the titillating, and the funny. The liberal thought police have their own truncheons poised for insults to the oppressed species. Today, by the time a sentence is morally, politically, and environmentally correct, it has the buoyancy of a Mississippi chain gang.”
The Elements of Authorship by Arthur Plotnik is an interesting book, but then, Mr. Plotnik is an interesting writer. Not only does he call himself the author of “trashy paperback novels,” he’s somehow managed to have written two books on writing and publishing that have been featured selections of the Book of the Month Club and remain standard reference books ranked next to Strunk and White, won a Blue Ribbon government publishing award for The Man Behind the Quill, and is a contributing writer to The Writer magazine. Not content to simply write, Plotnik has also been an editor and publisher who managed to bring five national awards to the American Library Association’s (ALA) book imprint and received honors as editor of ALA’s American Libraries magazine. There is more but even a blog has word restraints.
I picked up The Elements of Authorship during a recent forage through Barnes and Noble’s sale carts. How I’ve somehow managed to miss his books is a mystery considering my library on writing and publishing numbers in the hundreds, but somehow I did. The next time you find yourself staring at a returned manuscript that has all the appearance of a total lack of reading and consideration by an editor—you know this because you’ve checked for coffee stains, searched for marks and slight depressions in the paper, or found the intentionally wrongly numbered or misplaced manuscript pages still in the same out-of-order sequence you sent them in—consider this. Good writing reveals itself from the first page, the first paragraph, even the first sentence. An editor can—and generally does—make assumptions about the manuscript and the quality of writing within the first three or four pages. Out of the goodness of their hearts, some—many—will go on and read further . . . but not much further.
Take the first words of the “Overture.” Plotnik states in ringing terms, “THE TRUTH IS THIS: Writing is a bumper-to-bumper crawl through hell with an occasional jolt to the next level of anguish.” Catch your attention? For a new writer, there may be a sudden tightening of the stomach muscles. For experienced writers, the response may be a sly, sardonic nod as they continue reading: “To be a writer means hitching one’s self-esteem to the slimy trail of success. Slip loose, and it’s into the wreckage of failed artists.” If you haven’t totally loosed your grip from the book’s covers and retreated to your bed, you will go on to read that “Like a nation of exiles, millions of tortured souls go forth in search of a byline and a word of approval. Only a three-chain flagellant is assured more misery.” For the rest of us, those who have been writing a long time and have become familiar with the nature of the beast called publishing, those words ring with authority. We are all too familiar with the crawl through hell and the anguish that so often accompanies the writer on his journey. For me the “three-chain flagellant” being assured of more misery sentence brought forth a smile. Whatever your reaction, the underlying sense is that here is a writer who has a command of language, who is certain of his position, and who is unafraid. In other words, here is a writer with a strong voice.