Thursday, June 4, 2009

Overinvolved and the "It" Factor

Already this morning, I have

1. Flushed out an overflowing sewer line
2. Cleaned up a pile of old dog puke I discovered hiding in a corner
3. Forgotten to make my son's lunch for his last day of school


I asked my wife about the talent question yesterday. Here's what she said, "Of course talent exists. You know it does. You're just engaging in an intellectual exercise because you're argumentative. That's what you do. It's annoying. Anyway, people who say talent doesn't really exist are probably those who have it. You don't know how fortunate you are because you've known since you were about 5 what you should be doing with your life. Trust me, if you were still wondering what you should do when you grow up, you'd believe in talent because you'd wish you had it."

Um, thanks?

On a related note, I do believe in the "it" factor. And it's obvious as all get out when someone has "it." Let's take American Idol (nod to Erica from the comments). Personally, I couldn't stand Adam Lambert this season. I mean, let's be honest, the guy was a lousy singer. He screamed through most of his range, and vamped through the rest. I've heard much, much, much better technical singers in the church choir down the street. But it was also undeniable that Adam had "it." He had (for me) an annoyingly magnetic stage presence. You couldn't take your eyes off him.

It's the same way with writers. I can usually tell in a few pages if I'm going to like a writer. The first time I was exposed to Ian McEwan, it was like discovering chocolate. One bite, and I was in. And it has little to do with the story. I'm a huge Nabakov fan, and his best-known story is an odious romp through pedophilia. By contrast, I rarely read intricately plotted thrillers, like the ones produced by Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum or Richard North Patterson (and don't even get me started on James Patterson). I recognize these guys are good (even great) plotters, but for me, the voice just isn't there, and I don't really care about guns, police procedure, military technology or international plots to blow up the world. It bores me.

My wife is right (as usual) that if someone asked me if F. Scott Fitzgerald was talented--and I wasn't dug into an argument--I would answer, "Extravagantly. Ridiculously. Gratuitously." Because he has "it."

So you tell me. What does "it" for you?


Erica Orloff said...

God, I love your wife.

All right . . . for me, I open ANY Margaret Atwood, and I feel like locking myself away from my family for a day until it's done. It's addictive, her words extraordinary.

I, too, cannot read those thriller writers you mention, I guess largely because I just don't care about "intricately plotted" thrillers. GENERALLY, they don't have characters that I relate to or care about, and for me . . . my stuff tends to be a lot more character driven.

When I read The Book Thief . . . I immediately RE-READ it. I feel that way about Ha Jin, even if he does not have happy stories.

There is an "it" factor. A . . . you know it when you see it thing.


LurkerMonkey said...

You know, I've never read Atwood ... I'm always looking for new stuff. Where should I start?

I loved The Book Thief also. Loved it madly. Who knew YA could look like that?

And yeah. That wife of mine. She's always on top of her game.

Jude Hardin said...


You're talented, and you have a brilliant wife. Lucky man.

Dennis Lehane is one of my faves. I'm currently reading his latest, The Given Day. It's not "high concept." There's no big Hollywood hook. It's just solid storytelling with first-rate prose, and at 700 pages it will give me many hours of entertainment.

And, as talented as Lehane is, it still took him something like four years to finish this one. So even though he has it, a great book only comes together with a combination of talent and sweat.

Erica Orloff said...

I would say--ambitiously--start with The Blind Assassin and prepare to be blown away. If you do not feel so ambitious, there is always The Handmaid's Tale.


Eric said...

I agree with your comments about AI this season, particularly about Adam. While not everyone enjoys his particular style of music, he obviously has what it takes to capture the audience. I actually do like Clancy, since most things military intrigue me. The only bad thing about Clancy is sometimes he puts too much detail in to the point of exhaustion. He's like James Michener in that respect, another "way too many details" author. Good post though.

LurkerMonkey said...


I've heard great things about Dennis Lehane, but never read any. Same as Atwood: where should I start?

LurkerMonkey said...


Thanks. Blind Assassin it is. I'm currently rereading Count of Monte Cristo, so it'll be next.

By the way, the Count is a pretty funky book ... I've read Dumas' three major works before--and liked them--but I was much younger. I didn't appreciate until this time that Dumas was pretty much the pulp king of his day. It's a straightforward, fast-paced swashbuckling adventure. Even the introduction says his work "ignored historical accuracy, psychology and analysis" in favor of "love affairs, intrigues, hairbreadth escapes and duels." But the man tells a great story.

Melanie Avila said...

Great post. :)

LurkerMonkey said...


I've actually read tons of Clancy and Michener, and I couldn't agree with you more. The level of detail in both writers in sometimes numbing. I know millions of people love him, but Clancy just drives me crazy. I think it's partly because I had an opportunity to work with him very briefly, and he proved himself to be a pompous gasbag of a human being.

Michener, especially, is wildly uneven. Some of his work is amazing in its scope; some of it seems pretty obvious he's writing to fill out a contract. Tales of the South Pacific, however, will always hold a special place for me. It was his first and break-out novel, and at least to me, it feels closer to the heart than anything else he wrote. He served in the South Pacific in WWII, and it's at least loosely autobiographical. He wrote the book immediately after the war. Also, I lived in the South Pacific for a while and his descriptions of the islands resonated strongly with me.

Jude Hardin said...


I think you might enjoy Shutter Island. It was an ambitious departure from Mystic River and the earlier PI novels, and I think Lehane pulled it off brilliantly.