The “True Grit” Myth
I grew up reading the classics and almost-classics – books whose language and rhythm evoked vivid pictures and strong emotions that lingered long after the reading. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Those stories stick in my mind, even though I have since forgotten the title or the author’s name for some of them.
The idea that a story attains power only through “gritty” writing cuts both readers and writers short. There is an entire genre of “sweetness and light” that appeals to readers of all ages simply because we live in a world that is not all sweetness and light and we crave it. This is not to say that sweetness and light stories lack true grit. Some of the most powerful stories I remember from my childhood have backbone without having the modern definition of “grit.”
By that I mean crude language, profanity, visceral imagery that is too graphic and leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination. Today’s audience has been led to believe that if a novel is not filled with profanity and violence it is not a true depiction of life as we know it, and thus the book lacks “grit.”
This is, in part, due to television and movies which give viewers (i.e. readers) an instantaneous visual on “real life.” It fails, however, to take into account, the variety of life on this planet and the diversity of lifestyles. I have lived in several different countries and states, taught high school and middle school students in different sized schools and lived in both rural and urban areas. There are large portions of the U.S. where the perceived view of reality presented by the television and movie industry do not apply. And yes, I do understand that the intent of such industries is to entertain and “sweetness and light” don’t entertain enough.
Who’s fault is that? Writers. Writers who settle for the easy and lazy way out because it takes too much effort to craft a piece of literature otherwise. I’ve heard all the arguments from “things were different” to “censorship” given as rationales for using low level language skills. The bottom line is that using overly graphic writing and/or profanity is simply lazy writing. It means the writer didn’t or couldn’t take the time to think of something better.
It reminds me of that scene from Hook where Peter is arguing with one of the boys and they get into a name calling contest. The youngster is finally reduced to screaming, “man” over and over, while Peter uses his mental thesaurus to blast the kid with descriptive terminology that leaves the rest of the Lost Boys gasping in amazement. Under the guise of being “gritty” writers, we often find ourselves like the youngster screaming “man.”
So how does a writer maintain the sheer beauty of language, evoke vivid imagery, and avoid lazy writing, yet still craft a story with depth? Write about emotions. Write about strong characters in the face of adversity, characters who do not deviate from their convictions no matter the circumstances. This is the heart of the movie Chariots of Fire, a young Scotsman who refused to violate his convictions in spite of the enormous pressure brought to bear on him by his king and country.
Perhaps that is why 21st century writing is so bland. We no longer have role models of conviction. We lack true heroes that value women above their libido, who know the meaning of integrity, and are willing to stand the cost to do what is right.
And that, my friends, is true grit and what creates a memorable story.