That Obnoxious But Intoxicating Authorial Je Ne Sais Quoi

I’m pushing my way through Middlemarch these days. I read it maybe 10 years ago, and I’m having trouble remembering why I loved it so much. I have lots of observations (to come!), but I find myself scanning through a lot of it, honestly.

So! Before we delve into Middlemarch, let’s talk about something completely unrelated and not even tied to any specific book: that nameless thing that makes you know an author is a professional.


I went on a cruise awhile back, and as is my habit in such circumstances, I immersed myself fully in the karaoke scene.

aggretsuko with karaoke mike

Here’s a phenomenon anyone who’s been to a karaoke event will recognize: most people suck, but some singers absolutely have it.* If they do, you’ll know in the first three seconds.

The room will grow quiet upon these initial notes; people will look around at each other; and then, inevitably, they will all start shrieking.

*BTW, I am not one of these people who have it. But most will agree that I can do a perfectly acceptable rendition of CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”

Now, abrupt transition that will make sense in a second!

I think there’s a lot of emperor’s new clothes with literature, frankly. Plenty of poems by the layman, for instance, would be celebrated as pure genius if everyone thought they were by William Carlos Williams.

But if you’re in creative writing 101 and you submit “The Red Wheelbarrow” for workshop, you’ll get feedback like, “Simplistic—try adding things that make us care more about the wheelbarrow,” or, “Too much spacing, looks pretentious,” or, “Adjectives are just colors. Use more creative adjectives.”

Divas Are to Karaoke as Good Authors Are to Writing

Sometimes you pop open a book and on sentence one, that author just has it. You know this was a born author.

The thing that made me think of this was reading Richard Ford’s Independence Day. I opened it and immediately felt the karaoke feeling of stunned silence…and then the moment where you look at everyone else and go “WOOOOOOOO!”

As someone who thrives on breaking things like this down, I’m flummoxed. What is about Richard Ford that makes me think, “he’s got it!” and makes me think about someone like Margaret Atwood “she doesn’t”? (Shots fired, Atwoodians, I know! Come at me. But read The Peneolopian first, ugh.)

I’d love to really dive into this one day, but I don’t know how to point out aspects of the literary-karaoke-diva in a way that’s objective.

But at the same time, I feel like it’s possible for us all to be all connected in this, the way we’d be if we were on a cruise and Fontella Bass waltzed up and started belting out “Rescue Me.” Whether you like the song or not, you’d be like, “Oh, dang!” within the first few seconds.

Talent is a subjective thing—yet when someone’s really got it, we mostly agree. We just can’t pinpoint exactly what the line between has it and not quite is.

One day, I’ll figure out this je ne sais quoi for authors. When I do, I’ll let you know.

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