Florence King has died.
I am heartbroken.
I was nineteen or twenty when I picked up a copy of CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED SOUTHERN LADY. And I fell in love with it. I recommended it to practically everyone I met; I read and re-read it dozens of times. How could you not fall in love with an author who says, “No matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street,” as proof that she is still the lady her grandmother wanted her to be? How can you not fall in love with an author who makes you laugh so hard, for so long, and keeps doing it on almost every page? You can’t, or at least I couldn’t, and I was desperate for more.
I was lucky there. Plenty more existed. Over the years I’ve read (almost) all of it, and loved all of it, to the point that for a while I actually subscribed to the National Review just to get her column, “The Misanthrope’s Corner.”
It wasn’t just the humor, or the wit, or the incredibly sharp eye she turned on everything, that made me love her work so much, or keep reading even when I disagreed with her. Florence King’s writing jumped off the page; everything she wrote was elegant, concise, with an edge that could cut glass. This is the woman who, in a review of some turgid literary novel, referred to a long, dull analytical conversation between strangers passing in the night as a “zipless Weltschmerz.” This is the woman who cancels an eye appointment with an optometrist whose receptionist doesn’t know how to spell “King” because, as she says: “If his receptionist couldn’t spell King, what was the optician who hired her like? I wouldn’t trust these baby bloodshots to just anybody, to paraphrase Lynda Carter, so instead of rescheduling the appointment I canceled it.” The woman who referred to a religious gathering as “the Promise Keepers Washington writhe-in.” This is the woman who once wrote a reviewer a letter chastising his positive review of her book because the review was poorly written (Miss King [she was never “Ms.”] reviewed numerous books professionally herself, and all of those reviews were delightful to read).
It’s that last one that speaks the most to what she meant to me, though. Florence King was the first writer I ever read who talked about writing. Who analyzed other writers she admired (an essay on Edna Buchanan was one of my favorites) and what was so admirable about them. She talked about punctuation–I can’t recall her exact words about comma usage here, but she said something about how she liked to use as few as possible so the sentence would just slide down the reader’s throat in one smooth gulp; it’s an analogy I think of constantly while working. She talked about word choice (“Fear of getting mad is so widespread that nobody says mad any more. The word is angry: somehow it sounds less mad than mad,” isn’t the best example, but it’s one I can link to)
and language in general. She talked about passivity in language and weasel-words and phrasing which obfuscates the point. She talked about paring sentences down, getting to the meat, and eliminating all of the side dishes. She talked about words in harmony with each other and the importance of an “ear.” She wrote a long article about GONE WITH THE WIND, wherein–among other things–she discussed some of the literary rules broken by Ms. Mitchell, and how it didn’t matter; it was from her I learned that any character in a story must have a purpose for being there, and that characters without purpose shouldn’t be created (Mitchell broke this rule, specifically in one very subtle way: the strong implication that Rhett Butler had a son with Belle Watling. The child is brought up two or three times, without ever being called Rhett’s son despite the obvious truth that he is, but the potential plot issues which could be caused by such a character are never addressed. Perhaps it’s because only the reader sees all of the comments about him, which means that one character [Melanie] only knows that Belle has a son who lives elsewhere, and another [Scarlett] only knows that Rhett has a young male ward in New Orleans; this put the reader in the fun position of knowing personal secrets that the characters do not, but still doesn’t make any difference to the story itself.)
None of these were part of a specific writing lesson. They were just observations she made while skewering culture or people (or complaining about fact-checkers and copyeditors, which she did hilariously more than once), but they made me think, really think, about how things are written or said. They made me think about how to express what I meant in the best, clearest way. They made me think about how to think, how to draw connections between one thing and another, and point them out. They led not only by explanation but by example.
It wasn’t just writing, though. Miss King had a love of, and a knack with, historical anecdotes and stories. If you do not follow any other links in this post, follow this one, an absolutely fascinating analysis of the Lizzie Borden case (who else could refer to the Borden case as a “zany tragedy?”). It was from Miss King that I learned the gruesome details of Edward II’s death (they shoved a red-hot poker up his ass) and the best story about the importance of punctuation ever told: Edward was imprisoned, and his queen and her lover wanted him dead. Of course, they needed to communicate said desire in writing, but could not actually order it in writing, since regicide is a pretty serious crime. Their compromise was genius. They sent a letter which read, exactly like this, “Kill Edward not to fear is good.”
Place the comma after “Edward,” and see what you have. Now remove it, and put it after “not.” Isabella and her dastardly lover knew what they were doing. That’s plausible deniability if ever I saw it, and it’s the kind of story that makes those of us who love words and language shake our heads in admiration.
The National Review has archived some of her columns–that’s where the links in this post came from, as otherwise it’s hard to find her work online–but that archive isn’t really representative of her entire body of work (which is not really political), IMO, and although the columns contain her trademark wit and style, none of them are her best work, either. That came in her books, from CONFESSIONS to THE FLORENCE KING READER and beyond–the latter contains a chapter from the bodice-ripper she wrote in the 70s (when the term “bodice-ripper” actually fit) under the pen name Laura Buchanan; her description of writing it while drinking glass after glass of bourbon, culminating in her passing out in a closet, is hilarious. If anyone is looking for a place to start as far as reading King, I’d say either of those two titles is the place to go.
And I urge you to do so. I can honestly say that Florence King is part of the reason I became a writer. She made me realize it was possible. She taught me what to do and what to look for. I didn’t always agree with her, but I always loved reading her take on things. She was an inspiration to me, and I cried when I learned that she had died.
RIP, Miss King, and thank you.
***A few other tidbits:
YES, Downside 6 is happening, and I am working on it. Carpal tunnel has been limiting my work-time/word-count a bit, but I’m doing better.
I caught some horrible plague-sickness at Christmas and it took me a couple of weeks to get better. The Brits refer to this sort of cold as a “lurgy,” (with a hard G) and that describes it pretty well.
For Christmas, I bought myself an InStyler–supercheap on Ebay. I like it. It works pretty well. It takes a bit of time to do my hair, but the results are good, and it’s much easier than rolling my damp hair in Velcro curlers and sitting around in them for hours, which is what I’ve been doing.
The Hubs and I are still obsessed with the game Far Cry 3, which he’s been playing on the Playstation 3 since we bought the thing back in the summer(?) According to the game, 115 hours have been spent playing it. Mostly he plays and I watch; we allow ourselves like an hour of this several times a week (I’m not watching him play when I’m supposed to be working, I promise!). If you’re not familiar with video games or don’t know which one to try or whatever, I highly, highly recommend it. (Far Cry 4, which he has also played all the way through, is good, too, but I prefer 3; the scenery is prettier. I was Very Excited when I saw they were using the Himalayas as a setting for 4, but there’s actually very little time spent in the mountains, which was/is disappointing.)
I think that’s about it.