Over the years, many readers have criticized Jack Kerouac’s work for its rambling prose and sounding too colloquial. Everyone is certainly welcome to his or her own opinions. The world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked exactly the same thing. The literary arts are, to a certain degree, subjective. One doesn’t have to like or enjoy a work, though, to see its importance and value. Even if it doesn’t change the likeability of a work, it’s important to consider its artistry before completely dismissing it.
Take Of Mice and Men. This book did nothing for me when I read it in high school. I didn’t like the story. The writing style was just fine, but not particularly innovative. Still, it was a classic! John Steinbeck! I should like it, right? I didn’t. I moved on to The Red Pony. Hated it even more. But I was determined to like John Steinbeck. Finally, I read Travels with Charley, which became one of my favorite books. Same thing with Kurt Vonnegut. As a teenager, I didn’t feel cool because I thought Breakfast of Champions was simultaneously silly and trying too hard. Afterward, I read Cat’s Cradle, and even though the nature of the subject matter wasn’t of interest to me, I loved the book.
Sometimes it just takes finding that right book by an author. Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean we’re going to all like the same book. And that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss it—it’s a classic for a reason—or give up on the author. If we do, we face missing out on some really great literature.
I don’t enjoy all of Jack Kerouac’s books. And perhaps my favorite of his works is one that many people don’t read: Visions of Gerard. For the people who don’t like Kerouac because of his subject matter, I’d encourage them to check out some of his other books.
However, even for the books we don’t like, we can still learn from them and sometimes even appreciate them. When I was getting my Master of Fine Arts—I spell this out to emphasize the artistic nature of literature—in creative writing at The New School, instructors always stressed that we didn’t have to like everything we read but we had to keep an open mind and give each work a fair shot. One of my first instructors always asked whether we liked the book, sometimes taking a poll. Of course the interesting part came when we debated why or why not.
I’ll be honest: I read a lot of books I did not enjoy. Many I ended up giving away to anyone who would take them. But I kept some of the books I did not like—because even though I didn’t find reading them a pleasurable reading experience, either because they weren’t the style I enjoy or the subject matter bored me, I recognized their brilliance. Sometimes the books I hated reading the most ended up being the very ones that had the most profound influence on my understanding of literature and the craft of my own writing.
One of these books was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy. The antithesis of a beach read, this book requires the reader to concentrate and piece together and analyze. It’s not so much that the language or concepts were difficult—in fact, quite the contrary. It was the author’s style, the limited view he gave the reader, that made the book both frustrating and genius. It challenged my view of what literature was, how literature was supposed to work, and why we read—in a good way!
Now, as far as Kerouac’s prose stylings, there are a few things worth considering:
- Kerouac’s first language was not English. He was born in Massachusetts to immigrant parents who spoke to him in the French-Canadian dialect joual. When he went off to school, half the day was taught in French Canadian and the other half in English. It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to feel comfortable speaking in English.
- While many people critique the American colloquialisms Kerouac uses, it’s worth noting that people praise Mark Twain for doing the same thing. Kerouac was working to capture a unique American sound, the language of his times. He used to tape record conversations with his friends and refer to letters they wrote him, just to capture authentic speech patterns and diction.
- The so-called rambling prose wasn’t just echoing true-to-life conversations and speech patterns; it was also referring to the stream-of-consciousness narrative of modernist novels. One of the books he read that influenced his writing style was James Joyce’s Ulysses, an experimental novel that employed stream of consciousness. In fact, you know that famous quote from On the Road about the roman candles? The one that goes:
… but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Well, compare it to this line from Ulysses:
…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!
- Kerouac read voraciously. He read the Greek Classics, comic books, the Russian masters, westerns, the bible, and history books. In his journals, he refers to these works, evidence of his thoughtful contemplation of what he read. These works influenced both the content and prose style of his own writing.
- In addition to books, Kerouac’s writing was deeply influence by music. If you read his work aloud or dissect his sentence structure, you can hear the bebop rhythm of his prose. He and his musician friend David Amram used to improvise jazz-poetry readings together, creating it spontaneously, on the spot. This is a lot harder than it sounds. You have to really have a firm grasp on chord progression, rhythm, rhyme, and language—all while taking cues from someone else who is also improvising.
Sometimes works that seem effortless are the hardest ones of all to create.
Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road discusses in more detail Kerouac’s literary development.