I used to do a unit with my students where we would take apart Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and do a literature study. One of the things we would do is take the pictures and the text and examine them separately. Once you take away the pictures, here’s the thing that stands out about the book: it’s terribly bad writing.
The whole thing is nine sentences long. Four of them are incredibly run-on. Two of them start with “and,” one with “then” and one with “but.” Grammatically, that makes it something of a train wreck.
I do not care. There was never a more perfectly magical book. It hangs like a mural from the walls of my toddler’s room. Max is something of an alter ego to me. I spent a lot of my childhood being sent to my room for various things. I’ve read this book to babies younger than six months of age, to fifth graders, and to adults. I have it memorized.
The saying about knowing the rules before you can break them has been attributed, according to a quick Google search, to everyone from the Dalai Llama to Pablo Picasso (it is also listed on some website called lifehacker, so there you go.) Probably they both said it or some version. Because it is most certainly true. You can’t break the rules until you know them. If Maurice Sendak’s run-on sentences aren’t filled with perfectly selected words designed to fit a cadence all their own, there is no way I am still talking about this book 53 years after it was published.
I have received many submissions to the No Extra Words podcast with the most abysmal grammar you can possibly imagine, the kind that it makes your teeth hurt to read. The first time I glanced at Zach Hay’s “1001 Reasons to Love Rachel Maddow,” it felt like a rejection. Then I read it. It is a run-on sentence deliberately taking you to the place you need to go with its rhythm, and it was my delight to air it on Episode 14. This does not mean you should send me work with run-on sentences to impress me..it just means that this work, done well, did.
How good do you really have to be to break the rules? I’m wondering this for myself now, as I’m working on a project blending the novel form and flash fiction together. This, of course, has been done before (everything has been done before,) but as I play with POV and story structure and do lots of things you aren’t supposed to do with it, I wonder am I good enough to handle so much rule breaking? Each one is a deliberate choice, but certainly I could never be master craftsman enough to handle it all. Can I? How much risk do you take in your writing?
When Where the Wild Things was first released, Publisher’s Weekly called the illustrations “superb” but declared the story “pointless and confusing” (as quoted in a USA Today article commemorating the book’s 50th anniversary in 2013.)
I’m of two minds when I read that: first, even Sendak got panned and I will never be even close to as good as Sendak, so what hope do I have?
But second, and this is what you really have to keep in mind: there’s no pleasing everyone. All we can do, at the end of the day, is write the best piece possible for our specific audience and let the rest land where it will.