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Not a Book Review: "Closing Time," by Joseph Heller

September 05 2017
September 05 2017

This is not a book review because I could not get through the book. It’s more of an analysis of what I did read of the book from the point of view of a writer.

This book is the sequel to “Catch 22,” the iconic anti-war novel. “Closing Time” follows the same characters many years later. For example, Yossarian is 68 years old.


I like Heller’s writing in general, but I had a few issues with this book, and from these a few writing-related lessons can be learned.

Old Men and no meaningful Women

If the is book were written today, it would not see the light of day. The main characters are old men, it has no meaningful female characters (at least up to page 114), and no diversity, unless a couple of Jews and an Armenian counts as diversity. Nobody wants to read about old white men, unless they are detectives, retired cops, or retired cops that have become detectives.

It doesn’t bother me that the main characters are old men, but it’s easy to see, after a while, why nobody wants to read about them.

No Story

The version of the novel I had was a mass paperback of 555 pages. I punched out at page 114. The main reason was that I could not find a story. It was largely anecdotal. Interesting, for the most part, but good writing and fun anecdotes can take you only so far. Sooner or later we have to have a story.

Heller Never Met an Adverb he Didn’t Like.

When I critique stories on Critique Circle, I admonish people to use only “said” and “asked” as dialogue tags, and never modify them with an adverb. I think Heller heard this rule (that of Elmore Leonard), and tried to see how many he could use in one overly long novel.

As to dialogue tags other than “said” and “asked”, two of my least favorite are “mused” and “lied.” Heller apparently liked them both. Here is a list of others he used:









And on and on. I could fill pages.

He was not afraid to modify one of these with an adverb, and almost always did.

She volunteered archly

Chided affectionately

Threatened churlishly

Corrected punctiliously (one of my favorites)

When he did use “said” or “asked,” Heller more often than not used an adverb.






Etc., etc., etc.

Let’s talk about some of these examples, and see why you don’t need them as a writer, and why they are lazy writing.

Dialogue Tags

I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, one of which is to use only “said” and “asked” as dialogue tags. I think it’s okay to use “whispered” or “shouted,” but that’s about it. And the only reason to use a dialogue tag at all is so the reader can keep track of who’s talking.

Consider “informed” as a dialogue tag. When a character says anything, they are usually informing, asking, or commanding. I can tell from the context whether a bit of dialogue falls into one of those categories.

A question is punctuated with a question mark.

If the character says that the sky is blue, that is informing.

If the character tells another person to do something, that is a command.

So, why do I need to tell the reader that “she informed,” etc.?

You may counter that I put that the character said something, when it was clear that they said something, so why tell the reader?

The answer is that I only used the tag for the reader to keep track of who said it. If there are more than two people, it’s necessary more often. If there are only two people, it’s only necessary every few lines, or so.

Another big difference to me is that to use “said” is only telling the reader who said it. If I have the character give another character some information, and then tell the reader that the character informed the other character, I’m insulting the intelligence of the reader.

The same argument can be made for the other words, such as “demanded,” “remarked,” “ruled,” and so forth.

Modifying a Dialogue Tag with an Adverb

One of Elmore Leonard’s other rules is not to modify “said” or “asked” with an adverb. I think doing so is lazy writing because it should be clear from the context how something is said. That is, from the nature of the discussion, the words used, and from the characters’ expressions and gestures. Look at the list above. What do those things mean, anyway? “Threatened churlishly?” “Corrected punctiliously?” They are all but nonsense. To the extent we can figure out what he meant, isn’t there a facial expression or a gesture that would evoke the image, rather than telling?

Is it “wrong” to write the way Heller did in this book? Not really, since there few rules in writing. But you will not get away with it. He already had a very popular book, and people might buy this one on account of that one, although I don’t think it did very well.

Avoiding the things I’ve talked about here is a matter of craft. I think it’s more important to show you have craft, than to litter your writing with bad dialogue tags and adverbs. It’s frustrating, I know, to hear someone spout these rules, while you’re able to go to any shelf in the bookstore and find piles of books that are quite popular, but which violate these rules. “The Hunger Games” comes to mind, although its transgressions are not as egregious as Heller’s.

Tell me what you think.


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