Peter John McLean

Why is Author Donald Goines So Popular? (Writing)

Donald Goines is one of my personal favorite authors. He writes street lit novels like Dopefiend and Black Girl Lost and also wrote a book about a man who avenges his raped sister called Swamp Man. Swamp Man isn’t one of my personal favorites, but even though it feels rushed and Goines uses “stated” instead of “said” for some weird reason throughout the whole book, it’s still a hard book to put down.

All Donald Goines books are hard to put down.

Goines had that special magical quality most writers try to imitate. He wrote a draft for one of his earliest novels while he was in prison and continued his writing career on the outside in pretty much the same fashion, penning quick stories and then publishing them with little extra effort put into them. Most of us cannot get away with this; most of us have to rethink story lines and improve our dialogue etc.

There are a wealth of problems with Donald Goines novels. Understanding what he wasn’t good at is useful to writers because it shows what readers forgive and, more importantly, what they don’t.

Goines’ writing is often grammatically incorrect and stylistically dumb. He writes books in the third person omniscient and jumps between characters’ thoughts at random, eliminating what could have otherwise been good dramatic tension as the reader wondered what secondary and tertiary characters were thinking. Goines doesn’t bother with any of this and instead narrates from whatever perspective is most convenient to him. His books almost read like action movies with occasional narration over it.

Goines also wastes little time describing anything, especially the setting. There are occasional references to 1970s Detroit, to the wasteland his characters live in, and the general poverty of their surroundings, but most of this is actually gleaned from the story and the characters.

What I like about Donald Goines is that his stories feel completely real and once I start following his characters I do not want to stop, for any reason. Most Donald Goines books that I have read, I read in a number of hours. Even Dopefiend, one of Donald Goines’s longest books at 319 pages, took me a day or two to read because I didn’t want to leave his world. I wanted to know what happened to the characters, especially Terry. Porky, who reminded me of not one but two guys that I’ve known, also resonated with me and the way Goines ended the book was perfect, because it highlighted one of the core koans of drug dealing in a manner that wasn’t cliche but instead seemed sincere.

So, the real question, why is Donald Goines so popular?

Goines is popular because he writes good stories. Goines books attract a wide range of readers because all people, regardless of background, enjoy stories with characters who feel real and plot lines that appear plausible to at least some degree. Even when Goines is writing about a backwoods swamp avenger stalking people with a pistol, there is a sense of reality to it all, a sense of real danger.

Donald Goines allegedly borrowed from a lot of real people that he knew for his books. While there are rumors that it’s what got him shot in the face (writing real shit is hard, man, there can be consequences), but whether or not it led to his demise, it meant that his stories felt just like real ones.

There is a reason that “write what you know” has become the greatest writing cliche of all time. The reason is that people like Donald Goines proved that a lack of writing style and even a total disregard for basic rules of grammar and perspective can be forgiven by a reader if you take him into a world he wants to explore.