Overcome by the Randomness
I admit that in the writing world, I am sometimes overcome by the randomness.
Why does any given book that ignores all the rules of “good” writing become a best seller and make its author rich? There are plenty of books out there that are excoriated for breaking the exact same rules, their author’s deemed poor writers.
Why do books that follow all of the confining rules of three act structures and protagonists in trees with antagonists that have one appealing trait often not sell, even as editors, agents, and “experts” demand that new writers follow these golden keys? If they only work a fraction of the time, why are they still peddled as advice?
How can I detest a story submitted into my writers group that everyone else present adores? How can there be that much variance? Is the story any good, or isn’t it? And if I see it so differently as compared to the rest, is that saying more about the story, or about me? Or about them? Does it say anything? When I don’t like it, even if I can point out its flaws in light of writing craft and structure, does that mean it’s bad writing? It feels like bad writing, but does that matter?
Why is Nobel Prize material considered among the best writing? I’ve read Alice Munro and find her work both dry and ponderous in most cases. I am not an expert on the matter, but I’m not sure what is so earth-shattering or society-changing about her work. Sounds a lot like talkative “day in the life” stuff to me. You know, the sort of “tell, don’t show” naval gazing we are told not to write. Except, I guess, when you win the Noel Prize in Literature for it.
So, is it that I don’t like what is considered classic or important? If that is so, why do I love Shakespeare? Why is the The Old Man and the Sea among my favorite novels? How do I appreciate Dickinson? (A poetess, not an author, but there’s a point being made here.)
If the true gift of language and its usage is beyond me as I read Steve Berry or Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, how can I consider The Lion In Winter to be one of the best scripts ever written by someone other than Shakespeare? It’s thick, verbose, complicated…lacking in action by most standards, yet it is, to me magnificent.
But The Great Gatsby ? I get nothing at all from what is called by many experts the best novel ever written in English. Certainly the best ever in America.
I usually don’t seek out authors merely because they are praised by the literary intelligentsia, but I don’t go out of my way to avoid them either. But is that fact indicative of my not knowing good writing when I see it-that I don’t seek out Nobel Prize literature by default?
Am I then more of a “genre” fiction, low-life? Maybe. One of the best novels I have ever read is a Steve Berry suspense novel called, The Third Secret. But I have yet to really feel drawn into a Dan Brown novel. If, as the experts say, both authors are merely connecting the dots in the same predictable bestselling formula, why do I like Berry and not Brown? What’s Berry doing differently than Brown? Anything? For that matter, what are the thousands of formula suspense authors out there who have not made it big doing differently than either of those two very rich people? Is it merely luck?
Is it all personal taste? Does the simple fact that some people like one thing and dislike something else account for all of this? If so, what’s the point of labeling something “genre fiction” or “literature”? Is that determined merely by whether or not an English professor happens to love your novel? Or is there more to it than that?
It feels like it has to be more to it than that, though. Otherwise, why work on writing craft? We’d all just write a first draft and put it out there, and hope that the select people with the correct brain chemistry will find it and love it as it is. (Because somebody would.) Which then brings up this question…is all good writing merely good marketing? Get enough people out there to buy it, and you’re a good writer? Or do they have to be certain people? Or a certain number of certain people…who the hell knows?
Do I like some high literature because it contains traces of genre fiction? Is the genre fiction I have enjoyed possessive of some undefined literary quality?? Surely there is an X-Factor…or else why do I like some Hemingway, and not the rest of Hemingway? Why Berry over Brown?
In the end, when I read something that is poorly written, though, I know it. I can point to these things which make it a bad novel or story. I have confidence in my reasons why I don’t like something. Reasons that feel as though they transcend mere personal taste. I can point to the flaws. But perhaps it isn’t the presence of flaws, but whether or not the reader is bothered by them that makes writing strong or weak?
Even if we stipulate that that is true, nothing more is resolved because then we begin asking what makes flaws in one piece of fiction overlooked by a majority or readers, when the major flaws of another book sink it in the minds of most readers?
Makes one wonder if it’s ever worth looking for flaws in our writing. It sounds like heresy to say, but in a world that has millions of examples of flawed and (by some metrics) terrible fiction that succeeds, why do we writers wrack our brains to edit our stuff into perfection? Because every “Ask the Agent” advice column out there pounds into our heads, “polish polish polish, and when you think you can’t do any more, polish again. Make your manuscript shine. Get it to me perfect.“…Yeah and then maybe your intern doesn’t toss it away instantly. IF they are in a good mood on the random day your “polished” manuscript arrives there…
Bad writing is more than simply writing I personally do not like. Munro getting a Nobel Prize would seem to indicate that, if we are to put any trust at all into the Nobel selection process. (Maybe we shouldn’t, who knows?) And something isn’t brilliant because I like it. That would be narcissistic in a way. Yet everything I like (and you like) possess something that everything I dislike (and you dislike) is lacking. An unknown something that would seem to make all of the studying, practicing, experimenting and class taking obsolete. It’s going to be random whether or not you strike oil in the end, and that applies whether you are hoping for a Nobel, or hoping to become an author of “airport fiction”.
The only hope seems to be to write as much as you can, and to make sure you, in your highly subjective, non-scholarly tastes, love it. Maybe we all need to just write for the reader that is ourselves to create stories that matter to us. And hopefully, one day, that means it will achieve something more important than either the Nobel Prize or the prominent display at the airport…it will become a story that matters to other people as well.