Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Chairs for Everyone

Boy, did I make a big mistake the other day. Someone posted an article that speculated about why fantasy literature has become so popular. I thought it was one of my Facebook friends who had posted it, because I was just moving too fast. I didn't even get a chance to read the article, but I commented (admitting this) about something I thought, thinking I was addressing my friend. I ended the post by saying I sometimes wish fantasy hadn't become so popular.

Which is better craft? This?
Turns out the person who posted it was a small press publisher and that my friend had only "liked" the post. The publisher responded to my little, nostalgic and half-serious final sentence by asking why I wanted to take food out of the mouths of writers. Popularity was good and it drives the business of publishing, etc., etc., etc. A bunch of other people chimed in, in his corner.

Despite my attempts to say I was just being nostalgic for the days when fantasy readers were "fringe" and when we had our little secret faves, I took some heat. It all sort of culminated in many of the commenters agreeing that "good" writing is in the eye of the beholder and that they (here comes the old standby from bitter former English majors:) didn't learn to appreciate good writing until they broke free of the chains of English departments.

I get it. English professors are sometimes snobs who seem to want to distill all plot out of literature. And I agree: Portrait of a Lady is a bore, but a brilliant bore that one should read and then feel free of. I once heard that Samuel Johnson [thanks to George, for the correction] said that "Paradise Lost is the greatest poem ever written in English, but no one ever wished it longer." I agree whole heartedly with that.

And, yes, when I was in grad school, I remember feeling as if the professors looked down upon those of us who chose to add the creative writing component to our degrees. (As if they ever would have had careers without us lowly writers...)

But I have a problem with those who would mention JK Rowling in the same breath as Margaret Atwood; or who think it is snobby to say Steinbeck is a great writer and that Stephen King is merely a competent one.

I have been plagued, in a way, all of my life by the arts I pursue: music and literature. If I try to draw a house and I can't, people are quick and able to say I am not a good artist. But if there is a band who thrashes about on their instruments like mittened orangutans and that band has the right "vibe," they might well be labeled as ground-breakers, even though they have zero competence on their instruments or as composers.
Or this?

There is a difference between what one likes and what is well-crafted. Who judges what is well crafted? Me, damn it. (Just kidding.) We each have to judge, but one should have some level of competence if one is going to say X is a great writer or Y is a great songwriter. Love what you want, but low standards (or the lack thereof) are not good for the growth of art.

It sure is nice to say "there is no good or bad" in the creative realms. It makes us all feel fuzzy, I am sure. But it just ain't true when it comes to craft. I really don't want someone who just likes to read to tell me that I am wrong to say that there is a difference in quality between Dan Brown and Toni Morrison.

That said, I love to listen to hard rock. I enjoy it, but I would never compare it, in terms of craft, to the compositions of Samuel Barber. I'd have to be an idiot. But, I am allowed (and so is everyone else) to enjoy whatever I want. I would never stand in the way of that.

My dad used to say that our society is becoming a game of musical chairs in which no one takes away a chair, ever. He had something there.


  1. I don't disagree with the commenters, but I do think that there is a standard of quality that writers and artists of all kinds adhere to. I put a lot of effort into my writing, and it often causes me nights where I have dreams/nightmares aplenty about what I'm writing. I invest a lot in it. Not everybody likes my writing, though, and that's fine.

    But at the risk of sounding full of myself, I hardly expect that someone who just throws a few plot devices into an otherwise "dead horse" novel should be treated as though they have superior or equal literary abilities to someone like myself, regardless of how many people like my story versus theirs, just because "good writing" retains some subjectivity. Again, even as I'm writing this it sounds narcissistic, but I think I have a point? I don't know, you let me know.

    Why I don't disagree with them is because I think that we can like things that aren't necessarily expertly crafted. Hunger Games wasn't a literary masterpiece, but it gained a lot of attention. The Masque of the Red Death was gold (at least from what I could tell -- hey look, subjectivity still), but not nearly as many people have read it.

    Otherwise, I completely agree with you.

    1. To me, Alexis, good great writing shows us either truth or possible truth... That's not so say it has to be message over story; the truth can be wrapped up in the presentation of the story. It should shine a light on reality. That can happen with fun reads, too. For an example, check out Atwood's Oryx and Crake: a great read by a student of the human heart.

  2. This is a complex subject; I hope it's okay if I respond with a few (possibly disconnected and aimless) points.

    We're roughly the same age, so I know what you mean when you say you're nostalgic for the days when fantasy was fringey. I'm not sure where the generational cutoff for this is, but people younger than we are probably don't realize and can't imagine that not long ago, you were lucky if you found three or four kids in your high school who read fantasy or science fiction, and that that subculture was a vital refuge for shy kids, autodidacts, or others who were awkward and weird—nearly all of whom were boys. (Due to their extreme rarity, girl geeks had it even rougher.) Where do the weird kids go now, other than the school psychologist's office?

    I also don't know where people get their perceptions of English professors: The 1980s? In many 21st-century college English departments, you're at least as likely to find a course on fantasy fiction, graphic novels, or SF movies as you are to encounter, say, Shakespeare or James Joyce. English profs these days, particularly the ones under 45, grew up with the mainstreaming of fantasy and science fiction. They're rarely snobs; they're far more likely to alienate undergraduates with esoteric literary theory instead. Can we update our stereotypes, please?

    I also don't see why English professors need to endorse, say, "The Hunger Games," or, rather, why readers of fantasy or science fiction want that endorsement. And why would students pay thousands of dollars to read mainstream popular fiction? That's like taking out loans to major in music and then being assigned nothing but the best rap albums of 2013. Reading difficult and even "boring" works expands the mind, a desire for which is currently in short supply...

    (That said: all the best to you during this back-to-school season!)

    1. Hi, Jeff -- all perfect points. At the risk of sounding like a name dropper, Peter S. Beagle himself once wrote, in a letter in response to me, that he thinks writers "should stay as far away from English dept's as possible." There's a guy whose wisdom I value and he said it in response to my own complaint, to him, that my writing mentor thought fantasy was a waste of time. But, the best fantasy writers are the ones who know Shakespeare, BEOWULF, Proust, Pynchon and Milton -- as Beagle surely does. In fact, Beagle pointed out that Shakespeare, himself, wasn't above writing fantasy or murder revenge or whatever was popular. One writes what one writes; talent and insight can't be hidden. It's there or it is not, regardless or genre, I think.

  3. I think what people are trying to say is that we can think something is "good" even when it's "bad." I love B movies, but I also think they're terrible. But I like that they're terrible. Maybe I'm being too generous, but if that's what they mean then I can see where they're coming from. Still, of course some writing is better than others. To suggest otherwise is insulting to the people who have studied literature for years and invested countless weeks of their lives into their writing.

    I hope the new school year goes well for you Mr. Mat. Best of wishes!

    1. If they are saying that, Nick, I am in agreement, too! I loves me some bad movies. Thanks for the well wishes! hope everything is going well with you.

  4. It was Samuel Johnson who said "none ever wished it longer."

    Genre fiction may paint itself into its own corner. There is plenty of stuff in the stores one might call "military fiction", for example, but then there is War and Peace<. There are western novels, but who confuses Louis L'Amour with John Williams or Wallace Stegner. The question, I think, is whether the reader comes to the book to engage with it, or to use it as springboard for fantasies.

    1. Ah! Thanks for the correction, George. I knew it was one of those cool dead guys. "The question, I think, is whether the reader comes to the book to engage with it, or to use it as springboard for fantasies." A profound statement, George. So well said.