Tuesday, 4 June 2013

'Good Writing vs Talented Writing'

Back from Spain, exhausted, my mind full of new ideas and insights about language and literature, so generously offered at the AEDEI conference in Cáceres.

Despite tiredness, I had a long convo with my husband this evening about adequate vs brilliant writers, writerly 'career' trajectories, PR opps and luck etc.. I then found this article 'Good Writing vs Talented Writing' by Maria Popova, on the ever brilliant Brain Pickings site. It says all I wanted to say but didn't articulate.

I get fed up reading hyped books that fall far short. Spare me from the ordinary, mundane prose of so many writers and the overblown PR that goes along with them.

In the article Popova talks about the book About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews by author and literary critic Samuel Delany in which he synthesizes insights from thirty-five years of teaching CW.
This quote I love:

'The talented writer often uses rhetorically interesting, musical, or lyrical phrases that are briefer than the pedestrian way of saying “the same thing.” The talented writer can explode, as with a verbal microscope, some fleeting sensation or action, tease out insights, and describe subsensations that we all recognize, even if we have rarely considered them before; that is, he or she describes them at greater length and tells more about them than other writers.' 


'Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition.'


'Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.

Why is so much ordinary fiction taken as being good? Why are many so-so books given acres of attention in the media etc.? Why do agents and publishers, both, seem to love the mediocre and mundane? It all baffles me, I have to say.


Harry B said...

Hi there,

Good post.

"Why is so much ordinary fiction taken as being good?"

Well, it may be an obvious response, but ease of consumption might be a part of it: Something that is easy and non-challenging to consume by the reader makes the reader feel good about him/herself pretty quickly. And a lot of people are happy to be instantly gratified, speaking very generally, as opposed to allowing things that are not so explicit and direct to seep into their conscience and unsettle their assumptions about the world, or human experience, or whatever subject.

I think the old 'show don't tell' chestnut is fine as long as it isn't employed to sanitise the unsettling (even disorientating) qualities that sometimes contribute to very good writing.

I've been at a good few writing workshops and a lot of people (including workshop facilitators) seems to get sort of upset if a piece of writing can be seen to be non-explicit or non-direct, as if the writer is being in some way unfair. I think, assuming that the piece of writing actually does have something to offer, it may be that the audience is being unfair if they are expecting the writer to laboriously drag them through the piece with stunningly explicit explanations of everything that lacks some hint of ambiguity and space or, dare I say it in these postmodern times, mystery.

A certain interpretation of imagism (and/or imagisim) seems to lend itself to the idea that the poet should deny his/her own imagination/intuition in pursuit of an 'objective', descriptive poetry. I can't think of a worse place to start from, or a more impoverished rule to impose on writers... all this very much 'in my opinion' of course.



Harry B said...

...meant to write "(and/or *neo-imagisim*)" at start of last paragraph.



Emily said...

We were having this EXACT conversation today!!! I agree with every sentiment... And that brain pickings site is just a mine of great information :)

Rachel Fenton said...

I've all but given up worrying about it.

There's so much "safe" writing out there - it makes me want to rip off my head and play football with it. And then I go right back to writing what pleases me.

Glad you had an inspiring conference, though - look forward to the stories it no doubt generates.


Hi Harry B and welcome, thanks for your great comment.
Of course I know it's all for the reasons you outlined - the reader who wants baby-food fiction not steak etc. etc.
It's that the phenomenon *persists* that really annoys me. And that agents and publishers and the media collude in it. If people are constantly fed this diet of mediocrity, anything 'different' (beautifully well written) is seen as odd or weird or unpalatable.

Why are people so lazy as to want to skim read their way through books? I guess, for some readers, reading is a non-challenging comfort, like TV watching.


Hi Ems
That's gas. Great minds and all that...


I tend not to get too het up but every so often - when yet another bad book is being lauded and shoved in my face - I crack up. So many excellent books are ignored by critics, the media, prizes etc. and yet these poorly written things get talked about and lauded. It makes me mad. I know it is the same in the world of music but I do wish we could call a halt.

Donal Conaty said...

I wonder is it sometimes because the mediocre (reviewers, publishers etc.) take comfort in the mediocre?



Dónal - or take comfort in the fact that they know that people will, sheep-like, go and buy what is being sold to them?

Plastic Paddy said...

One of the things I like as a reader is when you get that feeling 'Thank God someone else has noticed this - it's not just me'. And that's how I felt when I read this post. Thanks for that


Hi Plastic Paddy and welcome. Yes, I like that too. I guess everyone who cares about really good books gets frustrated by this. And really good films, music etc.
I totally RESENT the jumping up and down over mediocrity. And all the money mediocre writers/bands/actors are able to earn.

Harry B said...

...thanks for the welcome. This all reminds me of the old saying that highlights a very true thing about the human condition IMO:

"People don't know what they like, they like what they know."

Add to this that there are whole industries whose job is to emphatically impress on people just what it is 'they like' and then, well, we know the rest.

I think we can be realistic and critical around this without necessarily being bitter. Also, there are some very valid aspects of craft and talent that go into many popularly geared works both literary and musical.

When I grow up I want to be a struggling poet, so I may not have a very good working understanding of the literary industry, but I've worked in music and have seen the homogenising trend there among people (some of them very nice people) who have decided, or who just have, gone the route of giving as many consumers as possible exactly what it is they want/expect.

My own feeling on it is that it should be an artist's duty to challenge people's expectations, and to implicate them in the creative process which, really, is never a one-way process. Passive consumers are too easily led for my liking.



Doire Press said...

Where to start???

So hard not to name names.

I'd rather try and focus on the positive. And glad to see you doing so well!


Harry - thanks again and yo make good points. As for artists gearing themselves for the market, well, that makes me even more crazy. Why would anyone waste their time on such enterprises!!?? Life is too short.

Doire Press - yes, normally I see the positives but sometimes I get knocked over by the coverage of certain mediocre books, to the exclusion of good books, and I just have to rant!!

rozz lewis said...

Its the way and has always been the way and probably will always be the way. Its the same as awful films, I can never understand how people go see horrific films, the ones that you instantly forget. You would have to ask those people!
I was at a course a while back where one of the participants was writing about vampires for YA and wanted to know what the next big thing would be so he could write about it. He didn't seem to be a talented writer but was looking to make a fortune!

shaunag said...

Great post, Nuala, and I too am a fan of Brian Pickings. Yes, i agree, and particularly like the notion - as Donal says - that "the mediocre (reviewers, publishers etc.) take comfort in the mediocre." As for the idea that one would write for a particular market... well, frankly, if you're writing for an audience, then the writing is writing without soul (in my opinion)!


Rozz & Shauna
I totally agree - the idea of writing to please some imaginary audience and/or publisher is sickening to me. That is not writing, that is producing and they are NOT the same thing.
Thanks for commenting!
N x x