Separating the Chaff from the Grain: Part One

>> Wednesday, January 20, 2010

(image from here - clever!)
Relax Max was here stirring the pot recently, and then did some stirring of his own on his blog. I told him I'd give my two cents here though I realized, when I said it, it likely had more than a buck fifty, so it might take more than one post.

Relax Max was pointing out that many an aspiring writer complained that crap was published while their own work languished. Why?

Because people are buying it, that's why. [I condensed his post rather drastically; feel free to check it out yourself]. I agree with him.

The "problem" isn't the publishers (oh, sure, they pass over a classic or megahit once in a while). It's not even the writers. It's the audience.

This is the audience that is riveted over Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's marriage and reproductive trends. The audience that waited with 'bated breath to find out if Tiger Woods did or didn't (he did, apparently, as stupidly as possible). It's the audience which can believe almost anything depending on who's saying it and how many times they describe their revelations as the "truth."

So, it's no surprise that books about or by celebrities and the like are successful. As are books that reveal some postulated "truth," ironically the less substantiated, inflammatory and outrageous, the more successful the book.

That's not all though. Books that elicit a reaction, especially if no thought is required, can be in great demand. A woman (or man) who grabs a few romances at the airport likely isn't looking for deep meaning and insightful nuance. Chances are she (or he) is looking for an easy read and a safe bit of vicarious lust. Like structured daydreaming.

When we think of classics, we often think of old literature and there are (at least) two reasons for that. One is that, in ages past, everyone didn't read, only the most educated and the social and religious elite. Books were also quite expensive to produce so publishing mindless "crap" would likely alienate one's limited audience. Many a "great" work, nonetheless, went all but unnoticed at the time, but they fulfilled the second aspect of old literature: standing the test of time.

Publishing became easier in the 19th century, for instance, and lending libraries became somewhat popular. There were several series of gothic romances and other frivolous bits of fluff that are all but forgotten today. They didn't stand the test of time, but they were wildly popular at the time.

If you're writing the great American novel, you may be swimming upstream. Even if it's the "right" work, it might be the wrong audience. If Shakespeare was writing today, I have no doubt he'd write in more accessible language, but he likely couldn't get any success unless he had Peter Jackson or someone putting it on the screen. Everyone's too busy watching Adam Sandler and his ilk. (So, I'm not a fan!)

So, is it hopeless? Nope, good stuff is published, too (and some of the "mindless" stuff is not really mindless or even bad). And if you want a little education, regardless of the literary quality of the writing itself, or want to feel something without thinking too hard, that's not really so bad now, is it?

So, does that mean all of us aspiring writers should stop trying for greatness and write something a little less ambitious? Well, I think I'll save that question for another time.


  • Jeff King

    Awesome points... I have not tried to get published yet, but I agree some horrible books get published.

    All I can hope for... or what I am trying to accomplished, is to please myself and write the best piece of work I can.

    If I do that and still do not get published then so be it. At least I will take solace knowing I did complete a manuscript that I was proud of.

    Then I’ll move on to the next one and hope to grow and make a better book. Hopefully one day someone with power in the publishing world will notice my work and fulfill my dreams of getting my out to the world...

    Until then I’ll continue to learn, grow and aspire to finish the book I am currently working on, and let the rest take care of it self...


  • Roy

    When you were talking about limited resources and the expense of printing becoming less so in the 19th century and making more books in circulation possible, I immediately thought of Charles Dickens. If he wasn't the first author to run all his new books as serials in the magazines, he was at least the man who mastered the technique; he was a "popular" artist by any definition of the word, and he achieved that popularity by flooding the market. But there was certainly no chaff mixed in with any of his grain, and most of what he wrote in the popular press in his own time is now considered "classic" literature.

    Which makes me wonder about Stephen King. He's another one who floods the market, even now when he's supposed to have "retired". I know a lot of people call him a hack because of his output (and some real clunkers in his portfolio), but they called Dickens a hack in his day, too, because of his output (I think there was a time when there were 4 different stories running serially in different magazines simultaneously at one point in the 1850s). And they said the same thing about Nathaniel Hawthorne, another book factory.

    So who defines "classic"? Not us, reading King now, or the readers in Dickens' own time. As you point out, it has to stand the test of time, and it's future generations who elevate a book to "classic" status. So I think aspiring writers should heed Harlan Ellison's advice - apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write. Don't worry about consequences, just write.

  • Stephanie B

    Defining "classic" is also at least a post of it's own and your foreshadowing my next post, Roy. :)

    But it was wise of you to point out writers for the masses, as Dickens largely was, which was a definite change. When the audience is all high born or religious folks or scholars, the audience for fiction that points out the sad state of the poor is apt to go unnoticed. Dickens was a man who was a product of his times and helped change them. How much more classic can one be than that?

  • Shakespeare

    He was also brilliant. His David Copperfield never fails to affect me in new ways each time I read it.

    Great post today!

  • Relax Max

    This comment seeks to define what crap is.

    I certainly don't want to read in anything that you didn't actually say in the post. I feel pretty silly being the only one who doesn't get this, and the only one who has to ask questions, but I am not (as you well know) the brightest person in the world (one of your readers even called me a twit last week, and I suppose I must seem like that to most of you) so I hope you won't mind leading me by the hand one more time.

    I think I understand, from what you've said in your posts, that you think there is good writing and there is crap writing. So do I. Also I liked the picture you put at the top of the post today. That's two things we agree on. I also think I understand that you believe there is a lot of crap writing being published, and much GOOD writing being overlooked and never sees the light of day, and that fact upsets you because of the apparent unfairness of that. If those things are true, then we are on the same page.

    I guess the first thing I am having trouble with is I don't know where to go to find out what is crap. You were helpful in listing a few things that are "obviously" crap: writings about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are crap; writings about Tiger Woods' personal problems is crap.

    Again, let me tell you earnestly that I don't want to read things into your post that you didn't write. But it seems to me that someone as unlettered as myself might jump to the conclusion that subjects Stephanie doesn't care about are trivial, unimportant, unworthy of being published, ummmm... crap. So that's how one finds out what crap is.

    That brings up another stumbling block for me: I like to read a lot of stuff you don't care about. Since you said the problem is not the writers or the publishers, but the AUDIENCE, then I must be part of the problem. But you knew that already.

    If only the AUDIENCE were more enlightened, they would demand better quality writing, and this Tiger Woods nonsense would wither away. As you said in your post, this is the [cretinous, drooling, presumably unwashed] audience that is riveted over celebrity and sensationalism - the audience that will believe anything if told by the right person, or told in a shocking and titillating manner.

    Am I still on track with what you said in this post? Hope so. Did I mention I am uneasy about the fact that YOU are the one who decides what is crap? I did? Ok, then.

    Now, I'll be honest and tell you that, purity-wise and quality-wise, I do not put the National Enquirer on the same level as... let me pick a name out of thin air... say, Charles Dickens. With the same breath, though, I will tell you that I will take their circulation figures over the illustrious Mr. D's at the giddiest height of his popularity and serial syndication.

    Frankly, I personally like to read Dickens. He has a marvelous way that he turn a phrase and he has a remarkable vocabulary. Even more important, he has something to say. On the other hand, I admit that I do NOT read the Enquirer and never will. Can anyone tell me what that proves? Can I now legally call Enquirer patrons trailer trash crap readers?

    I'm not going to let you get away with making the kinds of statements you made in this post without a bit more elaboration. I think you have made some good points and I think you have also written some crap here. I know that you won't be insulted by that, considering the ill-informed source, but I hope you will mull it over anyway.

    I guess I should end by making sure your readers know that you and I are friends, and that you don't hesitate to beat me up mercilessly every chance you get, and that you don't let me get away with writing arrogant elitist rubbish. Not that this post is that.

    Hit me with your best shot.

  • Relax Max

    Well, I see you are asleep now so I will renew the attack while I still can. When you wake up and read this I will be long gone.

    The more I think this over, the more it seems it really doesn't matter how either one of us defines good writing and crap writing. People will buy what they find interesting whether we think it is good or not. And it is not too productive to worry too much about "fairness" since life is life.

    That leaves the writing itself, which is my personal enjoyment rather than marketing. Marketing will have to be our next debate. Like you, I wish I could be allowed to just write and do my thing. But I want to make money writing and not just do it for personal satisfaction. I guess that means I have to compromise to a certain extent - try to write things people want to buy, and just accept marketing as part of writing. I must learn to write crap in other words. Heh. DON'T SAY IT! Just bite your tongue.

    Okay, so why do YOU write? I know - stupid question. How can you NOT write. But don't you want to sell something? Sure you do. I know you have a good job and all, but you still want to see people pay to read your stuff, same as me, right? We all do.

  • Stephanie B

    Max, Max, Max. Where did I say I got to judge what crap was (that's a whole other post) which will boil down to nobody knows? I repeated the points of YOUR post, but, at no other time, did I mention crap.

    I'm not the harbinger of all that's crap or isn't. I said what people are drawn to, not that I think they're not entitled. Nor have I said there even was a problem (note the quotes around "problem").

    I even said this in near the end:

    "So, is it hopeless? Nope, good stuff is published, too (and some of the "mindless" stuff is not really mindless or even bad). And if you want a little education, regardless of the literary quality of the writing itself, or want to feel something without thinking too hard, that's not really so bad now, is it?"

    So, lets cover your points:

    I think there is writing more poorly written than others, but I base that on what I like. I don't assume, if I dislike it, that it's crap. So your first point is wrong.

    So's the second one. I don't think it's unfair; I was repeating the points of your article and noting that many writers feel that way. I never said I was one of them. I used to think that way but I've grown up.

    I never listed anything that was "obviously" crap; just examples of things I don't care for with no judging involved (except Adam Sandler, where I only said I wasn't a fan).

    Everything else you read, erroneously, between the lines because I never said it. Feel free to divine out the statements where I said what you tell me I said. Good luck. They're not anywhere but your own mind.

  • Project Savior

    Just a word about why the marketing skews what books are published.
    Look through the library and read some random back covers, then read the first chapter of the book.
    That is 98% of the approval process that an agent or publishers does. If the query letter (pretty much what you read on the back cover) isn't good enough to get them to read the first chapter it gets rejected.
    I know from experience writing a novel and writing the back cover are completely different types of writing. So a successful author has to be good at both.

  • Stephanie B

    Another excellent point. I could clearly have an endless supply of posts on this topic.

  • Relax Max

    I agree with you that the "audience" drives what get published, more often than not. I agree the "audience" is varied in their tastes. But I don't think it is reasonable that we can somehow "upgrade" those tastes so that more "good" writing gets published because of some new sophisticated demand. Therefore, we are, if we want to sell our writing, faced with writing what we ourselves are interested in, and writing it well - and then working hard on marketing. No?

  • The Mother

    Most of what I wanted to say has already been said.

    The reading audience changes with time. "Classics" like Candide, Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby would likely never find a publisher in our era (for different reasons--no similarities of the books are implied).

    I like to read drivel as much as the next person. I like to be mindlessly entertained, on occasion. It's hard to parse through a book on quantum dynamics. When I'm done, I pick up something easy and funny for my next round.

    But I have no intention of writing drivel. Ah, well.

  • soubriquet

    In defining good or classic literature, as opposed to crap, i'm not a good guide. Once upon a time, I used to teach English Lit. And I became more and more annoyed with the whole concept. Books are creatures of time and place, something that may be absolutely rivetingly interesting for me, may be seen a "bore-ingggg!" to a class of teenagers.
    I've come more and more to believe that any book is dependent on its reader, as much as its writer, that some books judged as great in their day, cease to function so well with an audience not informed as to the history and mores of the world that book was written for.

    I ask myself on reading any book, "Did it transport me out of my owwn life and circumstance? Did I learn new things? Was I stretched into asking myself questions? Was I sad to return home?" If the answer to each was "Yes", then the chances are, I'll class that as a book worth reading.

  • Stephanie B

    I don't disagree with that, RM. I, in fact, do agree and was going to discuss that aspect in the next installment which I'm going to have to put off a day to address what's good vs. crap.

    The Mother, exactly.

    soubriquet, now you're foreshadowing today's post. My own reaction is quite similar. As I'll eventually explain to everyone (hopefully) but Relax Max' satisfaction.

  • soubriquet

    Satisfaction guaranteed.
    yes please.

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