>> Thursday, January 21, 2010
Somehow, some people, who shall remain nameless, seem to be confused as to what I think "crap" is and what is the "good stuff" when it comes to writing (and, theoretically, other forms of creativity like movies and music and art, etc. But, for this exercise, we'll focus on writing). According to this unnamed person, "If you wrote it clearly, I won't be able to read anything into it that isn't there."
*Pardon me while I laugh a bit. After all in the history of creativity no one has ever read into something what wasn't intended or thought or directly said. Have they?
Moving on. So, as the Rocket Scientist and the learned head researcher on Ask Me Anything, can you tell us definitively, how to tell "crap" from the "good stuff?"
Because I have no idea.
[I hope that was clear enough for those who may have been confused with my earlier lack of clarity]
What do you mean? You think everything you read is good (or bad)?
No, I know what I like, but I am not the harbinger of taste and long term success. I can't decide for anyone else what they will and won't like.
I mentioned, in my last post, that the audiences out there are often consumed and fascinated with celebrity foibles and the sensational. I feel confident that that is true, if only based on the traffic and circulation of those sites/periodicals that focus on such subjects. I remember distinctly seeing a cover for the Weekly World News screaming "HUMAN HEAD TRANSPLANT! Medical world astonished!" I was a teenager at the time, but I laughed and laughed and laughed. The person in line in front of us bought this issue of WWN with nary a chuckle.
However, just because a subject doesn't suit me, doesn't interest me, bores me or, I feel, insults my intelligence, doesn't make it crap. It doesn't even preclude it becoming a classic. The staying power of something may depend more on the staying power of the celebrities involved (will Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie be remembered as actors who were pivotal to today's cinema? Who knows? I don't, but, if they do, books that address their relationship might be important even decades from now). Or a sensational assertion could turn out to be true. I'm skeptical that blatantly false accusation (and works that expound them) will become classics, but stranger things have happened.
And my skepticism really has no bearing on the issue at all.
However, the fact I have no interest in these things does not, in any way, confer judgment. I also have no interest in sports, most mysteries, most horror, vampires, pioneer stories, pederasty, rape-heavy novels (especially where both involved are "protagonists"), tragic stuff, religious literature, self-help anything, most politics, financial reports, or automotive manuals. That does not mean these things are bad. That means they don't interest me in general. There are and have been exceptions and this list is not exhaustive.
Wait, wait, shouldn't there be some criteria? Surely...
Well, one could say how well something is written. That's all well and good, but writing styles and syntax have changed radically over the centuries. If it was just how "well" something was written, we wouldn't likely still be reading "Beowulf" - but it has to be evaluated on the basis of its contemporary works. Ditto for Chaucer (who I rather like) and Shakespeare (who I like even more). However, skillfully the language was used for the time, it often fails to accomplish the same with a modern audience who is often left confused, unable to decipher the intent of the phrases, or, even if they can, appreciate the often contemporary references.
Even exceptional literature written in language and syntax many can read easily today, like Austen or Poe or Irving, use vocabulary that requires frequent trips to the dictionary or POV and sentence structure constructs that would get a manuscript today tossed by most editors. Whole paragraphs (often running half a page) might contain no periods, just semi-colons. Language and verb usage are often obscure or obsolete. Sentence structure is often convoluted.
However, writing something with perfect syntax and grammar is no assurance of greatness. Many a lofty English professor writes work that is dry as dust and so complex it obfuscates the meaning rather than elucidates. It is not across the board - I know two people who teach at the university level who write quite intelligently and cogently, often fascinating and thought-provoking stuff (Hi, flit and Shakespeare!).
"Poor" grammar and syntax doesn't preclude greatness either. Catcher in the Rye was never a favorite of mine, but it's held in high esteem by many. It's written in a very informal style that's compelling because it's not formal. It feels real. e e cummings broke all the rules, yet is often revered.
Or, for example, I don't care, as a general rule, for teenage protagonists. They often think and act like teenagers, which makes me roll my eyes or they come across as fake, which is worse. It's actually because some works are so good at capturing the teenage mindset that I find them unappealing. Why should I sneer at someone who finds it compelling? Who can recapture that sense from reading it? Isn't that what novels are for?
Someone might write "thesaurus-speak" - a pet peeve of mine, where they use many advanced words that are somewhat out of context with the sentences they're writing. This argues, for me, a tendency to use the thesaurus and the words found there without understanding the nuances of the word. But that's my reaction and I'm not an etymologist. I've been wrong once or twice before. And, this tendency, "thesaurus-speak", does not preclude being able to evoke emotion, describe a scene stirringly, build personable characters, develop an exciting plot or conjure realistic dialog. Who's to say that's just as laudable, if not more so, than someone who writes lifeless fiction but with a perfect understanding of vocabulary? Not I.
In the end, "great literature" has more to do with how it affects people, both at the time and after time has passed. The audience today and in the future, decides what the "good stuff" is, even if many an aspiring writer, like myself, doesn't necessarily understand their reasoning.
That's OK. I like many things that aren't critically acclaimed myself and dislike many a classic. I know what I like. I know why I like it (and THAT's yet another subject I could write a whole post on). No one has to agree with me. I also feel no drive to change the world to see things my way (unless I think it's harmful, like rape literature), though I will do my small part to support the literature I like by purchasing copies of it. Call it my vote.
Sometimes, I have called work that I detested "crap", though usually because they offended my sense of decency. But what I mean by crap in that context is something I personally despise. I have no control over the world at large and am no one's censor.
I just know what I like and that, whether it sells or not, it's what I aim to write. More on that later.
Now, all of that applies to fiction (also movies, music, and art, ironically enough). It's hard to argue something is meaningless and a waste if it affects a sizable portion of the populace, even if I don't personally get it.
When it comes to nonfiction, my criteria are different. Readability takes second stage, for me, to content. I'd rather read something dry and factual, but chock full of good stuff, than something approachable and weak on content. And, if they fudge a few things to make it more interesting, I usually disgusted. Again, that doesn't preclude literary brilliance.
However, though I won't judge such stuff on literary terms, I might very well judge the content and might readily describe it as "crap," "garbage" and "nonsense." And I might very well defend my opinions on content that isn't actually black or white.
Hope that was clear to all. I'll be writing more on this.