Writing Update: Literary Snobs

June 6, 2010 in On Writing, Study

With a week left before all assessments are due, I have officially begun to shit bricks.  However, in true writer style, I am still trying to put off working on them for as long as possible.

So let me tell you about what’s been on my mind.

Literary Snobs

The more I read and write, the more difficult it has become for me to come across what I consider “good writing.”  Not to say that I have become a good writer or a certified critic by any means, but I do find myself being pickier than ever.  I used to be able to go to a bookstore, pick up any book, start reading and just get into the story.  These days, nine out of ten times I’m too busy finding problems with the writing to enjoy it.  Makes me wish I could go back to the days when I was ignorant about what good writing is and just read everything for what it is.

Having said that, a lot of the books I complain about happen to be critically acclaimed.  Not because the writing itself is “bad”, but because I find it tedious, boring, convoluted, distracting, or hard to follow.

One of my classes drew my attention to A Reader’s Manifesto by BR Myers, a book published in 2002.  In it, Myers attacks literary fiction for being “pretentious” but at the same time protected by literary critics for political reasons or simply because they want to seem “sophisticated” when they really didn’t get it.

Amongst those criticised include award winners such as Cormac McCarthy (especially his newer style) and Annie Proulx, two writers I studied this semester and found very challenging to read (often requiring at least two readings to “get” it).

I found the crticisims highly interesting.  We live in an age where literary fiction is really suffering and genre fiction (especially crime and “vampires”) is making the big bucks.  Why is that the case?  Is it because contemporary society doesn’t have the attention span to properly appreciate literature, or is it because people simply want reading to be a pleasurable hobby that doesn’t require too much mental exertion?  And if the latter is the case, what is wrong with that?  Who is to say that writing must be “good” to be enjoyable or that enjoyable writing isn’t “good?”

I agree with Myers in that literary critics are too quick to heap praise on literary fiction and crap on genre fiction.  But I do think it is a bit of a stretch to claim the writings of award winners such as McCarthy and Proulx have no merit.  While they may be in the minority, there are people out there that truly enjoy high-brow literature for whatever reason.  And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What annoys me is literary snobbishness — people who think readers of genre fiction must be too stupid or uneducated to appreciate literary fiction….and perhaps the opposite too — people who think lovers of literary fiction must have sticks up their butts.  Why can’t we just all agree that people have different tastes and that’s that?

For the original Atlantic Monthly article, click here.

For more information and a summary of A Reader’s Manifesto, click here.

Narrative Writing and Creative Writing Classes

March 3, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study

Yesterday I attended my second class, this time in ‘narrative’ writing.  I guess they didn’t want to use the term ‘creative’ writing because for whatever reason that tends to get frowned upon.

I was really looking forward to this one to re-kick start my stagnant fantasy novel and to get the creative juices flowing.  I’ve only been writing blog posts and journalistic stuff the last few months and I’ve been dying to get back into the swing of things from a storytelling standpoint.

It was another reasonably sized class with around 20 people, but only 4 guys.  The tutor seemed nice, but it took a while to get the ball rolling.  A lot of chit chat (for 3 hours!) and not much actual learning.  Hopefully this will change from next week.

There was a discussion on the difference between narrative, story and plot (seriously, no one had any idea; all confident attempts at answering were futile and bordered on embarrassing).  I, of course, kept my mouth shut.

For those wondering, ‘narrative’ involves a story and a storyteller; ‘story’ is a series or sequence of events; and ‘plot’ is the way those events are arranged.  I don’t really see how that helps much but nevertheless…

The tutor did hand out an interesting piece from journalist Lisa Pryor (you know, author of The Pin Striped Prison, which I reviewed here).  In the UK, The Guardian published an article with some advice from great authors on how to write fiction (link below), and Pryor decided to rip into creative writing courses by effectively piggy-backing off The Guardian.

She said that amongst the hundreds of tips, not one recommended taking a creative writing class.  According to Pryor:

“Perhaps this is because they know that if you can’t work out what good writing is by reading widely, if you need it spelled out with the benefit of a circle of plastic chairs and a whiteboard, you lack the mettle to be a great novelist.”

Ouch, and she was just getting started.  Pryor then tore into the “creative writing racket”, what she calls the “pyramid selling scheme” where schools and universities essentially trick students into taking these courses to provide much-needed funding.

Look, I am often a cynic myself (and I hate that), but this article just rubbed me up the wrong way, and it’s not because I am taking a writing course.  Yes, it is probably true that to be a truly ‘great’ writer, you need lots of talent to go with skills picked up from copious amounts of reading and writing.  But for the ordinary folk (like myself) who know they aren’t capable of becoming or don’t necessarily want to be a ‘great’ writer, there’s nothing wrong with taking a class to learn some basic writers tools to improve their writing (for whatever reason or purpose).

You may argue that these skills don’t need to be taught – they can be picked up from years and years of doing your own readings and writings; but why not pay for a short cut?  It’s like saying people who want to be prudent investors (just to improve their lifestyles) should play with their money through trial and error for ten years rather than take a simple financial management course.

Besides, writing courses offer credentials, and like it or not, that’s what you need to get a job.  And there’s nothing wrong with being a writing teacher, or an agent, or an editor.  Not everyone is doing these courses to be the next Cormac McCarthy.  I probably could have studied law texts and cases by myself at home for ten years and become a more knowledgeable and capable lawyer than by attending law school, but that’s not going to get me admitted or employed at a law firm.

I must say though, such an article is quite typical of Pryor, who likes to put things down without actually having experienced them.  In The Pin Striped Prison, Pryor was scathing in her criticism of law firms, management consulting firms and investment banks.  I agreed with a lot of what she said, but at the same time it irritated me that someone could be so denigrating to professions she has never worked in (and no, being a paralegal doesn’t count) and never experienced the very things she was taking a dump on.

Pryor’s full article can be found here

The Guardian‘s original article can be found here – includes pointers from, amongst others, Elmore Leonard, Hilary Mantel, Neil Gaiman, PD James, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Ian Rankin, and Philip Pullman (who probably gives the best advice of all).