Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Writing is Hard: Expression and entertainment

I wish I could remember who led me to this article so's I can credit them, but I can't. It's long and literary and I admit that I was skimming at the end, but the thoughts in it are worth reading and thinking about.

The author Zadie Smith equates fiction writing to the revelation of the writer's personality. The better a writer you are, the better you're able to reveal yourself in your work.

"A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth."

I like the idea that style (a.k.a. "voice") is simply an extension of the writer's personality. It simplifies the process for me to remember that a big part of my job is to get out of my own way and write the way I see the world; not how I think someone else wants to see it.

Where Zadie and I disagree is when she starts talking about the responsibility of the reader to respond to fiction as an Expression of Self rather than Entertainment. As an artist, I appreciate her encouragement to express myself and her reluctance to define success by popular acceptance, but as a reader, I think she takes it too far.

"These days, when we do speak of literary duties, we mean it from the reader's perspective, as a consumer of literature. We are really speaking of consumer rights. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear; to be interesting and intelligent but never wilfully obscure; to write with the average reader in mind; to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment, with characters that speak the recognisable dialogue of the sitcom, with plots that take us down familiar roads and back home again, will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio. Readers seem to wish to be 'represented', as they are at the ballot box, and to do this, fiction needs to be general, not particular. In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable - anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers."

The end of that line of thought is that readers have an equal responsibility to writers in the creation of successful literature.

"To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park."

I think we're talking about two kinds of success here. She's talking about artistic success, and I agree that it's an important consideration. But I'm getting less and less patient with books that are supposed to be good for me and craving more and more books that just entertain the hell out of me. That doesn't mean that I'm trying to "debase" reading by aligning it with "the essentially passive experience of watching television," it just means that I want my time with a book to be well-spent. If a writer's style is an expression of his personality, I don't care how perfectly he communicates it. If he's got a lousy personality, I don't wanna spend time with it.

My job as an artist might end at Expressing My Personality, but I don't think my job as someone who hopes to make a living through his work does. An artist's job is simply to create art, but a professional writer has an added responsibility of entertaining the audience. That doesn't mean that I should ever write for the audience (more on that in another post), but it does mean that if the audience doesn't like what I've written I've no one to blame but myself. Blaming the audience for not meeting their responsibility as readers feels lazy to me. If I'm going to succeed as a professional writer, I've got to be honest in my style (i.e. my expression of my personality), but I've also got to tell an interesting story while I'm at it.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

First, I love this label of "Writing is hard" because dagnabbit IT IS.

This dilemma comes back to the commercial vs. literary fiction tug of war, and the artificial assumption that commercial fiction can't be art because it appeals to a mass audience. Obviously I don't agree with that since my goal is to write commercial fiction. There's the other assumption that writing commercial fiction is easy and done by hacks, but actually if I didn't have to think about engaging a mass audience and just wrote whatever the heck I wanted to -- that would be much easier.


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