Oh, the things that trouble my angsty, amateur little head.
Today I paid someone a sincere compliment: I said that something of his was well written. What I meant by that is that I was engaged the whole time, there was no meandering in the thought process, one thing led to another easily and I was left with what I think was a clear understanding of the author's point. It is what I would call 'strong writing.' It is not the most moved I've ever been by his work; there are other pieces that were more exciting to me but frequently wandered from the central theme, or were more mesmerizing but obfuscated by passive voice and what Strunk & White would call 'unnecessary words,' but that carried me away nonetheless.
This played into what is becoming a minor obsession for me: differentiating between “good writing” and “writing that I personally enjoy.”
I keep coming back to this theme lately: we all like different things, and I think we often mistake our personal bias for expertise. Two different people will read a book and one claim that it's brilliant while the other says it's crap. Is one right and one wrong, or is it just the kind of thing that one of them likes and the other one doesn't?
Some people — a lot of people! — enjoy fast-paced, plot-driven thrillers that barely go deep enough to leave a ripple on the surface of a character. That reader may consider something in the chick-lit genre a 'bad book.' Other readers like high fantasy, murder mysteries, or memoir and will look down upon the perceived hackery of genres that don't suit their tastes.
I read something the other night, just to give myself a little mind candy: Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Signal to Noise. It did not grab me the way that Violent Cases did, (few things do,) but it was a very moving story about a film maker who has learned that he is going to die, and soon. I loved seeing (it's a graphic novel) and reading a protagonist who is just a guy with a very serious problem and decisions to make. The exploration of those decisions and why he makes them was the story. That's the kind of story that keeps playing behind my eyes when I'm done reading. It's the kind of story that sets my brain on fire and makes me want to create something of my own.
Beyond the differences in what different types of literature are 'about,' different genres are actually executed completely differently. I've seen this come up in workshops — someone will bring a memoir into a spec-fic workshop, and we all trip over the adverbs, gasp and say “But where is the theme? What's the conflict in this scene?” because we don't understand the conventions of the genre. Likewise we'll take one of our crazy stories into a literary workshop and we hear “I don't understand where the demons came from. Was she hallucinating, or was that a dream?” because they don't understand the conventions of our genre and know to suspend disbelief a little further than they normally have to.
A technique that moves the pace of one kind of story along would be completely inappropriate for a different kind of story. That does not mean that one is well-written and the other is not. Experimental literary fiction can abandon every rule of conventional fiction — up to and including spelling and punctuation — and still find print, an audience, and the admiration of a fan-base. I don't like it, personally. But others do.
I think my point is that Good Writing can mean a number of different things.
We get so much advice from our crit groups, writers conferences, books, magazines, and websites. Show don't tell, use active verbs, be consistent with your tenses, don't start two characters' names with the same letter (yes, I've read that,) kill your darlings, don't use flash-backs, let no adverb stand — we get advice on grammar, paragraph structure, dialog, pacing, plot, character development, world-building, and style. We try to implement what we've learned. We get better at identifying our weak spots. We think we've almost got it, and then…
…we pick up a book, and nearly every rule we've ever been taught as aspiring writers is broken on the very first page of a relatively famous author's award-winning novel, and certain things are called into question. The shrill admonishments to make sure our first page is perfect or an agent or editor will never get past it ring in our ears a bit. One wonders what all of those rules were for in the first place. Whether we really were at those conferences to learn to write at all.
I just don't know that following the rules is what makes a person a good writer, or even whether being a Good Writer is what gets a person an audience.
Gaiman had some things to say on the subject a while back:
In my experience, most interesting art gets made by people who don't know the rules, and have no idea that certain things simply aren't done: so they do them. Transgress. Break things. Have too much fun.
The question of whether or not making art is supposed to be fun is another post entirely.
Whether writing is meant to be fun, rule-abiding, or something else, I'm pretty sure it's not meant to be philosophy. My sweet boyfriend brought home wine and cheese and ST:TNG, so I think I'm done chewing on this for tonight. Instead I'll do some background obsessing on the fact that I tried to handle too many things in this post and probably missed the mark on all of them. Le sigh.
Wine. Cheese. TNG. Good night.