Sunday, February 3, 2013

Inferior Writers: Shakespeare, Austin and Dickens

When I was young, I thought the writers of the past--- Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville and the like--- were good writers. But now that I have learned what it takes to be a good writer--- a critique group and an editor-for-hire--- I know they were bad writers. Since they didn't have critique groups and editors-for-hire back then, it's clear that quality writing hadn't even been invented yet.

Besides the badness of the writing of that pre-modern age, it's clear that writing back then was
a lonely pursuit. Just the writer and his pen, alone, until the work was finished. The writer didn't have a batch of critique-y 'friends' to hold his hand through the writing process. How could a writer decide whether that scene or bit of dialog was OK, worthy to be kept? He had to rely on his own judgment and not defer to the judgment of others--- or gain strength through defying the judgment of others in the critique group.

Modern writing, it seems, is a much more social affair. You don't have to have the delayed gratification involved in writing a novel and doing the corrections on your own. The moment your first paragraph is set down on the page, you can rush it to a critique group to get their unvarnished (and unprofessional) opinions. You then eagerly shape your work around those opinions. When your novel is finished, your critique group will give it high praise--- after all, they helped write it, too. It's a pity that the royalty-paying publishers don't realize how great it is also.

So you take the next step and hire an editor who is a 'professional'. What does 'professional' mean? Only that they are willing to take money for it. Much of the time you don't even know, as you hire a professional, if they even have the knowledge to catch your spelling errors, much less if they are able to make your novel more publishable, rather than less.

LESS publishable? Well, that can happen. Lawrence Block, in one of his many books on writing, wrote about the varying opinions among published writers on whether revision/rewriting was a necessary step. He quotes a fictional hack writer who declares that revision would rob his crap of the one thing it had going for it, its freshness.

Incessant revision can make a work less powerful, as the writer systematically removes every word, every phrase, that is the least bit original, fearing them to be incorrect, or at least risky. That's with old-fashioned revision, with the writer as the sole decision-maker.

When you add the influence of a flock of critique-group members and an editor-for-hire, you have many more chances to weaken your work. Even if you luck out and receive only good advice, you are weakened as a writer when you learn to depend on others instead of developing your own writer's intuition.

Why, then, are there so many folks these days who insist that all writers must seek out critiques and hire professional editors? In part it's because of changes in the community of would-be writers. Bad schools have robbed them of the chance to learn grammar and even, perhaps, correct spelling. Personal computers have made it easier for nearly anyone to throw together enough words on the page to say they have written a novel, and the internet connects such 'writers' to the writing community and to information on where to submit their 'writing'.

When faced with a bad novel, it is far easier to say 'join a critique group' or 'hire a professional editor' than to say out loud that the work is filled with misspellings or with long words misused, that the characters, where they exist, are flat, or that much of the work reads more like a book report on a novel than a novel itself. It's passing the buck, really. People who say these things are counting on critique group members or professional editors to say the thing that is to socially awkward for them to say. But chances are no one is going to want to say the hard things, except for members of the carnivorous critique groups that say them to everyone whether it's true or not.

I'm afraid that I myself am not a social animal, and will not be participating in the critique groups that are considered so essential today. Instead I am developing my own discernment, and my own ability to take responsibility for my words, to not need permissions or praise from others to write what I am called to write. This, of course, condemns me forever to the ranks of bad writers. Like Charles Dickens. But I'm OK with that.


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Link Caritas:
Mike Duran's DeCOMPOSE: Is Writing in the General Market LESS of a Ministry Than Writing for Christians?  Mike Duran, previously published in the Christian fiction market, explains why he's aiming his next work at the secular market.

Jeff Hargett's Strands of Pattern: Sunday Surfing   Jeff gives some links to writing-related blog posts of interest.

1 comment:

Jeff Hargett said...

A most powerful message here that raises a very valid point. I suppose I lie somewhere in the middle, hoping to retain the essence of what I write and still incorporate sound advice (and proofing) that others can provide. Definitely food for thought though.

And thanks for the shout out to my Sunday Surfing posts.

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