Three Blinding Myths of the Writing Community: A Debunking
I spent most Thursday in heated discussions incited by my latest LitReactor article (“8 Reasons Intelligent Writers Must Read Twilight”). That article drove at but never fully elaborated on some of the key misconceptions of the writing community. I want to talk about three specific myths told commonly in writing circles. These myths are based on dangerous assumptions which blind writers to potential opportunities and build unnecessary walls between the writing community and the rest of the world.
The 3 Assumptions
Debates in the writing community often center around “good.” Relevant to yesterday’s article, Twilight is the subject of relentless abuse from the writing community because it’s “bad.” Not just bad, but terrible, horrible, no good, very bad rubbish—all of which are notions derived from comparison with an alleged objective good.
This is the first myth: Objectively good writing exists.
Especially amongst aspiring writers, there’s an implicit agreement that such things as “good” and “bad” writing exist. Naturally, then, we must assume that those who do not appreciate good writing (or who do appreciate bad writing) just “don’t get it.”
That’s the second myth: Readers who don’t understand “good writing” are inferior readers.
Because those readers are inferior, you shouldn’t write for them. What you should do is write toward the objectively good. You may not be appreciated in your time, but as readers become smarter and more aware, your work will make it into the spotlight. This is what it means to be a successful writer.
That’s the third myth: Success as a writer does not require that you sell books.
Getting Rid of “Good”
The myth: Objectively good writing exists.
BUT: “Good” does not exist. “Good” is a construct, and whenever we say “Good,” what we mean is “Good for.”
A book can be “Good for” a great many things. It can be good for entertaining the reader, allowing them to escape, stirring thought, creating a profound experience, examining the human condition, evoking weighty emotional responses, or any number of other outcomes. None of these outcomes are inherently superior. They simply have different consequences which we must evaluate for ourselves.
Twilight may not be good for upholding feminist values or crafting eloquent sentences, but it’s good for ensnaring readers and selling copies. War and Peace may be good for creating a profound experience and examining core human dilemmas, but it’s not good for keeping a reader’s attention or spreading to the masses.
To put it another way, ducks make for terrible lawnmowers, but they’re pretty good ducks. If you’re going to criticize a book for being bad or elevate a book for being good, the next critical step is to clarify what it’s good or bad for. There’s no such thing as objectively good writing, but there is such a thing as functionally good writing. The question is what functions we care about.
It’s appropriate to examine books according to our priorities; doing so is important work in affirming individual and group values. However, to then universalize our values and make global assumptions based on our narrow lens is blinding. We have to maintain awareness of what the book may be accomplishing for others. This opens opportunities for broader dialogue and allows us to concretely affirm our values rather than wildly tearing down or building up specific works.
The “Better Audience”
The myth: Readers who don’t understand “good writing” are inferior readers.
BUT: No audience is inherently superior. They are different in matters of background and priorities.
Many writers complain about their failure in same way a would-be comedian may say, “My jokes were funny, but no one laughed.” In that statement, the comedian reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what “funny” is. Funny is defined by the laughter it evokes. And part of what defines a “good book” in the modern world is whether or not an audience enjoys it.
Yet fiction enjoyed by a large audience is often condemned in writing circles. One popular comment countering my defense of Twilight was a simple quote:
“Bad taste makes more millionaires than good taste.” –Charles Bukowski
This quote ties into the common excuse for why Twilight sells while “good” books often don’t: “Twilight is successful because it’s aimed at stupid people,” and writing anything with an aim at popular appeal is “pandering,” “writing for the lowest common denominator,” or “selling your creative soul to the masses” (to use just a few of the phrases used by critics in my discussions on Thursday).
But let’s recognize that by “bad taste,” what people mean is “taste that disagrees with mine.” More commonly, we’re talking about elitist values typically created through academia. This elitism condemns both specific works and entire genres. Genres are often defined by shared values, whether those values are the escapism and intrigue of a fantasy world or the suspense-driven thrills of horror. Since focus on these genre values leaves less room for the values elevated by literary elitism (e.g., deep and meaningful evaluation of the human experience), the genres are condemned.
No values are inherently superior. Saying “Fantasy is bad because literary fiction is good” is much like saying “Oreos are bad because eggplant parmesan is good.” The existence of these two types of food do not form a dichotomy or mandate a comparison. They’re not better or worse. They’re different. Likewise, audiences who appreciate different types of writing aren’t better or worse. Just different.