Special Guest — John Grant

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I’ve known John Grant (aka Paul Barnett) for almost as many years as I’ve been involved in the writing business.  He is a warm, fun, great friend as well as a prolific author and editor.  Among his some seventy books are The World, The Hundredfold Problem, The Far-Enough Window, The Dragons of Manhattan and Leaving Fortusa.  His anthology New Writings in the Fantastic (to which I’m proud to have contributed a story) was short-listed for a British Fantasy Award.  His latest novellas are The City in These Pages (2009) and The Lonely Hunter (2010).  He’s prolific in non-fiction, too, co-editing The Encyclopedia of Fantasy with John Clute, and writing all three editions of The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters. His latest nonfictions have been Discarded Science, Corrupted Science and Bogus Science. He is currently working on Denying Science (Prometheus 2011), on a book about film noir, on the artist/illustrator entries for the massive online third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and on “a cute illustrated rhyming book for kids about a velociraptor.”  John has received two Hugo Awards, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and various other international literary awards. Under his real name, he ran the world-famous fantasy-artbook imprint Paper Tiger, earned a Chesley Award and a World Fantasy Award nomination.  And on top of all that, he’s agreed to post this week’s guest spot on MW!  His website is at www.johngrantpaulbarnett.com.

There Are Far Too Many “Writers”

Imagine the scene. You’re at a party – a family wedding, perhaps – and as you’re jostling at the punch bowl you find yourself engaged in that sort of idle, semi-interested chatter that’s reserved for people you’ll probably never meet again. Inevitably, after a while the topic turns to professions. “I’m a doctor,” your brief acquaintance says.

You’re entitled to make a couple of assumptions. First of all, the person concerned is not playing silly semantic games: they’re a physician, not someone with a PhD in Medieval Studies or a vet (“animal doctor”). Second, they have a medical degree: they’re not still in training, because in that case they’d describe themselves as a medical student. Third, they’re an actual, proper, real-life, scientific-medicine-style doctor and not someone who dabbles with herbs, massages people’s auras, or hawks snake oil.

The third assumption is more tenuous than the other two, because quacks and truth are not always natural bedfellows. Even so, if it proves your assumptions have been wrong, you have every right to feel peeved: you’ve been misled.

Now re-imagine the same encounter, only this time around the person says, “I’m a writer.”

Back in the day, the meaning of the statement would have been pretty clear: the person might not be a full-time writer – there might be a day job to pay the bills – but at a minimum had written a number of stories or articles that had been bought by professional magazines/anthologies, or some books that had been professionally published, some plays/scripts that had been professionally produced – you get the idea. (The person could be a journalist; but journalists normally identify themselves as such.)

There was, too, a definite status thing involved: there was a distinct cachet to being a writer. It was supposedly a glam job. For exactly this reason, it was not a claim one made lightly, for fear of being made to look a fool should it be revealed that, lacking the qualifications noted above, you’d been basing you’re “I’m a writer” claim on adolescent love poems sent to a paramour or your ability with a Magic Marker when finding yourself alone in a restroom.

In my own case the caution went a bit far. I was still introducing myself as an editor – my other profession – after I’d published half a dozen books. When I’d visit my mother she’d proudly and loudly introduce me to all her pals as “My son the writer!” . . . and I’d cringe.

Eventually, though, I felt that I’d sufficiently paid my professional dues, as it were, and plucked up the courage to describe my job, when asked, as “writer and editor” or – depending on context – “editor and writer”.

So, as I say, in the old days the phrase “I’m a writer” – just like “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a car mechanic” – meant something fairly specific: that you were professionally qualified in this particular discipline.

But a couple of decades ago there began to be a sea change. I first noticed it when my then-wife mentioned that someone had asked her what my job was and, on being told I was a writer, had responded, quite genuinely: “Has he had anything published?”

It’s hard to believe, had she said I was a doctor, that she’d have been asked: “Is he qualified?” Or that if she’d said I was a car mechanic that the question would have been: “Has he ever repaired any cars?” Clearly, however, the job description “writer” had begun to shift in meaning while I hadn’t been looking. Now that I was alerted, I found plenty more examples. I even came across someone who said they were a writer because they’d had a couple of letters published in the local newspaper.

Yes, of course, there’s the trivial argument that anyone who writes is a writer – in that sense, everyone in the world except the functionally illiterate is a writer. Along the same tack, you could say that everyone with a PhD is a doctor, but you know and I know that’s not what we customarily mean when we use the word “doctor” without further elaboration.

The sea change I’ve described came even before the proliferation of small POD presses and the mushrooming of opportunities for self-publishing. (Interestingly, bloggers generally describe themselves as bloggers rather than as writers, even if writing the blog is a full-time job and they earn a hefty income thereby.) Nowadays, not only is everyone a writer, but they can show you the printed book to prove it.

It doesn’t matter that the book failed to pass the obvious professional test of being considered by an editor to be worthy of publishing, nor that the author paid for the enterprise. It doesn’t matter if the text proves, at a glance, to be an illiterate mess – that, far from having been loved and nurtured by a professional editor it would have driven any professional editor to drink. So far as the guy with the sweaty forehead and the loud voice who’s proudly waving his masterpiece at you is concerned, it’s a published book . . . and he’s a writer.

The sole advantage of this is that, when I’m asked what my job is today, I no longer cringe about saying I’m a writer: I no longer feel there’s any claim to prestige in the description. The irony, of course, is that all the people who’re claiming to be professional writers, when by any stretch of the word “professional” they’re not, obviously do think there’s prestige involved. That’s the mainspring of those ads you see everywhere from vanity presses luring people with the promise that, for really not so very much money, they can become a “published author”. In fact, if “writers” would trouble to look up the word “publish” in the dictionary, they’d discover the claim’s a false one.

Leaving the whole boring status aspect aside, though, the exponential expansion in the number of “writers” is a profound nuisance. It’s obviously not quite as much of a nuisance as if urgent cries of “Is there a doctor in the house?” brought flocks of Medieval Studies PhDs running, but it’s still a degradation of our social wellbeing in that a not unimportant word has lost its meaning. And it’s embarrassing to have to start answering the “job” question with the cumbersome “professionally published writer”.

(The word “author” has suffered a similar fate. I’ve never much liked it anyway, because I always suspect self-described “authors” have just stuck their name on a book that’s been ghostwritten by someone else . . .)

And there’s another, even more serious point. It’s not just the number of “writers” that’s been booming, it’s the number of individual books on offer – at least via the internet – to prospective readers. This is damaging to all of us, primarily because a far higher ratio of books than ever before are garbage. One of Bruce Springsteen’s wryest songs is “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”: if you increase choice too much you end up with no choice at all, because you can’t find the pearls among all the crap. Old-style publishers produced (and produce) plenty of lousy books, as we all know, but at least when we bought a book we were assured that someone else other than the author thought this was a text worth printing, and worth paying to publish – that it wasn’t one of the 99.99% of texts that (however unjustly rejected a few good ones might have been) had failed this test.

Let’s be clear about this. Some of the very best books are self-published: it’s astonishing they weren’t picked up by a professional publisher. But that’s just the point: it’s astonishing. They’re the exceptions.

It’s not only that the readers’ bucks are being spread out over more titles that’s the concern. It’s that the high ratio of tripe is driving readers away. Someone who reads ten books in a row and finds they all put the dire in diarrhea is likely to conclude that reading books is not for them. Once the book trade – and that means you – has lost a reader, chances are said reader will never return.

So what’s to be done? Obviously we can’t turn the clock back, can’t stuff all this Pandoran technology back into its box and forget it ever existed. Are professional writers going to be wiped out except for a lucky gilded few, many of whom will be celebrities who’ve hired someone else to do the actual writing?

I don’t know the answers, and for obvious reasons I rather urgently wish I did. But in the meantime I’d be grateful if we could all try to exert some social pressure in the direction of returning the phrase “I’m a writer” to its original meaning.

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44 comments to Special Guest — John Grant

  • Thanks for this, John. You’ve given a nicely specific twist to a concern on mnay of our minds. The sheer proliferation of “published” material might be heralded by some as a democratizing of the industry, but–as you suggest–its primary effect is a cluttering of the market with substandard books. I would add that as well as making it harder to find the wheat in so much chaff, I fear that readers’ critical faculty–their ability to identify good stuff–is suffering as a result (and this, as I’ve said here before, goes hand in hand with the fact that we teach less and less of what we used to call literary appreciation in schools and colleges anymore). Do readers lose the ability to identify and value good writing if they rarely encounter it? How do you educate a literary palate which consumes nothing but the writerly equivalent of bad fast food burgers at every meal? It would be nice to assume that good writing is instantly recognizeable, but I’m skeptical. Readers have to be trained to appreciate quality. Thanks for your post (even if it–in a good way–raised my blood pressure). A suitably scary contribution for Halloween week.

  • John> I find this interesting, though I also am inclined to asked, at what point does one get to call oneself a writer? When one has one publication? A sfwa-qualifying publication? A novel? Five novels? When they make a living at it? Certainly it can’t be the last one, because there are several authors with many publications (and I mean non-self published publications) who do not “make a living” writing.

    I was cautious about using the title Professor before I had my Ph.D., and for many of the same reasons that you didn’t use the phrase “I’m a writer.” For me, when I defended my dissertation, that was it. I was a prof.

    I am equally cautious about the term “writer.” Though, I will say, while I don’t use it out loud, I certainly try to think of myself as a writer, because then I behave like a writer (that is, actually write, treat it as a job, do all the things that I must if I have any hope of publishing in a traditional market, which I want). But the line of deliniation seems less clear here. So, when is a writer (lower case) a Writer? (Or, I guess, an “Author” as I heard one Author at a con put it a few years ago.)

    AJ> I think, frighteningly, the answer to your question is a (tentative) yes. When people don’t read good writing, they will find it hard to recognize later. Hence my students “but this is HARD!” when we get to good writing. (Good writing need not be hard, of course, and hard certainly doesn’t equate to good, but Shakespeare isn’t easy.) Of course, this begs the question “what does ‘good’ mean?”.

  • JG

    @AJ: Do readers lose the ability to identify and value good writing if they rarely encounter it? How do you educate a literary palate which consumes nothing but the writerly equivalent of bad fast food burgers at every meal? It would be nice to assume that good writing is instantly recognizeable, but I’m skeptical. Readers have to be trained to appreciate quality.

    I think you’re probably correct in this. I’m constantly amazed by how often people will recommend a book which I find, on reading it, is so bloody awfully written as to be painful. Often I can see why the person has liked the plot of the book; it’s clear they simply haven’t noticed the dreadful quality of the prose.

    This sounds snobbish. It isn’t. I’m a great fan of, for example, pulp fiction, and regard the better of its practitioners as exemplars from whom most of us could learn a lot about the art of writing. Prose doesn’t have to be posh to be good. In other words, what I’m actually pointing at here is just plain bad writing.

    The Da Vinci Code is a prime example. I knew going in that the basic idea would be garbage, but I was expecting a fun ride nevertheless. Instead I got this dreadful, creaking prose, cardboard characters, and a string of idiotic brainteasers. Yet I’ve come across people who describe this as a wonderful, wonderful book and who clearly, as I said, simply haven’t noticed that the writing in it is so dreadful.

  • John, I hope you don’t mind if I offer a different perspective.

    My take goes back to the original question being asked at the party or the coffee shop. “So, what do you do?” The question itself is only an icebreaker and life has changed so much that we can’t make *any* assumptions, even about doctors.

    “I’m a doctor.”

    “What kind? OB/GYN? GP? Brain surgeon? Cardiologist? Urologist? Pulmonary specialist? Oh! You’re an ortho? What do you specialize in? Shoulders? Hips? Oh! You’re a hand guy! Left or right?” (The last was a joke.)

    Life *has* changed. As writers we should be leading the herd of change not trying to corral the beasts back into the past. It’s actually up to *us* to deal with the change in life and in the and industry and make it work.

    As to being a writer, unfortunately we don’t have terms like apprentice writer. And so if we want to be kind around the appetizer table, we *must* add commercially published to the writer title.

    Because life has changed (and I must change with it) I smile sweetly when I tell people I’m a writer. And wait. While they crawl through the morass of changed meanings for the word, and settle on the possibly explosive: “Have you had anything published?”

    Yes, I am cruel. But being a writer has so few perks, that torturing strangers has become one of my little joys.

  • JG

    @pea: at what point does one get to call oneself a writer? When one has one publication? A sfwa-qualifying publication?

    Funny you should say that. I was planning — before I ran out of both space and time! — to include in my rant a para or two to the effect that the SFWA’s eligibility rules make a reasonable dividing line . . . or, at least, offer a rough guide. (Obviously there are, for example, quite distinguished academic writers who’ll never have received an advance of SFWA-qualifying size.)

    As an aside, I’ve heard some people beef about those SFWA rules to the effect that they’re “elitist”. It doesn’t seem to dawn on the complainers that the SFWA is a professional organization, and by their very nature professional organizations are elitist — that’s what they’re for!

  • JG

    @Faith:

    If someone says “I’m a doctor” the default assumption is that they’re a GP, or thereabouts. Otherwise they’re going to say “I’m a surgeon”, or whatever.

    While they crawl through the morass of changed meanings for the word, and settle on the possibly explosive: “Have you had anything published?”

    Yes, I’ve had fun playing that cruel trick too!

  • Usually when I hear “I’m a novelist” I automatically assume they have some published novels under their belt, even if just one (though maybe I shouldn’t). With generic “writer” there’s no telling. As Faith said, and I was mulling over after reading the original post, does a cardiologist introduce himself at a party as a doctor or as a cardiologist? When I get a novel published mainstream (meaning, I didn’t have to pay money to do it and I can find it in brick and mortar stores) I’ll call myself a novelist, probably a “first-time novelist” until I have more published. However, I’m currently writing in hopes of becoming a novelist and I’ve been published multiple times in the RPG market, one of which was an 80,000 word supplement, all of which went through editing, none of which I had to pay for to get published. So I call myself a writer.

    And I don’t mind when someone asks if I’ve been published. It gives me something more to talk about, breaks ice, shows they have at least a passing interest, etc.

  • JG

    @Daniel: none of which I had to pay for to get published

    With a stack of paid-for work under your belt, you’re obviously perfectly well qualified for the “writer” description! But can I pick you up on your “none of which I had to pay for” description? The real criterio here should surely be that you got paid for someone to publish the work, not just that you didn’t pay to have it published.

  • JG

    Oops!

    “criterion”

  • Didn’t bother to mention that bit, but yeah, I did.

  • tiffany

    I’d rather like to be both. Doctor and writer of non- scientific papers that required different research than looking under a microscope.:)

  • John —
    “Surgeon? How lovely. General? Ortho? Pulmonary? Oh! Transplant! Really! Heart, kidney, lung…?”

    Just picking at you here. I’m a writer. Let them choke on the assumptions.

  • JG

    @Faith

    Otherwise they’re going to say “I’m a surgeon”, or whatever.

    The “or whatever” was an important part of the sentence . . .

  • Actually, since I’m picking, a lot of doctors have stopped saying so to strangers. Otherwise they get, “I’ve got this mole, would you look at it?” Or whatever.

  • I think there is a difference with being a doctor and a writer. With doctors, there is a point where you go through training and get stamped on the forehead “DOCTOR” at graduation. The newly minted Doctor doesn’t think to themselves, “N’m not really a doctor until I seen 100 patients, birthed 500 babies, or discovered the cure for cancer.” They are a doctor because they were told that they were. With writers, there is not a point in time when our writing elders come and announce, “You have finished your training. We dub ye, ‘WRITER’.” So this gray line of vaguness is what accounts for the confusion.

    @FAITH: Same problem goes for Tech Support people. When I was in tech support, I avoided telling people that I was because everyone has computer problems that they wanted me to look at.

  • JG

    Otherwise they get, “I’ve got this mole, would you look at it?”

    During the various periods when I’ve been working as a publishers’ editor I’ve often tended to be reticent about “I’m an editor” . . . You’d be astonished by how many people have written these absolutely fabulous books, bound to be a bestseller, obviously you’d love to read the manuscript and, if nothing else, offer free editorial advice, but I’m sure that once you’ve read it you’ll be desperate to publish it even though it’s about French polishing techniques in northern Patagonia while your company only publishes art books . . .

    Most of the rest would be lost to me as I conceived a strategic necessity to lock myself in the nearest lavatory for a while.

  • JG

    @Mark: With writers, there is not a point in time when our writing elders come and announce, “You have finished your training. We dub ye, ‘WRITER’.”

    To be honest, there is. It comes in the form of a contract and advance cheque.

  • As much as I liked the contract and check, I would really like a big ceremony of writerhood. With wine and trumpets and a big shiny hat for me to wear!

  • Mark, I know what you mean. My bro is a network IT director and he has a sidline business selling solar systems for homes (the kind where you don’t need the power company except as backup) and that is how he introduces himself.

    John, I often leave out the *writer* part of my answer for the same reason. I once had a couple chase me down in the lab where where I work (for the benefits, she declaims) and *demand* that I read their book. They wouldn’t leave. I had to call security.

    But, back to my contentious self and your comment >>To be honest, there is. It comes in the form of a contract and advance cheque>>
    These days, that isn’t necessarily so. Sometimes there are a lot more Is to dot and Ts to cross.

    As I’m sure you have, I’ve seen some small press contracts lately that have all that good stuff. And in the small print, the writer gets to pay for cover design and layout, or some other part of the process. So the line dividing writer from not-yet-writer is still blurred to the average person.

    That is why sites like MW are so helpful. So for those of you who are still confused (made so by my debate), to help the as-yet-un-pub writer who thinks that the writer paying for *anything* is okay (except promo) — it isn’t. Most writer organisations like RWA, MWA, SFWA and others have sample boilerplate contracts available for writer-members to review and compare. You can join many organisations as an un-pub and take advantage of the excellent resources.

    Hmmm. We need to upload a basic boilerplate contract to this site. I’ll do that later this week.

    And John — thanks for letting me play in your sandbox. This back-and-forth has been fun (and educational for many of our readers) and so have you.

  • JG

    @Misty

    Well, yes, although the trumpets and shiny hat could be optional.

    I see, by the way, that you and I are currently in the same anthology.

  • JG, sure enough, there we are in Dragon’s Lure!

  • JG

    @Faith: This back-and-forth has been fun

    Fun for me, too — thanks to all the MW crew for letting me pollute your bandwidth!

  • John,

    At work and in my family, it’s become an unspoken title. They say, “Hey, [Moira]. You’re a writer! Can you do / help me with [task]?” Often, amusing enough, I actually being asked to use my editing skills, but that still translates to them as “writer”.

    The lines *have* blurred. I’m just 28 and I’ve grown up with the idea that “writer” does not mean “published writer”. I like what Faith said about tacking on “apprentice”! But then you get to the nitty gritty of, “Well, I’m a Journeyman writer” and by the way, what is the boundary between journeyman and apprentice?

    The reactions I get if I say I’m a writer, as I’ve been culturally raised to do, vary depending on the person and the age. (I don’t usually even say that, though. I say “I’m working on a writing career”.)

    The English language has shifted, but it would be nice if those of us who are working hard at the craft had another word, since on the other end of things is “aspiring” and frankly, that word bugs me.

    I like the word “author” as replacing “writer” in the context of your post. I would never dare to refer to myself as an author until I got something published. As it is, I don’t feel the need to introduce myself as a writer much unless it comes up in a very specific context, like when I’m talking about how I spent my weekend. Occasionally I use the word in my blog … but that’s usually in the modern sense. It seems unavoidable.

  • I guess it depends on what sort of party you’re at in the first place. That would determine the sort of assumptions placed on announcing oneself as a writer. A writer may be held in higher esteem than a doctor. (PhD or brain surgeon) And how people react and respond to the declaration that, ‘I’m a writer.’ depends on how it’s delivered. Body language, tone of voice, eye contact, predatory smile or nervous twitch.

    About getting lost in the morass of maudlin manuscripts available to read …. with regards to the ‘e’ world and self-publishing options we are in a state of flux, a wild frontier that has exploded all over the place, and no clear direction has emerged to date, so of course every dog and his fleas is writing/publishing whatever is on his mind.

    But you know what, not everyone is into reading, so they wouldn’t be interested in any debate over trash or quality anyway. Those who are, have very clear ideas (however we may agree or disagree with them) on what they want to read and stick to it, and tell their friends!

    The good stuff rises to the surface eventually.

  • Sarah

    I think Mark and Faith make a good point about the lack of professional vetting in the profession that makes it hard to know when you’ve crossed the line between wannabe and writer. SFWA cred is a good benchmark, as is the distinction between published and self published. And yet (she said, just for the sake of argument) we all know people who are incredibly talented producers of fiction who have yet to break into the market and deserve to call themselves writers in some sense. They do the work, they produce real material, etc but the seal of approval from the industry has yet to appear in their mail. There’s also the gray area of sub-pro payment and the “for the love” markets that, while they don’t count for SFWA, can be an important step in the process of being/becoming professional.

    That’s why I like the term amateur writer for myself and author or just writer for people like Faith, David, Misty and AJ. It may be a distinction lost on the average reader, but it’s crucial to my own mindset. I do write and it’s not just a hobby or aspiration. At the same time, the “amateur” reminds me I’m not there yet.

    Now, if only we could get people to stop thinking that “I’m working on a novel” means “I’m a self involved wanker.” That might cut down on the scorn from non-writers and send the actual wankers into a different arena.

  • JG

    @Sarah: I do write and it’s not just a hobby or aspiration.

    I think Moira’s “I’m working on a writing career” is a very good solution. The adjective “amateur” often bears a sort of pejorative connotation which, as you correctly point out, is in many unjustified and in some cases emphatically so.

    wankers

    Oh, my. You can’t know, of course, that before posting my piece Stuart was worried that delicate MW sensibilities might be shattered by my use (since expunged for other reasons) of the dire cussword “bloody”!

  • JG

    @Moira (I know, I know, I’m all this in the wrong order . . .)

    “I’m working on a writing career”

    This seems an excellent solution: the speaker is accurately describing the situation in a way that removes all social-status considerations from the equation.

    I actually think “apprentice writer” is fine too, because it demonstrates the seriousness of the intent. I don’t think “journeyman” means what you think it means.

  • JG

    @widdershins: Those who are [into reading], have very clear ideas (however we may agree or disagree with them) on what they want to read

    I’m not so sure this is true — at least, I’m not so sure it’s what the debate that AJ Hartley and myself started is about. That debate concerns the inability of some folk to differentiate between good text and bad, and to realize the difference matters. It’s a curable condition, of course. I responded to one of the folk who’d assured me The Da Vinci Code was True Spiff by lending her my treasured copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. A few days later, eyes glowing with both zeal and a lack of sleep, she told me that, yes, golly, there was a difference and how come people had been hiding all the good stuff all these years.

    I’m sure this must be repeated all over the country a thousand times a day — people who’ve previously had no clear idea of “what they want to read” suddenly discovering that, on contact with what Bruce Sterling used to call the True Quill, their previously inchoate notions are focusing.

  • JG

    @Moira: I’m just 28 and I’ve grown up with the idea that “writer” does not mean “published writer”.

    I forgot to say, in my earlier response to your comment, that this may be a cultural difference. You have to remember that, even though I’ve lived in the US for a dozen years and speak the language almost as badly as a native, I’m a repressed Brit. In the UK, during the years that represent much of my professional life (it may by now have changed there), claiming one’s profession as “writer” without publication, and a certain level of publication, was regarded as pushy and obnoxious. As more than one person here has observed — and indeed as I ruefully noted in my rant — the language has changed. It’s also true that these usages vary from one community to the next.

  • JG> I, too, like the phrase “working on a writing career.” Right now when someone asks what I do, I say I’m a professor and I write stuff that I hope to get published some day. If they leave a space, I’ll explain at greater length (which teaches them to ask innocuous questions! HA!)

    Regarding “learning to appreciate good writing.” *sighs* I totally get what you and AJ are saying, and I agree. But I can’t stop the post-modernist in me (and I am, by virtue of the culture in which I was raised and educated, a post-modernist) to stop screaming “What do you mean by “good”?” How do we define what is and isn’t good? I had a prof who thought Gaiman’s Sandman comics were ridiculous and thought that what he did to a Midsummer Night’s Dream was utterly worthless at best and a hanging offense at worst. I think his work qualifies as literature, and “good” (there’s that word again) literature too. Nay, even bloody good (ahem). And when I ask for a definition of “good,” I’m not talking about the high/low brow or literature/pulp lines, because there is good and bad writing in both, and that distinction has always irritated me. (Chaucer and Shakespeare were pulp, thank you very much!)

    But I’ve had the “how do you know it’s good” argument a lot of times. Hey, it’s what academics do. But I’ve not found a satisfactory answer. Then again, maybe the debate is what’s important.

  • Pea Emily and John, >>But I’ve had the “how do you know it’s good” argument a lot of times. Hey, it’s what academics do. But I’ve not found a satisfactory answer. Then again, maybe the debate is what’s important.>>

    Yes! Spot on! Bloody good! (I’ev always adored that bloody word, John.)

    And may I add to the debate, our culture determines how we judge *good* and *bad* art of all kinds. So … yes. It is.

  • JG

    @Faith & Pea

    Could I suggest you read the Sokal/Bricmont book before being quite so cocky about the values of cultural relativism? For a more readable pop version, there’s Francis Wheen’s book How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World.

    I actually appreciate what you’re arguing, but I suggest the premises from which you’re so doing are dubious, hm?

  • Pea,
    I actually don’t think the ‘how do you know it’s good?’ issue is that difficult so long as you recognize that “good” is defined by the conventions of the genre or even the terms of the book itself. Incompetent prose–writing which fails to achieve what it might reasonably be expected to achieve–is not that hard to identify. Some of this might be subjective, but much of it really isn’t. I don’t think postmodernity changes this though it may alter the criteria of “good.” But it’s part of the critical cul-de-sac which is a certain vulgar postmodernism that we find ourselves saying that since the old standrads of excellence are now open to question, there can be no standards of excellence. I think that’s a fallacy and one we don’t actually believe for a second. Though our culture has adopted a lot of postmodern trappings, we remain firmly modernist when it comes to key things for our debate like qualitative analysis and the coherence of narrative.

    I totally agree that good and bad writing is not about high/low culture appeal, and you are right about Shakespeare and Chaucer. Your professor who dismisses Gaiman as a travesty of Shakespeare clearly didn’t understand either, how narrative is built from sources, or the theoretical basis of either drama or performative adaptation (and yes, you can quote me on that) :)

  • JG

    Thank you, AJ!

    I’ve spent the past few months reading about antiscience, the damage it has done, the lives it has cost. The responsibility of the postmodernist movement for this mess, while not as central as some would claim, is nevertheless not insignificant. Forgive me if my fuse is rather short on the subject!

    You, I, ‘most everyone can pick up (say) a John D. MacDonald text and rejoice in the muscularity of the prose, the skill of the plotting and characterization, etc. Clearly MacDonald was no Shakespeare; but it’s equally true Shakespeare was no John D. MacDonald. Both were superbly skilled at what they did. Comparing their two artistries is pretty pointless — like trying to compare Billie Holiday’s singing with Haydn’s composing: not just different genres and different application within those genres, but entirely different genius.

    Somewhere up there I juxtaposed Carlos Ruiz Zafon with Dan Brown. What I wasn’t doing was comparing posh translated Spanish lit with US pulp, to the detriment of the latter: I was trying to say that one book is a superlatively good exemplar of what it is, while the other book is a completely bloody awful example of what it is.

  • JG and AJ> I’m not a cultural relativist, nor, I think, did I suggest that there be no definition of good. I simply asked what it was. I do find cultural relativism to be a problem–try getting my students to say something negative (that is, a critique) about another student’s work sometime… they grew up in a radical “to each is own” world. I do believe in standards. I just want people to define what they mean by “good.”

    I think AJ is spot on when he suggests it changes with the expectation of the text–and I think that is a post-modern thing, as my prof. shows. She has only one very narrow definition. 100 years ago, it would have been completely acceptable. Relativism has done some good in that aspect. Obviously, when I’m reading how to program my Bread Machine, I’m not interested in riveting prose. I just want competent, clear English. But, enough folks were throwing around “good” that I found myself compelled to ask what good was. The original topic was when does a writer get to call him or herself a Writer. Now, the answer seems to be “when you have enough sfwa qualifying credits (or enough pubs, or an advance for a publisher or a couple other things)” At NO point did someone suggest when you are “good.” Publishable isn’t necessarily “good” (as many sad book buyers have found.) So I thought it might be worth it to slow down and ask what qualifies as good.

    In genre fiction in America (and maybe Britain) in the 21st century, good has a certain meaning that wouldn’t really describe, say, Dickens in his entirety, or Chaucer, or the Victorian novel. Of course, as Dr. Norell and Mr. Strange showed, sometimes a Victorian novel can make in 20th-21st century publishing. Now some of the things that the “great authors” (who we can probably agree are “good”) did are the same as what “good” is today–I’m sure of it, because their works still resonate with me (though differently with me than with a woman my age in their own time, probably). But, say, rhyme royal? Not so much. Blank verse? Nope. Lots of adverbs? Extended multiple negatives? Long musical scenes about whales? Maybe not.

    And I do think that some difference of definition is fine–I’ll go that far with relativism. I’ll go a lot farther with “you like what you like, I like what I like, and it doesn’t speak to whether or not it is good.” I don’t like Joyce, but I can appreciate he’s talented. That’s, to a degree, a relativist position. So if someone asks if a book I read was “good,” I have two answers. The first is whether or not it met my standards for “good.” The second is, did I enjoy it and do I think the person asking would enjoy it. The first is much more relativist, but that’s the kind of relativism I can live with. (And now I’m going to stop since it’s technically tomorrow, at least here.)

  • Pea-Emily, Thank you. I will add some comments:

    >>You, I, ‘most everyone can pick up (say) a John D. MacDonald text and rejoice in the muscularity of the prose, the skill of the plotting and characterization, etc. Clearly MacDonald was no Shakespeare; but it’s equally true Shakespeare was no John D. MacDonald. Both were superbly skilled at what they did. Comparing their two artistries is pretty pointless — like trying to compare Billie Holiday’s singing with Haydn’s composing: not just different genres and different application within those genres, but entirely different genius.>>

    Good and Bad are not judgments that relate strictly to current or historical cultural interpretation. They are also indicative of personal taste, and *that* is the result of the level of education, economics, heritage, age, ethnicity, the weight of history, and the way our *postmodern* brains work. Temple Grandin has a whole nother take on *good* and *bad* because of the way her brain works. There are people who say Shakespeare is *awful* because his language does not fit in to any subcultural context with which they are familiar. I was raised with art and I think Picasso’s later work was awful. Yes, I see how it leads the artistic cultural revolution of the late 20th century, but to me it’s still bad. Personal taste.

    >>Incompetent prose–writing which fails to achieve what it might reasonably be expected to achieve–is not that hard to identify.

    Incompetent prose *is* easy to identify. But (for example) Dan Brown’s prose was not incompetent. It *achieved* exactly what the writer wanted it to. It *communicated* exactly what he wanted it to. It wasn’t lovely prose by my standards, nor did he create rich and enduring characters. But it was competent communication of a fictional story.

    >>since the old standrads of excellence are now open to question, there can be no standards of excellence. I think that’s a fallacy and one we don’t actually believe for a second.>>

    I don’t think anyone was actually saying that. I was saying that interpretation of good and bad is *partly* an enjoyment factor. Literature is foremost for enjoyment. A fiction novel on the table is not edible. It will not put out a fire if the house is burning down. Yes, we can all improve our appreciation of good literature. But it is for enjoyment, and therefore judgments like good and bad are indeed personal and are the result of our own cultural influences.

    >> It’s a curable condition, of course. I responded to one of the folk who’d assured me The Da Vinci Code was True Spiff by lending her my treasured copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. A few days later, eyes glowing with both zeal and a lack of sleep, she told me that, yes, golly, there was a difference and how come people had been hiding all the good stuff all these years.>>

    You changed her culture. You changed her education. You gave her another point of view for what good and bad was. Thank you for proving my point.

    I am sorry I pushed your buttons, but thank you again for the spirited debate.

  • JG

    @Faith: Dan Brown’s prose was not incompetent. It *achieved* exactly what the writer wanted it to. It *communicated* exactly what he wanted it to. It wasn’t lovely prose by my standards, nor did he create rich and enduring characters. But it was competent communication of a fictional story.

    No. It was at this level that I consider it failed: it didn’t competently communicate its story.

    Then why so many readers? I think because people were fascinated by the whole bloodline of Christ/Priory of Sion material which, while old hat to many of us, was fresh to many others. As a result, readers weren’t too much affected by yer actual plot and were also willing to do that curious thing of (in effect) writing the author’s book for him — i.e., reading not so much the words that were in front of them as the words that should have been there. (You see this even more so with the Left Behind books, one of which I tried and found to be the most ghastly, clunking, turgid rubbish, but which to the Fundies is rivetingly effective prose.)

    It *achieved* exactly what the writer wanted it to.

    Unless what you mean is that it *achieved* him the very large bank balance he wanted . . .

  • To your first point: Exactly. And it was holes that made it work. Had Brown actually filled in the holes, the work would have come crashing down. Fact would have made it unworkable. Conspirists *need* holes in order to fill them with their own thinking, hopes, and titillated fears. And again, for that reason, it worked for the audience for which it was aimed. It became effective, though certainly not for any historian, theologian, scholar, or anyone who had read any one of several previously published books about the subject (which I had, as research for a book I’ve yet to publish). But it was perfect for the intended audience, and therefore communicated what the writer intended.

    To your second point: I can’t comment on the Left Behind series. Never picked one up.

    To your third point: Brown is a genre writer. His prose was aimed at a genre audience of a particular demographic. He succeeded. His prose, his plot line, even his 2 dimensional characters, worked for that demographic. Commercial writers write to the readers, not to make their muses dance. (Mine would likely pole dance anyway. Not a pretty sight.)

  • JG

    @Faith: To your third point: Brown is a genre writer. His prose was aimed at a genre audience of a particular demographic.

    Yes, but I’m commenting as someone who is part of that demographic — readers of genre thrillers. As an example of a genre thriller, the book was shoddy and poorly executed.

  • I don’t care for Brown’s work either, on myriad levels.
    But the proof is in the pudding. We may not like it when something we consider poor quality takes over the market, but the sales fitures proved it worked for the public. The genre buying public. OUR market.

  • JG

    @Faith

    As in: Smoking must be good for you, because look how many cigarettes are sold.

  • John, Faith was not saying DVC was fine literature. She was saying that it SOLD. That’s all. It may annoy the tar out of some of us, but people bought it and liked it. Whether or not you feel it was worthy won’t change that fact.

    And with that said, I also need to point out that we here at MW don’t really like to diss authors by name. So I’d appreciate this ending now.

  • JG

    @Misty: So I’d appreciate this ending now.

    Okay.

  • Young_Writer

    The comments are as interesting as a post. Haha, kids stare at me open-mouthed when I tell them I write novels. It’s kind of scary… That’s why I’m glad there’s two or three other writers in my grade.