Can you help me figure something out? Do we care about “Good to Great” any more? Have we stopped (or at least fallen short) of being “In Search of Excellence”? Basically, do we care whether writing is brilliant and not just that it brings in the big bucks?
Let me explain why I’m asking.
I’m a writer who deliberately puts herself in front of what is commonly called “gatekeepers,” as I always have since I began my writing career in the late 1980s. Meaning I have a literary agent who will stop me moving forward if my writing is crap, and a consultant who is helping me work on a novel and does likewise. One of the Gallup Strengths that continually crops up in my top five is “Maximizer.” And, according to Sally Hogshead’s How to Fascinate approach, my number one driver is Prestige (number two is Passion). So it’s probably not too hard to see why much of what occurs in publishing today dismays me—passionately!
When a fellow thinker and questioner, Raj Shankar, offered “three succinct pieces of advice for writers by Madeleine L’Engle,” that he presumed “will be useful to writers of any kind / genre” on his blog Raj’s Lab, I could not help but respond. The advice comprised of three activities that offered nothing new, but—as Raj pointed out—offered “strong reinforcement” of what is repeatedly emphasized by those of us who care about quality writing:
- Keep an honest, unpublished journal which only you (the writer) reads
- Read. Read. Read. No writer became one without reading.
- Write everyday, however little.
While I’ve never been a fan of journal writing myself, the advice to read and write everyday whenever possible is precisely what I tell my clients. Not least, what I love about this short extract from L’Engle is the line: “It’s the great writers who teach us how to write.” That’s certainly been my experience!
So here’s what I wrote back to Raj:
Wonderful advice (and) so very true, especially that if you’re not a reader, how can you hope to become a good writer?
But here’s the thing that I’m noticing since the advent of self-publishing and other platforms that allow people to share work that once upon a time would have been considered “first drafts,” and not publishable. I’m not sure how many folks really want to be “writers.” They want to be “authors” and published ones at that. But as for writing — not so much!
Now these two things (writing, authorship) might appear joined at the hip, but I don’t see that’s the case in many of today’s interactions. Which speaks to the proliferation of courses and books and events promoting how writing a book is ‘easy, quick, and can be accomplished in a matter of hours, even a weekend.’
It’s all about the end goal. Is it about becoming a better writer (and since writing is merely thinking through the fingers–a quote attributed to Isaac Asimov—ergo, a better thinker)? Or is it just about getting a book published? It’s interesting how many people I speak with don’t see the distinction. If only we had more, sharper writers we might not be awash with so many badly written, poorly conceived books.
Then, a few days later I noticed a thread in one of my Google Groups dedicated to writers that talked about the latest “literary sensation,” Fifty Shades of Grey. As one correspondent writes: “Literary and film critics hate it because it’s terribly written.” I haven’t yet come across anyone who has said otherwise. It also appears to be shamelessly derivative, according to LifeSite and other articles:
So what is the secret to Fifty Shades’ success? Easy. It never strayed far from its source material. Fifty Shades is popular for exactly the same reasons as Twilight, because it’s exactly the same story…
The actor who plays Christian Grey, Jamie Dornan, has said in a UK magazine interview:
Mass appreciation doesn’t always equate to something good. Think of Hitler! But I think, in this case, it must. It simply must. There’s got to be merit in it if so many people agree.
And that’s where I’m stuck. Because I’m not sure Dornan is right.
So I asked Raj Shankar to offer his perspective: Should we consider “merit” to be judged by the number of people who will read, buy, or “fan” a piece of written rubbish like Fifty Shades of Grey? Am I off base here, and out on a limb in my maximizing, prestigious, passionate way, by wondering why having “gatekeepers” was all that bad, if it never stopped true talent from coming to the fore but made it a whole lot easier to find, rather than having to wade through the tsunami of mediocrity that’s put out there in the name of “content” these days?
(Sidenote: I wonder how many authors, like the mention of J.D. Salinger in this list, took to heart practical advice given in some of those rejection letters, and improved their offerings before they were finally picked up? Oftentimes one’s response to criticism demonstrates character. Try being a professional writer and journalist, as I have for the past 30 years—I’m certainly grateful to all the “critics” over the years who have helped to improve my writing. And I still get red-penned and rejected from time to time; heck, that’s life!)
Are we in danger of losing our sense of excellence, as meritocratic as that may sound, as “writing” devolves to little more than a popularity contest with the most “votes” (i.e., sales) being the key criteria for what really matters?
Meanwhile, please contribute to the conversation. What do you think about “bad” books?