Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Good Reading vs. Good Writing

I recently came across an interesting opinion piece by novelist Matt Haig called "30 Things to Tell a Book Snob" and it got me thinking about the value of art (again). Now, I don't agree with everything he writes, but I do agree with the sentiment and any reading is good reading. But does this translate to "any writing is good writing"?

You can argue all day long that art is subjective and that one person may love what another person thinks is rubbish, but you can't convince me that all writing is good writing. People are certainly entitled to their opinions and entitled to love bad writing, but that doesn't mean that the writing is brilliant. A novelist I know often laments how many people tell him, "I would write a novel - if only I had the time." As though every person in the world can be a writer. His feeling is that people never think to themselves, "I would compose a symphony - if only I had the time." We accept that composers know something about music, have probably studied it extensively and practiced for many years to hone their skills. I may love the song that my six-year-old neighbour just made up, it may be my favourite song but that doesn't mean that Beethoven wasn't better than her. No one would argue that my neighbour is giving the greats of music composition a run for the money based on my opinion. Most people in the world have the physical capacity to sing, but they're not all good singers. So why would we accept that everyone is a good writer, just because?

I know I'm not the only schmuck working this hard to produce "good" writing

I think it's because telling stories and forming narrative is an essential human trait. We all do it, instinctively and continuously. The events in Boston two weeks ago are a perfect example of this. I was speaking with a friend of mine about the need people feel to connect themselves to the place, time, victims or perpetrators of events like this (read my post on the Boston Marathon here). I think this boils down to the narration we craft of our own lives. Explosions in a generally quiet city like Boston in a very wealthy, safe country like the US are outliers in our experience, so we feel the need to weave them into our story. Unexplainable events are unnerving and make us feel out of control. In response, we create a story so that we can see causal links, so that we can convince ourselves that it makes sense.

The Boston National Public Radio station, WBUR, did an interesting piece by linguist Geoff Nunberg on the words "horrific" and "surreal". He considers how these words have come to new meanings in the television age when we see footage of events repeated on endless loops. He says:
"Behind 'horrific' is the realization: 'Oh my God, this really happened.'...The things we see as horrific have an indisputable realness that we alternately confront and shrink away from. While "surreal" is the word we reach for when reality threatens to overwhelm us, till it takes on what Merriam-Webster defines as the 'intense irrational reality of a dream.' Though in these settings, it's more often another kind of unreality that comes to mind. 'It was surreal,' people kept saying, 'like a scene in a movie.'"

When the extreme happens, we make our lives into narratives, craft them into stories, imagine them as movies.

So, really, it is little wonder that lots of people think they can write novels. Maybe they can. But just as some songs or symphonies or arias are better than others, some books are better than others. Perhaps one of the ideas Matt was getting at was that some types of writing are just dismissed out of hand. Science fiction, fantasy, humour, young adult and children's fiction are often considered less than literary fiction just by virtue of their genre. Sticking with the music metaphor, this is the old classical music vs. the rest debate. It seems to me that this is a no-brainer. Comparing Beethoven and The Beatles is pointless. They both produced good music and they're both better than my neighbour. It's not about setting up a strict hierarchy where every book, story, poem etc. fits into a 1 to infinity list in order of greatness. It's about recognising that some writing really is better than other writing.

It seems a shame to deny writers with extraordinary talent and the work ethic to hone their craft, draft and draft and redraft and then start all over again, the recognition that they are among the best at their profession.

Reading, however, should just be enjoyed. There should be no judgement of reading. You read what you like and you don't have to defend it. There is no wrong way to read, just like there's no wrong way to listen to music. You can hate The Beatles and Beethoven, that's fine. If you do, let me know, I can get you a recording of my neighbour singing some confused lyrics to the tune of  "O Tannenbaum". I promise, she's a lovely singer.

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