Sunday, August 9, 2020

Pursuing The Heights...Or Scorning Them?

     There are days I have to withhold myself from others. Not to do so would be dangerous – to the others, not to me. Such occasions are triggered by a variety of stimuli. Blame it on my Irish temper, if you like. It’s integral to me, and I’ve had no luck taming it.

     Today was such a day. The stimulus was a couple of comments at another site which I will forbear to specify. It involved a conversation among writers, including several too cowardly to give their real names. In the course of that conversation, certain things were said that lit my boilers and turned the flame up to its maximum.

     What was said that redlined my tachometer, you ask? First, this: that trying to make your novel as good as it can possibly be, as close to perfect as you can bring it, is a waste of the author’s time.

     Need I explain why that flicked me on the raw?

     No, I didn’t think so.

     I’m a (retired) engineer. If there’s any characteristic that unites all engineers everywhere, it would be this one: We want our designs to be perfect.

     I can’t bring myself to submit anything to anyone if I can still detect a flaw in it. I was that way as a working engineer, and I’m that way as a writer of fiction. I love my (imagined) readers too much to subject them to anything that isn’t the very best I can make it. But while that would be enough reason to strive for perfection, there’s more involved.

     It involves my opinion of myself as a responsible artist. A responsible sculptor wouldn’t leave a few extraneous stone chips on his statue. A responsible painter wouldn’t fail to correct for errant brush strokes, as far as possible. A responsible musician wouldn’t fail to correct – or to redo entirely –a recording that was stippled with errors.

     A responsible writer takes comparable pains. He reviews his work with a critical eye. If possible, he enlists others in the effort. He corrects any flaws he can detect before he presents his tale to his readership. To do less is to say “This doesn’t matter that much.”

     But it does matter that much, damn it all! It will bear my name. It will be taken as representative of the larger body of my work. And if my readers can find fault with it, they’ll be that much less inclined to read other things I’ve written. Some subset of them will dismiss me as a second rate writer.

     I can’t bear the thought, much less allow the reality. So I labor to the utmost to seine out any ambiguities of plot or viewpoint, any awkward phrasings, and (of course) any low-level errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation that I can find in my manuscripts before I release them to the world. I regard it as an ethical obligation, to say nothing of the impact on the maintenance and enlargement of my readership.

     But an unnamed commenter who goes by an anonymizing moniker has called it a waste of time. Perhaps his / her / its anonymity is for the best.

     The above was bad enough. There was worse.

     Another anonymous commenter at the aforementioned site said, in effect, that he / she / it didn’t want thematic content. If that’s not clear, here’s a paraphrase of the comment:

     Stories with serious themes turn me off. I avoid books that I “should” read. I seek to escape reality for a while, nothing more.

     Let’s see, now: A story that lacks a theme:

  • Could involve protagonists and antagonists that are morally indistinguishable;
  • Could ignore the nature and implications of sentience and causality;
  • Could award the palm of victory to an evil participant.

     Why would anyone read such a thing? For the vampires and werewolves, the elves and wizards, the ray guns and rocket ships? It would have no connection to life as we know it: a world in which limited beings with individual abilities and motivations must strive against all manner of opposition to fulfill or defend their values, while simultaneously straining to respect the moral and ethical constraints our nature lays upon us. There would be no point to such a story. It would be akin to watching a wrestling match between unnamed, interchangeable contestants.

     The notion is so offensive that words fail me. The lowest, cheapest hackwork fiction at least nods toward some sort of theme. Pick up any Harlequin Silhouette romance. The least engaging of them makes an effort to say something about the nature of our world and the people in it.

     I must assume that the commenter cited above is completely unconscious of what makes a story worth his / her / its time, and is unaware of what he / she / it really enjoys about the tales he / she / it finds enjoyable.

     There’s no risk to me in encountering such bilge, of course. I’ll do as I think best regardless of anyone’s contrary opinion. But younger writers, not yet completely formed and ready to fly, could be affected by such emissions. That disturbs me.

     Writing fiction is a serious business. Whether or not he’s aware of it – whether or not he admits it to himself – what a writer writes will help to mold his readers’ diction, knowledge, attitudes, and convictions. He can’t avoid it. To be blasé about the quality and content of his work is shameful.

     Yes, I know mine is a minor voice. But ought my sentiments to be dismissed, merely because I have a tiny readership?


Linda Fox said...

In all fairness, many people think of 'theme' as that horrible thing that English teachers flog to death in class. For them, it means "overly pretentious concept that interferes with enjoyment of the story, and that can only be determined by some sort of guess at its relationship to the story that is being discussed."

For those types, it's all a puzzle missing many pieces; one that, should they timidly offer a guess to the theme, will result in the teacher ridiculing their thoughts - at best, and, should they fail to bow to Woke use of language, will end up putting them in danger of expulsion.

While I do take care to write with purpose and revise as needed, I come from a background of writing for newspapers/courses/contract, where the essential requirement was to get the thing in on time. Not necessarily perfect, but timely.

Bitter Apple said...

Why is it after reading this I can’t help but think of a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time???

Eaton Rapids Joe said...

Some of the most critical people are embittered, wannabe writers.

I encountered one who gulled me into helping him.

The story he sent had no (zero) punctuation and he used multiple colors of font.

After trying to make sense of the words which had as much order and coherence as a pan full of scrambled eggs, I suggested, at a minimum, that he needed to add quotation marks and I asked about the multi-colored font.

He adamantly refused to add any punctuation saying that no punctuation added to the dramatic tension and he wanted the readers to work to figure it out. The colored font was for "mood".

I suspect your critics are of the same ilk. They took a stab at writing and their perceptions are warped by envy. Sad, but it happens.