Friday, December 08, 2006

When writers attack

Today's post about writing and rejection by novelist Jack Cavanaugh at the The Charis Connection is both thought-provoking and chuckle-inducing. But there was one small part that disturbed me. I'm getting really, really tired of reading things like this all over the blogisphere:

I refuse to write whipped cream stories. There are too many all sugar, no substance stories on the shelves already.

I don't know Mr. Cavanaugh. And I'm not going off on him personally, because these are just two little sentences and I have the impression that he tossed them off at least partly in jest. But please. Could we writers stop trying to plump up our own egos and promote our own writing by tearing down the work of others? Who benefits when we sniff and insist that we, unlike so many other writers, are determined to write quality fiction?

Do we honestly believe that some writers wake up in the morning and say to themselves, "I need money. I believe I'll write some garbage today. Good thing my editor is lazy and my publishing house wouldn't know quality if it bit their backsides--and the public can be fooled into buying just about anything. I won't even have to break a sweat. I'll just crank something out and mail it to New York next week."

I'm going to endeavor to make my point by making this personal: Some of you may not like what I'm writing, but you have no idea how much I care about my novels and how hard I'm trying to do my very best work. This is all I've got, folks. A couple of people reviewed my second book and suggested that I could have done a little more with it. Believe me, I couldn't have. If any readers were disappointed, I'm sorry, but I'm proud of the book because it was the very best work I could produce. I'm not a genius, okay? I'm never going to win a Pulitzer Prize. But if that's okay with me, why should it matter to anyone else?

Believe me, I'm fully aware that when other writers scoff at the "whipped cream stories" being published today, they're talking about my books and those of my friends. But you know, a lot of readers like the stuff my friends and I write, and they buy our books by the cartload. So this constant harping on the lack of quality in today's fiction is insulting not just to published writers, but to millions of readers.

I have a challenge for all the writers and industry professionals who have jumped on the bandwagon to blather endlessly about what a shame it is that so many "unworthy" books are published every year: Put your books where your mouths are. Stop yammering about how bad the current offerings are and show us what you consider to be quality fiction.

I dare you.


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11 comments:

J. Mark Bertrand said...

At least in Jack Cavanaugh's case the dare has already been answered, right? I looked him up on Amazon and stopped counting titles at fifteen. He's "on the record," so to speak. If he's not walking his talk, there's a substantive way to make the case.

But do people really need to have published a book to have an opinion about books? That's something I'm really tired of hearing everywhere. I sympathize with your frustration -- a similar fatigue overwhelms me when people who appear never to have read literary fiction enlighten us about its defects -- but at the end of the day, book people love passionately and hate passionately, and they're going to talk about it. Is it reasonable to expect them to "shut up and publish"?

amy a. said...

I like literary books and I like fluff books. There are good and bad of both. I leave some literary books shaking my head, wondering how it ever got published. There is also some quality whipped cream out there.

I leave my own writing a lot of times because I know it's not what people are going to consider quality. I'm learning. It's slow and I feel stupid, and when I read about how there's not enough quality out there I wonder if there will be a place for me. Or if I'm even right about wanting to write for publication someday.

I want to do my best, but if my best is not considered quality, where does that leave me?

Published by the sound of it, but what kind of compliment is that?

So there are the comments whipped off the top of my head. I'm interested to see how this conversation goes.

Linda L Rucker said...

I have to agree with you, but I'm afraid I am guilty of the same lapse in judgement.
I recently made a comment about what I consider to be the formulaic writing of the Harlequins authors and was quickly and politely put in my place.
I had to apologize, because as was pointed out to me, just because I don't write romances like Harlequin or read them, doesn't mean that they don't have merit and serve their purpose.
As a writer, I tend to get a bit miffed when I get a negative review of something I wrote, so how do I figure I have the right to go off on someone elses style? I don't. I can of course voice my opinion, of which I am entitled, but to put down another authors work is just really un-necessary.
I don't have to like the romances, but God knows thousands of others do and when all is said and done, the reader's is the only opinion that counts, and the one that pays the bills.

Carrie said...

Embarrassing confession first: I've never read one of your books. Actually, I've only read Christian fiction three times; one book about 13 years ago, one nearly four years ago, and one this past summer. I stumbled across your blog and I enjoy it, so I come back.

I have read many, many secular novels and decided this summer to give Christian fiction another try. The book I chose was pretty good. Since then I've bought a few second hand and haven't been able to get through them. I usually choose Pulitzer Prize winners, honestly, when I read "mainstream." The books I've bought recently are very shallow in comparison. (They were not yours.)

So, I have to agree there's some fluff out there. But I also agree with you that people read it (I have friends who do) and those who write it are giving it their all. For the very challenge you give ("YOU do better!"), I will never criticize those who write what I call fluff. And for that very reason I may never write the book I've always dreamt of writing. Not only do I not want to write fluff- and I'm not confident I could do "better"- but I wouldn't want to be criticized for my efforts.

Susan Kaye said...

Let's face it, there are days and occasions when only whipped cream will do. I have a good friend who writes what looks to be fluff, which gradually brings to your knees. Good writing is good writing, and learning to recognise and appreciate it is a skill worth aquiring.

Gad, I feel like Rodney King, pleading that we should all just get along.

cantnever said...

Fluff is in the 'eyes' of the beholder. I deplore snobbery anywhere. I personally like 'chick flicks', Christian romance, knitting books, quilt books, alot of children's and even some young adult fiction. I ahbore violence and filth in books whether others call it art or even prize winning. My husband likes Hitler bios and sub films, Doctor Who, Dirty Jobs, and Myth Busters and all kinds of things (admittedly TV) I find boring and insipid. But you know, there are so many subjects and genre flying around, who is anyone to call something fluff?

Brenda, I loved the book you wrote (FINDING HOPE) ... to me it is a classic and I will love it forever. And I do mean that. Any story that is real, alive and has heart is a winner in my book.

Who cares what others think. I like my opinion best. :o)

Brenda Coulter said...

[Mark wrote]
But do people really need to have published a book to have an opinion about books?

Absolutely not. I'm sorry if it appeared that I was suggesting that, because I don't believe it. Those who aren't published and those who don't write could share examples of books they believe hit the mark, but they're not doing that. Instead, they're joining published writers and even editors to trash entire genres and even the industry itself. I submit that dwelling on everything that's wrong is not the way to make things better. If the complainers can't lead by example, then couldn't they just point to some good examples?

Again, I don't know Mr. Cavanaugh. And I haven't read any of his books, so I was hardly making any judgment about his writing. I just pulled a couple of sentences from his post as an example of what I've been reading all over the blogisphere. (And please don't assume, friends, that I am talking only about Christian publishing.)

...at the end of the day, book people love passionately and hate passionately, and they're going to talk about it.

Certainly. And thoughtful criticism of specific books and authors is a healthy thing. My objection is to the blanket statements about "all the bad books out there."

[Linda wrote]
I recently made a comment about what I consider to be the formulaic writing of the Harlequins authors and was quickly and politely put in my place.

Hey, I write Harlequins, and I'm telling you they are written to formula. That's not to say the books are easy to write, and it doesn't mean they're all alike. But they do have quite a lot of elements in common, particularly within the various lines. Some lines have very specific requirements; for example, two fully-consummated sex scenes per book. Try giving the editor just one and see if you don't get a revision letter. "My" line, Love Inspired, buys only stories in which both the hero's and heroine's spiritual journeys are clearly depicted. Most of the Harlequin lines demand that both the hero and heroine be introduced in the first chapter; although the first page is preferred. So, yes, Harlequin authors do go through checklists of a sort when writing their novels.

To those who say that every book is the same, I say, yep, you're right. Just like every baseball game is the same (two teams, nine innings, three strikes and you're out) and every rock concert is the same (screaming guitars, laser light shows, tattooed drummers in muscle shirts).
;-)

Cantnever, thanks for the kind words.

Brenda Coulter said...

[Amy wrote] I'm learning. It's slow and I feel stupid, and when I read about how there's not enough quality out there I wonder if there will be a place for me.

Amy, there will always be writers way better than you. If you have a hunger to write, then write, and see where it goes. You can't win if you don't play.

Reese, your "confession" failed to shock me because most of the people who read my blog haven't read my books. That's partly because the books are romances and partly because they're Christian romances--and NRJW attracts a wider audience than just Christians who read romance novels. That's intentional on my part.
;-)

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL...I'll tell you what this post did to me. i got to the whipped cream line....walked to the refrigerator, squirted myself a mouthful of whipped cream from the can, grabbed a mini Reese's peanut butter cut, and a min Hersheys...and came back to read the rest.

the next thing that caught my eye was, "Do we honestly believe that some writers wake up in the morning and say to themselves, "I need money. I believe I'll write some garbage today..." Swear to God, over at Miss Snark's on the post about Thomas Nelson's new author signing policy there is a comment from an athiest who, along with his wife wrote eleven bookd for Nelson's Word line, using just about that rationale!

Oh, and about the post...one person's "whipped cream" is another person's weight gain!

Dr. Lisa said...

Well, and the other point (other than the basic yummy-ness of whipped cream) for Reese is that you aren't the writer now that you will be someday, but the only real way to be the writer you are going to be someday is to be the writer you are now, and write the best you know how now and keep looking for ways to improve.

I realize that sentence was a bit absolute and convoluted, but I am pretty convinced of this. For example, I write nonfiction; I am a scholar. I watch new scholarly writers develop all the time in my PhD students. The truth is that *most* people are technically capable of doing "better" work than they are producing, but a lot of things intervene: kids, families, blocks, other demands on your time. I can tell you without reservation that by the time I was past my dissertation by 3 years, I hoped against all hope nobody would ever read it--I was that embarrassed of it.

Now that I am on my 25th manuscript or so, I look back at those early ones and cringe. I am much better at what I do now than I was then, but I had to do that early work to get better. You bet there were people better than me then (even at the same stage I was) and there are better writers than me now. All I get is the best I got on any given day, and all I can do, or anybody can do, is to keep going on, keep sending out, keep working on your craft.

And it gives me no small comfort remember that Salman Rushdie once said he wishes he could hide behind a couch because he is so embarrased (sp?) of his first book Midnight's Children, which I think is one of most beautiful books ever written (the Booker people seem to agree). So if somebody like Rushdie feels like this, we're all pretty much in the same boat.

Brenda Coulter said...

...you aren't the writer now that you will be someday, but the only real way to be the writer you are going to be someday is to be the writer you are now, and write the best you know how now and keep looking for ways to improve.

I realize that sentence was a bit absolute and convoluted, but I am pretty convinced of this.


Me, too, Dr. Lisa.