Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On cheeseburgers and book snobs

I saw this in The Guardian's Books Blog a couple of weeks ago, but haven't had time to blog about it until now. Under the title, "Live first, write later" comes this subheading: Bookshops are littered with underdeveloped work by young authors. It takes a mature novelist to write a masterpiece.

Wow. Surely no reasonable person would suggest that bookstores should peddle only masterpieces. But the post begins:

Should all novelists under 30 be banned from publication? That might sound a bit extreme or even absurd, but let's dig a little deeper. How do you begin to validate such an outrageous proposition? For starters, consider these authors: James Joyce, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Richard Brautigan, Knut Hamsun, Sherwood Anderson and Mark SaFranko. The later work of all these writers is undeniably superior as it is more rounded and contains greater emotional depth.

Most writers take years to get to grips with their chosen craft. And to produce anything of literary worth, they need to have lived a little, taken jobs, travelled, had a series of love affairs, shot a man in Reno. How can you write about life if you haven't even lived it?

It continues in the same obnoxious vein: authors have no business writing, publishers have no business buying, and booksellers have no business peddling books that are not masterpieces. Take a look at this conclusion:

Ultimately, publishers and marketing folk have to take some responsibility for this systematic denigration of our precious culture. Brilliant writers will be lost forever, and publishing young, not-yet-ready authors and hyping them into oblivion does the writers themselves few favours. Where do they go from there? If they are told they are good when they've yet to develop, how can they judge the validity of everything they do afterwards?

Maybe banning all novelists under 30 is a fanciful idea, but if publishers used this awkward notion as some sort of yardstick, our bookshelves might contain a good deal more than just pretty covers, pretty pictures and problematic prose.

Is this guy serious? Does he really believe a book isn't worth reading unless it's a masterpiece? (And whose definition of "masterpiece" is he using, anyway?)

I enjoy fine dining, and have had some meals in five-star restaurants that I've talked about for weeks afterward. But last week I had a really good cheeseburger from Wendy's. The beef was juicy, the lettuce was fresh and plentiful, the onions were sweet and crisp. It was good. Just because it was cheap, easy to obtain, served up quickly, and pretty much forgotten an hour later doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it from first bite to last.

I've read books that were almost as easily forgotten as that cheeseburger--but while reading them, I enjoyed myself immensely. They were, emphatically, not masterpieces, but they had value to me, at least for a time, and I like to think that made them worth writing, worth publishing, and worth the space they once took up on bookstore shelves.

That's why I'm not offended when people criticize my books or make derogatory statements about the genre I write in. Tell me my latest book is not a masterpiece and I'll heartily agree; while I have some small talent, I'll never be a great romance writer. But tell me my book is not worth the paper it's printed on and I won't be crushed because I simply won't believe you. Tell me you hated my book and I won't question the quality of my writing, I'll just wonder what's wrong with you.

An author doesn't write for publication unless she feels she has something to offer the world. Publishers don't buy books unless they believe readers will want them. Bookstores don't stock books unless they have a pretty good idea the things will sell. Admittedly, most published novels don't even approach greatness. But many of them are good. To maintain that such "non-masterpiece" books should never have been written because the authors weren't (or weren't yet) capable of producing "gourmet" fare is just plain dumb.


Marianne McA said...

It's a fabulous party game, anyway.
Few minutes on Wikipedia -
Mary Shelley was 21 when she wrote Frankenstein,
Emily Bronte 29 when she wrote Wuthering Heights,
and Charles Dickens wrote Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby & The Old Curiosity Shop before he turned thirty.

Therese said...

Brenda, I happen to think you're a great romance writer, an example I aspire to emulate. I loved your latest book, I loved Sam, I loved your portrayal of his reading disability (my dh and all 4 children have some form of reading/learning diability, and you hit it spot on!) I consider all your books masterpieces, and keepers as well. Don't EVER stop. I'm really glad publishers don't stoop to such intellesctual censorship.

Lisa Jordan said...

The arrogance of some people continues to amaze me. Who decides what book is a masterpiece and which one isn't? Reading is subjective. There are books that others have raved about and I couldn't get through the first chapter. Reading is an escape to me and I've gained new authors because their books have changed my life. So, again, I ask--who decides what's a masterpiece? Great post, Brenda. :-)

Timothy Fish said...

I will be the first to admit that my writing now is much different than it was when I was a teenager and it will probably be different years from now than what it is now. When I was a teenager, I had this notion that church growth and the worship style were somehow tied to gather. I said as much in some of my writing. Experience has taught me some things on the subject that I did not know then. I still think churches need to get young people involved more, but we need to be careful that we do not forget the older people. There are things that I wish I could take back, but at the time I was writing from a perspective that I do not have now. At the time, I was a teenager who wanted to see things happen and yet I felt helpless to foster change. Now I still want things to happen, but I am in a better position to motivate change. I believe that there are some things that younger writers can tell us that older writers cannot.

Laura Vivanco said...

The beef was juicy, the lettuce was fresh and plentiful, the onions were sweet and crisp. It was good. [...]

I've read books that were almost as easily forgotten as that cheeseburger

Except that you didn't really forget that cheeseburger, did you? You've posted about it, and as I read your post, I your enjoyment of the cheeseburger came across very clearly.

I think some cheeseburgers can be masterpieces (well, actually, I don't think I've ever eaten a cheeseburger), but my point is that it isn't the genre in which a novel is written which determines its quality, it's how the author uses the genre's conventions and/or pushes the boundaries of the genre in order to make the writing crisp, fresh and juicy.

Brenda Coulter said...

Well said, Laura. As always.

[Timothy wrote] There are things that I wish I could take back, but at the time I was writing from a perspective that I do not have now.

Yes, exactly. Young people have much to offer us. At 51, I can barely remember what it was like to be 25. What did I dream about? What did I care about? I don't like that my focus has become so narrow, so writing by passionate, articulate young people interests me a great deal.

Therese, thanks for the kind words. Marianne and Lisa, thanks for speaking up.

Anonymous said...

A person could just begin writing at 50 and be more inexperienced with the craft as somebody else at 25 if they'd been writing all of their life. What silly rules!

sherwoodfan said...

That's totally insane, and of course just the ramblings of some frustrated author.

Joyce's work, for instance, is considered all the more brilliant when one considers from whence he came.

IM Cupnjava said...

Excuse me, where do sci-fi/fantasy writers go to get experience? I guess I'll have to be turned into a vampire to undertand the need to feed. I probably should travel through a wormhole before I put in THAT scene.

Of course...I could just use my imagination and creativity.

Why is 30 the magical age in that article? At 32, I really do hope I have more living and growing to do as a writer.

Brenda Coulter said...

I guess I'll have to be turned into a vampire to undertand the need to feed.

Guess so.