Danny Adams (madwriter) wrote,
Danny Adams

In Which Madwriter Rants About The "Value" Of Stories

There appears to have been a blossoming lately, or should I say an explosion, of posts / essays / op-ed pieces these past couple of months by authors who are complaining that they're reading too many stories with nothing to say and which possess no lasting value. (Their words, not mine.) The kind of essays that put us squarely into the danger zone of taking ourselves too seriously. The ilk that usually conclude with a variation of "The best thing these writers can do is to stop writing".

I say that the best thing that could happen is for these complainers to stop editorializing.

First of all, I'm a little baffled at what their definition of "having something to say" could be. Or as they said back when I was in high school, "Say what?" I'm assuming the targets of these essays already believe they have something to say with their story or they wouldn't be writing it. At least, this is the way I work. This doesn't mean every story boasts a Grand Statement--nor should it. But that's what some of these complainers seem to insist is what we need. Nevertheless, they may also be among the first in line to complain about Orson Scott Card's new novel about presidential assassinations and left-wing militia takeovers of New York City, which has a great deal to say.

The next nebulous complaint is that these stories "aren't worth reading". Oftentimes what this boils down to is taste trying to pass itself off as incontrovertible fact. Margaret Atwood may think a lot of specfic is "talking squids in space"; many others believe Atwood herself is about as appetizing as a squid that's been simmering on the beach under the summer sun for a couple of days. Harlan Ellison was one of the first genre writers to say things along the lines of "The best thing certain writers could do is to stop writing", but I've known plenty of readers who think Ellison's angry candy is a rock in the gut. I personally don't think most of what I've seen in The New Yorker is particularly clever or cunning, while readers of that magazine undoubtedly would consider the Appalachian works I love to be raggedly hillbilly. If you don't think it's worth reading then don't read it--but do please stop short of telling someone to quit writing, unless you're afraid of future competition.

Then inevitably we come to the third complaint, which is some variation along the theme of "This person is just a bad writer". Maybe so, but if the writer is persistent enough I doubt the dearth of skill will remain a permanent condition. I'm glad, for example, that nobody told Robert Silverberg to just stop writing when he was knocking out rushed pulp in the 1950's. I'm glad that Robert A. Heinlein didn't worry too much about his first novel, For Us, the Living, being clumsy foofrah. Theodore Sturgeon may have secretly feared that 90% of his own work was crap. The Bronte sisters didn't let the amateurish quality of their juvenalia deter them from novel-writing when their skills matured.

The annals of literature are filled with stories of major authors who collected enough nasty rejection slips to build a redwood forest.

And no doubt these complainers wrote crap when they first started writing too. They didn't listen to complainers then--so why should anyone listen to their bellyaching now?

Finally, and most perplexing of all, the most over-the-top complainers gripe that if you're going to write, you should pen something for the ages. That was the honest to goodness phrase someone actually used, though many others had something similar. They point out that books hitting the bestseller lists in decades past have slipped with their authors into obscurity.

What exactly does that mean, "For the ages"? More to the point, have the complainers jealousy squirreled away some kind of formula (or secret handshake) they use to determine to determine if their stories will be read in 100 years? Because if not, they need to hush up with such purple prose phrases. Nobody knows whether their story or book is going to be read years from now--or next year, for that matter. If they claim otherwise they're either lying or also spend their time walking around with their hands stuck in their shirts telling people their name is Napoleon.

In fact, instead of waiting for one of these complainers to provide this magical formula of future literary determination, I decided to work out one of my own. Here it is:

N = N* Fp Ne Fl Fi Fc FL

Look familiar? It should, because it's the same formula as the Drake Equation: the calculation to figure out how many intelligent and communicating civilizations are out there in the universe. This is no coincedence; the Drake Equation is ubiquitously incalculable because it contains so many variables, and likewise, whether or not your work is going to appeal to our great-grandchildren is similarly vague.

But my formula does include some solid factors you can plug into your writing work. They boil down to this: What new writers need to remember is that writing is hard work, is 90% persistence (and the remaining 10% usually is indirectly related to persistence), and that they should not even daydream about trying to publish a story that isn't the best they can make it.

The complainers who are telling other would-be authors to stop writing are angry. I don't know what they're angry about, precisely, but I can see their florid cheeks between every line.

Oh, yes, and another piece of advice to the aspiring writers: If anyone tells you to stop writing, just reply to the naysayers, "Why don't you?"
Tags: publishing, writing

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