When I was in high school (about a hundred years ago) I was forced against my will to read many of the “classics” of American literature. Unlike most of my friends at the time, I loved reading, but like most high school students of any era, I hated being required to read books that I never would have picked up on my own. One book that caused me more irritation than most was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
I distinctly recall having heated verbal arguments with my English teacher along the following lines:
Me: “So, ahhh… why are we reading this again?”
Mrs. W: “It’s a classic of American Literature.”
Me: “Says who?” (My prowess in the art of debate showing early signs of greatness)
Mrs. W: “Hemingway was a Nobel Prize Winner.”
Me: “For this?!? This is garbage!”
Mrs. W: “Be quiet and read it, young man.”
Me: “What for? You know as well as I do that if I turned in a paper written like this, you’d fail me. Wouldn’t you? Admit it, Mrs W!”
Mrs. W: (Turning red and developing a facial tic )”Would you like to take this up with the principal?”
Me: “Not really. I’d just like you to tell me why I have to read a book that you’d give me an F on if I wrote it, but since somebody else claims it’s a classic, that makes it great writing.”
Mrs. W: “GO TO THE OFFICE!!”
Since that year, I’ve always had a hard time jumping aboard critically acclaimed bandwagons, whether they involve literature, music or films. If critics give a book or movie widespread, breathless acclaim, I tend to regard that book or movie with a healthy dose of skepticism. I suspect that critical acclaim is often driven more by what the individual critics like, rather than what they reasonably expect me or other consumers in the real world to like.
This brings me to my question. What is it that makes great writing, music, art, drama or comedy? I’m convinced that greatness is, as the adage about beauty goes, in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Whether or not something is great may be measured by critical opinion, or by the response it garners from its audience – but even those metrics are still highly subjective, and therefore not necessarily universal – so which is more important?
The traditional publishing world has a sneeringly derogatory view of self-published and indie authors as unprofessional and amateurish. Reasons for this often include poor editing, sloppy dialogue and senseless plot lines – critiques that are sometimes (but certainly not always) accurate. But the trad publishing world never seems overly concerned about the terrible habits of the so-called literary giants it regularly promotes and foists upon readers.
Take Hemingway, for example. Anyone who has ever read his writing can attest that the man had a distinctly recognizable writing style. There is no doubt that his work was critically acclaimed, and while many argue that he was a tragic genius and an unparalleled literary master, I respectfully disagree.
Let’s not mince words here. I hate Hemingway’s writing.
There. I said it.
The emperor has no clothes.
I realize that this opinion is, to the literary world, akin to claiming that Mother Teresa was selfish or that Ghandi was a bully, but stay with me here. If the knock on indie authors is their sloppy editing, improper grammar, terrible syntax or rambling plots, then the same critique must apply to so-called greats like Hemingway. When we apply that scrutiny equally, Hemingway comes up looking just as sloppy and rambling as many of the indie authors the trad publishing world so dearly loves to hate.
Hemingway’s writing, despite its critical acclaim, is a collection of the worst run-on sentences and syntactical sins ever to be inflicted on readers in modern times. Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road, All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men, has a similar style. Both authors shun punctuation in favor of the stylistic employment of polysyndeton, or the replacement of commas and periods with rapid successions of conjunctions in the same sentence. Stylistic gimmickry such as this may appeal to beret-wearing art house literary critics who have their silk cravats torqued a little too tight, but that doesn’t make it good writing. The critics may love these gimmicks, but the ultimate measure of an author’s success is NOT critical acclaim – it is reader satisfaction.
Good writing, as described to me by my mom (who patiently taught me to read and write at a young age), is writing that sounds like natural conversation. She taught me that when reading aloud, I should “read it like you would say it,” or in other words, as the reader, I should verbalize the writing effortlessly.
I’ll expand mom’s rule of reading aloud and apply it to writing: Good writing should inherently lend itself to verbalization without a hitch. The reader should not have to struggle to believe that the characters would actually speak, think or act as the writer depicts them. If the writing is so full of gimmicks or quirks that readers can’t hear the story comfortably in their own voice, they’ll use the book as a doorstop and move on to something else.
I am seriously obsessive-compulsive about reading (among other things). When I was little, I would sit at the breakfast table and force myself to read every word on the cereal box before finishing breakfast. I hated leaving anything unread, and for the most part, I still do. So for me, abandoning a book midstream is not something I take lightly, and is ultimately a serious critique of the author.
I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve quit reading before I finished them. If not for the homework requirement in high school, The Old Man and the Sea would have topped that short list. I made it about twenty pages into The Road before I wanted to bash my head against a wall in frustration at McCarthy’s endless run-on sentences and absence of coherent punctuation. Neither author’s writing lends itself to being easily or enjoyably read – which makes them, in spite of their critical success, failures as instruments of entertainment, enrichment or enjoyment.
If you are or aspire to be an indie or self-published author, don’t waste your time hoping to please a few literary critics. Focus on entertaining, enriching or informing your particular audience. Stay away from gimmicks and the latest literary fads, and stick to solid writing. Work on your grammar, dialogue and plot – and don’t settle for good enough just to rush something into publication. Critical acclaim may draw some attention while stroking your ego, but acclaim from actual readers is a much better and more realistic indicator of success.
What are your pet peeves in writing? Do you prefer style, or substance? Do you listen to critics, or to your target audience?