Oh, the strange notions we hold about talent and quality.
As a kid—if you were lucky—you were encouraged to read a lot of junk. Every week, your parents would take you to the library to fetch a pile of slim paperbacks with shiny, eye-popping covers and curling, thumb-worn pages.
There were nights I’d get in bed and happily read two Piers Anthony books in a row, falling asleep an hour before dawn. I’d spend the following day nodding off in class without the faintest memory of what I’d enjoyed reading so much the night before.
(I didn’t have a bedtime, per se.)
As a parent, I understand it much more clearly now. At first, you’re worried that your children will never learn to read. You read to them every night and get them phonics workbooks and just do everything you can to get them over that hump.
Once they learn to read, you worry that they’ll never like books, and thus never climb the corporate ladder by speed-reading Peter Drucker on the commuter train in from Greenwich. So you try to get them hooked on the process of reading. You think like a drug dealer: how do I get them so addicted to reading that they can never stop? After all, I don’t want them spending every evening of their adult lives trawling Netflix for obscure reality shows. (“I learned it from watching you, Dad!”)
I know, you think to yourself. I’ll give them a taste of the good stuff. The books people like to read. The pulp.
So you feed your kids a steady diet of junk: books written in the simplest possible language telling fast-paced stories with absolutely zero friction. (I should point out that I use “junk” in the most positive sense possible. When possible, I only read junk.)
You see, friction is bad. It slows you down. Being required to catch an allusion or figure out an obscure reference or look up a tricky word or remember a key event from an earlier chapter is challenging. We’re not interested in challenging our little readers at this stage. That might make them lose interest in reading before the habit is ingrained, and we can’t have that. We want happy little addicts who can’t ever get enough books.
So our kids read a ton of pulp—and they love it. Then, somewhere around middle school or high school, a shift occurs. It’s time for them to read “good” books. The English teacher says, “This year we’re reading a ‘classic’: Lord of the Flies, or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or To Kill a Mockingbird. Then we’re going to Discuss All the Important Issues raised by these genius authors who, by the way, were uniformly brilliant and emotionally tortured and one day just sat down with a quill and a glass of whiskey and wrote these masterpieces word-for-word as you see them before you.”
These English-class books aren’t Ulysses, but they aren’t Goosebumps or Baby-Sitters Club either. Dictionaries may be required. There’s friction.
Meanwhile, grown-ups give kids the insidious message that those other books, the kinds of books they still love reading and are maybe even trying to write themselves, aren’t bad—they aren’t real books in the first place.
The harder it is to get through a book, everyone tells them, the more the book counts.
That’s the quality heuristic of the middlebrow high school English teacher: reading difficulty. Reading is redefined as bitter but ultimately rewarding medicine.
Then college happens. There lies the apotheosis of this toxic dynamic: academic writing. ( Apotheosis: The kind of word you only see in the realest books.)
At that point, fuggedaboutit. Do you want to know what’s wrong with academic writing? Two words: Judith Butler. She’s the philosopher and gender theorist I can thank for introducing me to the word “pre-discursive.”
In college you learn that real books aren’t read, they’re assaulted. You need a plan of attack, adequate supplies, and an escape route. Real books are not for the faint of heart. Their authors will beat the crap out of you with words. If you understand a book in one go, well then any idiot could have read it. Why even bother?
The funny thing is, the truly great classics aren’t hard to read because they’re good or real or literature or art. They’re hard to read because they’re old (or someone translated them and the translation as old). That’s it. They were never supposed to be hard to read.
Shakespeare was the J.K. Rowling of 16th-century England. Very few of the illiterate groundlings standing on rushes in the pit had yet earned their master’s degrees in post-structuralist philosophy. Yet none struggled to understand the dialogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or follow the action in Macbeth. Today, parsing Shakespeare takes effort, but don’t blame Edward de Vere.
(Fake news. Sad.)
When you brandish your copy of Dostoevsky or Fitzgerald on the subway to impress people with your literary acumen, it’s like wearing a clip-on bow tie to a job interview. You might as well be reading Stephen King or James Patterson. It’s still pop culture, dude—just old pop culture. Doesn’t mean it’s not good, but you can stop congratulating yourself. If you’re not enjoying The Sun Also Rises, feel free to go back to playing Candy Crush on your iPhone. I won’t judge you. (I will.)
All of this is to point out just one of the many false and destructive beliefs around quality, art, literature, and cultural significance that are probably holding you back as a writer.
In our desire to be “real” writers of “real” books we scorn the work of today’s popular authors and strain to imitate the style, working methods, and lives of popular authors of previous eras and other languages. It doesn’t matter how successful we become; we never stop trying to please our high school English teachers.
To me, it’s as sad as the self-proclaimed cinephile who smugly skips the Hollywood blockbuster to see the Oscar-nominated foreign film representing another country’s desperate attempt to re-do Knocked Up with the local equivalent of Katherine Heigl.
“Hey, it’s got subtitles. It must be art.”
If you think you’re Pauline Kael because you liked The Artist, pack it up and go back to your hometown. You’re done with the Big City and the Big City is done with you.
Plus, that handsome guy you liked in high school is busy fixing your parents’ dishwasher at the moment you return home. Not because he fixes dishwashers for a living; Tex is just a good-hearted guy with excellent repair skills. You’ll get into a cute fight about something because you’re still uptight from living in the city too long, then you’ll get over it by baking cookies together for a charity fundraiser. Spill some flour, get in a flour fight, fall in love, return to the city, realize you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life, then go home for good and marry Tex like you should have back in high school.
(Lifetime movies are a good example of junk in the positive sense. The previous paragraph, by the way, represents a complete masterclass in writing a Lifetime script. You’re welcome.)
Listen: You are writing in the English of 2017 for readers of the English of 2017. Be clear. Be compelling. Respect your reader’s time. Do the best you can to write what they want to read and then go write something else.
If you’re lucky, one day a hundred years from now, students will dread reading your book, too.