Having read The Help recently and about one-third so far of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I’ve been thinking about books on the bestsellers list. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the poor quality of the writing in books on the bestsellers list.
Or perhaps that’s too harsh. At the very least, it requires some clarification.
Both of these bestsellers deal with really great subjects. They give voice to those who are underrepresented in literature and in history. But they’re not great works of literature. The language isn’t lyrical, the characters not deep or nuanced. I don’t miss the fictional world the author has created when I close the book. I just want to get through it because I’ve got Book Club and want to be able to discuss the book.
These books are first novels, through and through. They’re clumsy and amateurish. They have internal inconsistencies. But clearly, since they’re bestsellers, the public aren’t looking for lyrical, polished prose. They’re looking for a story.
This isn’t really a surprise to me. Until I got to college-level courses, the focus was always on reading comprehension rather than on enjoying a book or critiquing the methods the author used or exploring the book’s historical and cultural context. People (Americans at least) aren’t being taught to enjoy books. They’re being taught to get information out of books.
This might also be why those who want to appear more erudite get their panties all in a bunch about a split infinitive or use of the wrong “there” or “it’s”. What did we see most of on our school papers? Was it a back-and-forth discussion about the thoughts we had about a novel, story, or poem? Sometimes. But usually it was copy editing marks in red pen and a grade at the end. If our teachers cared mostly about grammatical errors, it makes sense that we, trying to emulate them and appear learned (or at least superior) ourselves, would focus our attention and scrutiny on such mundanities as well.
(I don’t want to give the impression that I’m lambasting teachers. Most teachers I know are bored to tears with this focus on petty details, too. They would love to discuss books with their students. But with their workload and the focus on grades and test scores, when are they supposed to do that?)
Aside from creating a bunch of pedants, the other problem I see with this focus on grammar over content is that it really squelches creativity.
I find it a bit surprising that I’m not 100% on the side of grammar. I have been for many years a pedant myself. I was one of those jerks who’d copy edit a menu and stop someone mid-thought to correct them. I love grammar. I love rules. I believe that you must learn the rules so you know the “proper” way to communicate, as written language is ultimately a way of communicating ideas from one person to the next.
I’ve found that I’ve internalized the rules to such an extent and become so afraid of breaking one of them, I can’t even get words on the paper without criticizing my grammar at every turn. How can a person be creative with that constant internal chatter about punctuation and whether it ought to be “lie” or “lay” in this context?
Recent research (as heard on some NPR show I can’t find now) suggests that when we read a piece of writing, our brain function mirrors that of the author as she was writing it. We essentially get inside the writer’s mind when we read. This explains why some novels transport me, put me into an altered state, and others that just leave me walking along at the periphery. If an author isn’t transported by her writing, her readers can’t be, either. And if the author is distracted by her inner critic, she’s not being transported.
This is one of the things I like about frequent blogging and one of the things I like about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It encourages me to write too fast for my critic to keep up. It encourages me to let my passion take the driver’s seat and turn off the GPS.
Yes, this means I write a lot of rambling crap. But crappy writing and blogging are practically synonymous. If I were writing an informative, journalistic blog, I might worry more. But really, am I going to alienate my 42 subscribers if I write something idiotic? The fact that I haven’t lost them yet would suggest that they are inalienable because I know at least 72% of my posts are completely stupid, and the rest are just boring.
Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated talks about the idea that every great achievement follows at least 10 years of deliberate practice. From Mozart to Michael Jordan, you don’t become great without years of slogging through, composing something no one wants to listen to or missing innumerable baskets, always trying to perform just beyond your present skill level. You can’t skip ahead. You have to practice if you’re going to be great.
And that practice is not pretty.
I’m going to be doing NaNoWriMo again this year. It will be more difficult because we still haven’t found a sitter here, which means I’ll have to write in the evenings and when I can steal time from my kids during the day. But I’m going to do it. I need the practice. I may never be a great writer (or even a published writer, which is not the same thing), but if I don’t write, I won’t even be a writer.
And no, you don’t get to read my novel. Until it becomes a bestseller.
This post was inspired by NaBloWriYe by Daryl L. L. Houston at WordPress’s The Daily Post.