Random shit on Wednesday

I am a little over a week into a two year pursuit of a graduate degree in creative writing.  I have been binging and purging words like a motherfucker.  (yes, I know that simile makes no sense).  I assume it will make me a better writer.  It’s a good program with amazing faculty.  In the end I’ll have a book I’ll hopefully be proud of and, equally hopefully, someone will want to publish.  In the interim, it is already forcing me to put fingers on keyboard and churn.  As is my nature, I go back to the words on the page and obsess, but I keep churning.  The pressure of a deadline and a faculty review looms.  Perhaps equally motivating to my inherent capitalism, I’m paying a boatload of money and won’t waste it because I didn’t produce enough.  Amid the churning, binging and purging of words, perhaps I’ll find an ember.

I recently read a blog reviewing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I admit I have not read the book.  I did pick it up in a bookstore, glance through it and say, “nah”.  The blog pretty much ripped it a new asshole.  It got me thinking about the concept of “good” and how it is defined.  That book has sold a bzillion copies.  All those readers did not read it because it was bad; at least by their definition.  I am in an MFA program.  I obviously want my writing to be “good”.  Yet, mechanics, craft and elitist views aside, that book, or the Twilight series or the DaVinci Code do something spectacularly well that is outside the accepted realm of criticism.  It can’t be easy or everyone would replicate whatever that “it” is. 

I found analogy in a hotel.  I have a long, successful and acclaimed career in the hotel industry.  That is to say, I know a lot about them, how they work, and the outcomes they produce.  I recently spent a few days in residency for my grad program at an old hotel in the mountains of New Hampshire.  I use “old”.  The hotel used “historic”.  It is a very old building full of stories, I’ll grant, but old describes the cheap, worn carpet in the corridors, the even cheaper casegoods in the rooms that one will find in half the Holiday Inns in America, and the outdated plumbing system.  Inoperable plumbing is not the price of history; nor is it charming.  It is a poor maintenance effort.

While I found fault with everything from the heavy handed sauces applied to over cooked proteins to the banquet chairs that were stained with god knows what to the ridiculous turn down service meant to, smoke and mirrors style, hide the fact that they didn’t actually clean my room, most of my colleagues were delighted with the place.  I would emphasize I was not there to find fault with that hotel.  I get paid to do that, and I try to apply a willing suspension of disbelief to my leisure hotel experiences.

So, as a somewhat hotel expert, I was disappointed by a property that my well educated and traveled writing peers found wonderful.  What components made them conclude it was “good”?  Why does the casual reader flock to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when the trained reader mocks it?  What is that part of “good” in any realm that the experts disregard?

I don’t know the answers.  I’m just puking out words.  Time to go puke some more words into my manuscript.

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11 Responses to Random shit on Wednesday

  1. Kimberly says:

    Twilight was “good” because the author understood the mentality of teenage girls as well as unhappily married twenty/thirty/and even (god help us) forty something women. There are more descriptions of Edwards than a normal person can stomach- his perfect hair, his perfect eyes…ad nauseum. But there are almost no descriptions whatsoever about Belle (or is it Bella, I honestly don’t know). She is faceless, nondescript, and could be anybody…for a young or unhappy woman that translates into she can be YOU. The author discovered the perfect recipe for allowing women to step right into the roll of heroine unchallenged and with little to no obstructions. This equaled mass appeal to all women in the throes of (insert age appropriate adjective) angst. It is escapist reading in its purest (and lowest) form.

  2. D.R. Leo says:

    So a brilliant execution of one element can overcome other flaws? Fuck! I have to go re-write my essay that argues all artistic elements must be executed equally well or the whole fails.

    • Kimberly says:

      Remember her target audience though! Young girls (the same young girls who like Justin Beiber) and women who felt like there was little to no romance in their lives (and probably also like Justin Beiber). I read a few chapters of Twilight and I would have flunked out of Freshman Composition with Ms. Kuchta as my drill sergeant….um, I meant “instructor,” if I would have turned that in, much less an MFA program. For YOUR target audience your argument is valid.

  3. Kelly Gamble says:

    The hotel was an escape also. I think in current literature, the small attention spans of readers plays a big role. The Twilight books, for example, are a lot of words but they are written very simply. So is the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and all of her sister books. Additionally, writers tend to have read a lot of “classics” and try, at times, to imitate. Take Anna Karenina, for example, a zillion pages long, a lot of description. We don’t need all of that now, we know what a ballroom looks like, even if we’ve never been to one. Just tell us it’s a ballroom. So when a writer over-describes, it is boring to the reader. We also have other things to keep us occupied these days, so a book that goes into too much detail interferes with our facebook time.

    • Tamika says:

      Exactly. I would rather have someone tweeze my pubic area slowly than read Anna Karenina. I’ve tried several times, but I had to stop because of the suicidal thoughts I was experiencing.

  4. Tom Scoville says:

    Some random thoughts on the qualities that make up ‘good’:
    As a fellow hotelier, I’m just as befuddled as you are about what makes one person’s experience outstanding, while another person’s is dismal. I do have an insight that may cast some light on it though. Once you learn the secret behind a magic trick, the magician’s performance loses all its luster. You can find yourself paying more attention to the tattered tuxedo, the tarnished top hat, and the matted hair on the rabbit than on the performance itself. Of course YOU know that the stains on the banquet chairs are unacceptable, but you are no longer an impartial observer and your experience is markedly different from that of your colleagues because of the education and knowledge you bring to the table (no pun intended). They are having an experience relative to the circumstance with all its attendant camaraderie and celebration, while your experience is tainted, or at least muted, by your observance of the flaws in the environment. The rabbit is out of the hat and you’re yawning while the rest of the crowd applauds.
    What makes a book ‘good’ is something entirely different. I don’t think writers are as critical about other writers as hotel operators are about hotel operations. During my tenure as a bookstore manager, I had access to an abundance of literature, but found that I needed to set some kind of standard to keep myself from reading everything that made it to a bestseller list. What I came away with was a rather arbitrary combination of longevity (will it still be in print 20 years from now?), the author’s previous work (if known to me), and comparisons to other works. I don’t always adhere to those standards, but it did spur me to read almost everything written by the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, Dickens, Dorothy Sayers, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, C.S. Lewis, and A.E. Maxwell. I lump Maxwell in with all of those literary luminaries because man cannot live by classics alone and because I found the books wonderfully intriguing and entertaining. I’m still hoping for movies to be made of them.
    A book that sells well is not necessarily good, and a book that is good does not necessarily sell well. For example, I greatly enjoyed your book but have yet to see it on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s their loss, I assure you.

  5. Tamika says:

    I actually completely disagree with Kimberly’s assessment.

    The author of Twilight wrote something that was uncomplicated and completely enjoyable (a la Hershey’s chocolate vs. Swiss chocolate and Old School rap vs. Jazz) from her very innocent perspective, which translated into a book that was readable by many who were disinterested in overly written, esoteric diatribes on relationships (fiction and nonfiction/amorous and platonic). It was like candy–a guilty pleasure–that was enjoyed by the masses. The masses sell books. Teenage girls, adult women and gay men of all ages loved the series, and I don’t believe it had anything more to do with them being unhappy in their lives. At least from my perspective as an educated reader and writer who is completely content single (and was equally content while in my relationship at the time of reading) as were many friends who also read it (both of my diva sisters, who are in equally well educated and in happy relationships), I read books that allowed for the same escape as ice cream. You know it’s bad for you, but what the hell? What’s the point of over-analyzing and pontificating on every little detail of life anyway? At the end of the day, what has said pontificating changed? Seriously, if every moment was meant to be serious and scrutinized, tequila would have never been invented. I think what the author understood is that not every reader wants to take an emotional journey into the psyche of author. Some just want to read an 800 page book in 2 days because they can and it’s interesting enough, yet simple enough to do. Truly, the only difference between Twilight and Harry Potter is the fans. At the end of the day, they’re juvenile fantasy books that people enjoy for the escape.

    All that said, are you capable of writing a book that allows a reader to escape from his or her life? I don’t know. I suspect it depends on what kind of escape a person is looking for. What I know for sure is that the most successful books have told stories that either resonated with the reader, reflected an untold, retold, or re-imagined history, or allowed readers to escape. My bet is that if you write a book that falls into one of those categories, it’ll be picked up by the masses and be considered “great” by someone.

  6. Rob Greene says:

    I read a lot, easily four books a week during the summer, but I’m the first to admit a lot of it is fairly low-brow: Jim Butcher’s stuff, Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard. It’s all well-written, that’s my common denominator, but it doesn’t take a scholar to get from page to page. I’ve always thought Will Shakespeare would have loved “Friends.”
    I read all four of the Twilight books, as a high-school teacher I was hearing a lot about them and I like to keep my finger on the pulse. Sometimes it works great (Arctic Monkeys), sometimes it does not (Twilight). Meyer is not a strong writer by any measure but she hit on a theme that worked. Bella is a horrible, weak-willed character that I wouldn’t want my son to date or my daughter to be, but something about her spoke to millions. (I didn’t like Holden Caulfield, either, but at least there was some there there.)
    If Twilight got more people reading, great; I’ll give Meyer a nod. However, I suspect it didn’t. I suspect you got a lot of people who pounded through those books because they were easy and sweet, and haven’t opened another book since. (I work in a high school; I’ve seen this.) Studies have shown the same was true for Harry Potter. The world was wild about that guy, but the wildness didn’t create a generation of bibliophiles. “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” (read it) was a better written than Twilight but it struck a similar not-so-lettered vein in the story-loving public. I give the author a little credit because he croaked and might have gotten a revision or two in had he not.
    Literature is getting dumber and lazier as we are. “Fahrenheit 451” predicted we’d only be reading comic books right about now. Oh, wait, we .

  7. Jerri says:

    A good hotel is one that supplies a comfortable room for MFAers to party in well past the 11:00 rule. The management would kick out a fat guy with no shirt before they would ask the writers to pipe down and take their duffle bag of drinks to their rooms.

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