Plastics, Benjamin! Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-08-26 14:00:00 No comments

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Such was the advice for success given to the young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. I mentioned before a best-selling SF&F author (I won't name him here) who has given writer's advice of the same flavor, and which in the end was indistinguishable from marketer's advice.

Among them was something that amounted to "don't be literary" -- use small words, words that everyone knows, so others will want to read you. It's difficult to dismiss the immediate flush of annoyance -- no, disgust -- that I felt when reading that.

Okay, sure -- you write to be read, and you write for the audience that's likely to read you. But there's no mistaking the reek of anti-intellectualism there, not least of all because it's not the length of one's words that make what you write literature, but the insight and the perspective behind them. (See: Hemingway.)

What's more, such advice is a slap in the face to the impulse that drives many people to become a writer in the first place. The power of words is what swept us up, and what compels us to sweep others up as well -- and yes, you can do that without being pretentious. Telling a writer not to be literary is tantamount to telling a musician not to be musical.

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Granted, you want to tell stories that cry out to be read, and that in fact was his next big point: learn how to manipuate people's feelings on paper, and use that to get people in the door. The problem, of course, is that people can be very easily manipulated in shameless and shallow ways, and that it's too easy not to know when you're doing that yourself to the ultimate detriment of your work. The fact that a work of art can manipulate you, and probably should to some degree, doesn't mean that all such emotional manipulation gets a free pass. Worlds of difference lie between the manipulation of, say, Kurosawa's Ikiru and the manipulation of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.

I know too well how easy it is to produce the kind of emotional manipulation that many other people lap up but which I myself despise. If I have to choose between writing something "popular" which I'd have only contempt for, and an unpopular work I felt genuinely proud of, I wouldn't blink before choosing #2.

The reason we assume the commercially-successful way to do something is the right way is because money and attention are their own validation, at least in the short run. But given how the history of publishing is littered with books that sold like crazy in their age and which have since become footnotes of footnotes, I'm not sure why we still believe this canard. Fifty million Elvis fans can be very wrong indeed.

Tags: advice creativity storytelling writers writing