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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

On a Tall Horse, Looking at the Horizon

I was engaged in a short (for me) but bitter (for some commentators) dialogue on LinkedIn two weeks ago that, at once, encouraged me to drop that group (The Writer’s Guild) and come to understand what I believe about writing.

The discussion began with my string “If You Have a Thick Skin, You Might Want to be a Writer” for which I included the edgy, and intentionally provocative question, “Do too many people think they can write books? (I mean GOOD books…)”.

To make a long story short, the majority of posts took exception to my making myself some paragon of good taste, which I had not, only posed that question. People got nasty, said I was a snob, said I didn’t have the right to say what was “good writing” — or what was not. They said, as a major block of like-minded voices, anybody who finished of book, or story, or … anything … was a good writer and that — their reasons never extended as far as explanation — no one could tell them their writing was BAD WRITING.

To me these people sounded like amazingly stupid interlopers onto my turf. Yes, some of them had written books. Yes, some of them have been professional journalists for years. Yes, some have even “sold lots of books” and got “great reviews” on Amazon. But all of this really doesn’t mean anything, because unless you can make statements about WHY a book is good or bad, and WHY writing lacks everything needed to tell a story, and WHY the sales figures for books merely computers units sold, then you cannot be considered a reasonable judge of literature, of quality, or even literary taste.

I believe this because there must be some standards placed on GOOD, GREAT, BAD, OKAY, and AWFUL. “If you don’t know it, you can’t be taught it,” is not a fair statement about judging literature, because the teaching of standards is no less possible than the teaching of speaking or reading a language. Both have rules, and there have always been rules about what is literature and what is genre fiction — at least until the advent of Amazon publishing, and those writer manqués with thin skins who like to spout off. Listen: just because people say something over and over (“any book is good, who are you to question that?”) doesn’t make it true.

As an egalitarian micro-society, Amazon publishing lives up only to Robespierre and his blood-soaked henchmen. Their indictment of French society and opening the gates of prisons and letting loose the “freedoms of man” only served to, finally, murder a lot of people. This is what happens when you put the mob in control of government, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, and even taste.

“Fifty Shades of Gray” isn’t so bad!

Yes it is, and here’s why: the sentence structure is B-class; its imagery is pedestrian or not there at all; its dialogue is fatuous; the scenes are repetitive; the characters are lifeless (this, for a sex-laden story!); and its sex scenes are ridiculous and highly un-erotic. These aren’t merely opinion, or a matter of taste. If you like these books, like them for the story, if there actually is one there, but don’t claim the writing is what grips you.

Have books been dummed-down so much that most people don’t know the difference between good and bad? And that good and bad is NOT a matter of taste? That most best sellers are not good simply by virtue of selling a lot of books? It seems to me that, these days, to scale the proverbial “bar” once set to determine quality writing, one must walk downstairs into the basement.

Let me end this here: it is more than opinion that determines good writing, and love for craft is part of that, as is love of language, as is using dialogue that speaks to theme as much as drives story, as characters are fully realized without a reader’s need to “add” his own interpretation of who/what the character is, as scene is developed with an eye toward imagery that brings the five senses to play, as language is thematic and playful with the subject, as sentences are coherent and develop a coherent story that has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. No, not all stories that contain these are good (because then “taste” does play a part) but that’s a start. The authors that practice this craft? Roth and Updike, Atwood and Murdoch, McEwan and Bellow, Banville and Ackroyd, Naipaul and Theroux, Stead and Lessing … to name a few. Most of them are dead; where are today’s?

Someone in the thread made a comment directed at me, “You’re riding a very tall horse and I wouldn’t want to be you when you get knocked off it.”

This is my answer to that bit of wisdom: The horse on which I ride IS high, well high above the mud and slop and shit that a good portion of “writers” now stand, sit, or wallow around like pigs. I write strong literature, books that make you question why we are who we are; characters who challenge your self-identity; narrative that is striking and poetic and asks you to bring some level of intelligence to the page. And on this horse I hardly ever look down, for that is not my need, and my eyesight is on the horizon, where the scepters of writing-Kings and writing-Queens await me, where Knights-of-writing stand tall abreast of my steed, helping to keeping safe the idea, and my honest practice, of GOOD WRITING.

I hold my own books up for such scrutiny as anyone might make a challenge.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.


  Steve Farrell wrote @ September 9th, 2012 at 1:37 am

Long live the high horse! 

I deplore the way criticism in the 21C is either indiscriminate praise or cynical snark. We need to take an objective look at what our society is reading and what it says about us.

  MarkBeyer wrote @ September 12th, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Here-here, Steve! The objective look — weighed against standards such as the best books of a fiction classification — has always worked well. The so-called egalitarian nature of self-publishing, while good for opening up the gates to un-founded gems of writers, should not be used like America uses its children’s games “no-loser” mentality. The fact is, not everything is good, and not everyone should write, and not everyone has a “book” in them even if they can write a simply sentence. 

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