Line of Defense

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by Stella

Way back – practically a year ago – when I wrote my first post for the View, I expressed mild distress over the fact that when you tell people you’re a writer, they usually suspect your intelligence, judgment, or sanity (possibly all three). Apparently the world divides writers into two types: the Hack and the Artist. The Hack makes an absurd amount of money for producing garbage effortlessly – garbage which anyone could write. The Artist must commune with the universe to create, thus his or her work is born out of some mystical, unexplainable process – and thus who the hell even understands what he or she is babbling about.

Even if you're not a writer and are simply fond of reading, chances are you've been caught in conversations where you were forced to defend reading, authorship, literature, literary criticism – probably all of these. If you've ever found yourself spluttering for a line of defense, I have compiled here a list of handy responses to a number of typically infuriating statements. In some cases, I've included a bad – that is, sarcastic – answer, which you should avoid giving. You needn't fear cocktail conversations any longer.

Claim: Literary criticism is not only unnecessary, it always spoils a good book.
Answer: Criticism is necessary for a number of reasons. First, good criticism improves understanding of a text; understanding a text leads to better understanding of literature as a whole; better understanding of literature as a whole leads to new production of literature. Second, criticism preserves the text by discussing it and trying to illuminate why it’s worth discussing in the first place. Third, literary criticism is like sports commentary – you can watch a game without it, but it helps you enjoy the game on a whole other level.
Special Bonus Comment: A critique, being only an opinion, is not written in stone, ergo it can change. Criticism is meant to be an ongoing discussion, not the passing of final judgment.

Claim: You can say anything you want about a work of literature because everything is subjective.
Answer: You can’t, actually. Just like you can’t walk up to someone, invent things about them and have them considered "true," you can’t say whatever you want about a work of literature. Things have an origin and a context, which you need to relate to in some way. Theories/interpretations have to be based on evidence, not on gut reaction or whim.

Claim: The author of a text is not important since the text, once published, no longer belongs to them but to the reader. (This is a variation on the previous statement.)
Answer: That’s like saying that once you’ve made a cake, you no longer have any right to tell people how you baked it. It’s also like trying to write a biography about someone without researching their parents and family. The relation between author and text is like the relation between parent and child. It may not tell you everything, but it's a useful place to start.

Claim: There are so many writers these days. It seems anyone can do it.
Bad Answer: Then I’ll be glad to read your novel when it’s finished.
Good Answer: Like anything, writing is a skill that needs to be acquired. Many people can dance, but there are numerous levels of proficiency, not to mention various styles of dancing.
Special Bonus Comment: The really great thing is that the possibilities are endless given the number of variables involved.

Claim: It's not really difficult to tell a story – you start at the beginning and when you come to the end, you stop.
Bad Answer: Then tell me where you’d like me to start and I’ll just finish when you’re too tired to listen.
Good Answer: There are lots of ways to tell a story and sometimes the sheer infiniteness of possibilities is overwhelming. When you read a story, you're essentially reading one possibility chosen out of a million. Granted, it may not always be the best one, but it's still the product of a complex selection process.

Claim: Who needs Henry James or Jane Austen? Give me J.K. Rowling any day.
Answer: Books and authors don't come out of nowhere. They're part of a chain of thinking that you can trace backwards. In order to appreciate a new link, it helps to be somewhat familiar with the previous links. Whether you realize it (or like it) or not, all culture is interconnected in some way – the high and the low, the good and the bad, the popular and the obscure – mutually influencing each other.

Claim: [insert name here] is the only writer who ever wrote anything good. They just don’t know how to write good fiction anymore.
Bad Answer: People usually say that and then hold up as paragons of literary virtue some poor writer who wasn’t appreciated in his or her own time.
Good Answer: To paraphrase Elvis, there's enough room for everybody. There are as many different readers as there are writers, and they can't all be accommodated by the same person.
Special Bonus Comment: Unfortunately, people aren't always rewarded for their merits in a timely fashion, but the important thing is to be appreciated in the long-run. After all, what good is it to be wildly adored in your own time and then forgotten by the next generation? Besides, culture is dynamic, not static. Today something is out of favor, tomorrow it's revived.

If anyone has any more of these, I'll be perfectly happy to formulate answers. I also do weddings, but I'll leave that for another post.


Unknown said...

You also do weddings, Stella?
If you do them as well as this, I'll start recommending you to everyone I think is, might, or, ought to marry.
Thank you for an enlightening piece. Personally, I'm guilty of the subjective argument; it buffers me from all those rejections. But I've never meant to imply one can say anything. Only that tastes change.
I haven't heard anyone claim there are "too many writers these days." A similar claim, however, comes from those who gaze at me enviously, wishing they had leisure enough to write their novel. Theirs would change the world. All too honestly, I answer, No doubt.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

"Who needs Henry James or Jane Austen? Give me J.K. Rowling any day....part of a chain of thinking that you can trace backwards. In order to appreciate a new link, it helps to be somewhat familiar with the previous links."

What a great post and chain of thoughts. Might print some of these for my wall. Thanks Stella.

Stella said...

Kathleen - Sure thing! I have several speeches - the poetic, the down-to-earth, the humorous and heartwarming. Btw, I don't think there's anything wrong with being subjective (after all, how do you give an objective opinion?), but I think they need to be anchored by evidence from the text. That is, you can't just read something and say, "This is a homoerotic fantasy" or "This is an allegory of capitalism triumphing over socialism." You have to prove it.

Jen - Excellent! I hope you select a festive font :)

Mike French said...

Do you do prompt cards? - I might get nervous at a dinner party and forget and just say something really daft.

Stella said...

Why certainly, Mike! What size font do you prefer?

Mike French said...

12 please and can you laminate them in case I spill my drink on them. ta :-)