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Criticism, Ruminations, Writings

Why Read The Good Stuff?

I recently was accepted as an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal (http://www.fifthwednesdayjournal.com/), an excellent lit publication out of Lisle, Illinois. My duties include reading some of the hundreds of fiction submissions they get each month.

It’s not until you undertake such a task that you begin to understand the mindset of people who are just beginning to write. An overwhelming percentage of stories appear to be written by people whose exposure to literature has been limited to bodice rippers, comic books and People magazine.

I kid you not. Here’s a smattering from today’s slush pile. The names have been withheld to protect the guilty.

“She smiled the first smile I’d seen on her face that wasn’t tinged with sadness.”

“Tom sat on a stool, leaning against the doorway of the alpaca house in a phantasmagoric, half-sleep haze.”

“Tom was no stranger to such hard-ons. Like the alpaca killer, those hard-ons usually struck at night.” (That’s from the same story as above, but I couldn’t resist.)

“He treated Oedipus the way a giant would a mosquito: small but threatening.”

Honest—I do not make these up. I couldn’t.

These examples are illustrations of work by writers who actually believe that such awkward, pretentious or absurd sentences are good writing. How do they get that idea? Simple—they read crap all their lives instead of good, thoughtful, creative writing, like maybe a National Book Award winner once in a while instead of books written on Twitter. There are many reasons for this, but I’ll discuss those in future blogs. For now, suffice it to say that the marketing oligarchs who dictate taste and what passes for intelligence in our society have a vested interest in keeping the bulk of the population stupid.

I’ve written before about how important and difficult it is to encourage beginning writers. No service is performed for the literary community by alienating potential readers (read: people who may someday pay to read our stuff) by telling them they are clueless about writing. This only makes them resentful non-readers who vegetate in front of the television and continue to believe they could have been writers except that they were misunderstood by a clique of snobbish eggheads.

They want to write, at least for the moment, and believe they have something to say. But how to be encouraging to someone who so obviously needs years more experience before anything s/he writes is worthy of publication. How do we get these kids to give writing another try, to make the next story a little better without ridiculing the last one? (Which I have done above, but at least I didn’t name names.)

Somewhere, somehow, we need to slip a good piece of writing onto their reading lists. I don’t mean force-feed them classics they wouldn’t understand (although reading the classics has many rewards for those who are ready for them). But find a way to get examples that will open their eyes to the possibilities of literature—something like a short story by Junot Diaz or Barry Yourgrau—in among the trash that has allowed them to believe that self-indulgent bombast is good writing.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


5 thoughts on “Why Read The Good Stuff?

  1. Must we dance this dance?

    Who determines whether a book has value? Is it valuable because the intellectuals have determined it to be so? One wonders if sometimes they do so in order to maintain their claim to a status. Literature has been a way to mark social and economic status and to preserve certain values and ideas among a ruling elite.

    You may not like popular literature, but it serves a purpose and has a claim to a validity that a “National Book Award” winner may not always possess.

    If the popular literature is guilty of anything, it is creating an art form which sparks the idea that anyone can reproduce its immediacy without understanding the basic talents necessary to become proficient at that sort of writing. And those folk who have sent you much of the material you describe have violated the first rule of writing–or at least marketing one’s writing–“know your audience”.

    To be frank, reading this opinion here, and having spoken to you on this topic, I am usually reluctant to let you read my writing. In fact, I deliberately hold back things from my writing group because I know the scorn with which several group members will view it.

    I am a serious reader and writer and my work takes the path defined by Graham Greene, who wrote that he separated his fiction into two different categories: entertainment (such as “Travels With My Aunt” and “Our Man In Havana”) and literature (such as “The Power and The Glory”). Greene could find value in both types of writing and reading.

    I think you worked hard to be where you are at now as a writer and a critic. However, I think it is too easy to denigrate that which has appeal to people who may not feel an affinity for the same literary genre that you have claimed as your own.

    Posted by ssternberg | September 12, 2009, 3:48 AM
    • Not this old argument again. You’ve skewed my meaning so you can mount that creaky soapbox of yours, from which you proclaim your revulsion for literary oligarchs who would force otherwise brilliant but inexperienced young artists to memorize every line of the works of Henry James.

      I do not, as you say, “denigrate that which has appeal to people who may not feel an affinity for the same literary genre that you have claimed as your own.” That’s wrong on two counts. First, I enjoy the writing of any genre as long as it’s well-written, thoughtful and challenging. That includes mystery, horror, western, etc. It’s interesting that when I say, “they read crap,” you immediately assume I mean all genre writing. And second, the writing I was referring to (and denigrating) in my post was submitted by authors who were, indeed, trying to be published in a specific journal that is literary in style—one would have to assume they believed what they wrote would actually be agreeable to the editors of that journal.

      My point was that these writers might benefit from reading work which is well-crafted, and there are plenty of examples of that in all genres. I just happened to choose authors with whom I am familiar. And why do you assume that a National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize winner must be an incomprehensible bore? Have you read “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?”

      One thing I believe we can agree on is that popular culture (read: what corporate marketing tells us to believe because it boosts profit margins) discourages knowledge and effort. Popular culture’s underlying message is to not worry about learning and understanding craft (or anything else), because the only thing that matters is what YOU think, and what YOU write, even if you don’t know anything about what you’re writing. And if enough people like it and buy it without knowing why, then it must be good. But by defending the merits of popular culture, all you’re really defending with your comment is the gospel of the corporate marketers that drive it: hide the truth, tell ’em their opinion matters, and they’ll buy anything.

      Posted by jpon | September 12, 2009, 5:28 PM
  2. First, I love my soapbox. It may be old and rickety, but it’s mine. Second, how dare you argue with logic and charming demeanor. It forces me to become reasonable in turn, which is no way to conduct a debate in these political times.

    The writers that you refer to in your post would indeed benefit from reading a few books, and also from returning to writing classes, or joining writing groups where something constructive is going on. It would also help if they studied literature (I mean this in broad terms).

    However, I think we live in a time where the artist is shunted aside in the name of populism. Sounds like an inconsistent world view doesn’t it? Still, I’ve always said writing is a craft, and one that requires hard work and a foundation of knowledge. I believe it takes tremendous self sacrifice. People don’t respect that. In an era where there is a lack of concentration and patience, where Guitar Hero passes for actual musical ability, where people can scrawl and spit out anything and call it poetry, why shouldn’t fiction writers expect that whatever they pen is passable, in whatever genre?

    As for assumptions regarding prize winners. It depends on the prize in question.The American Book Award has changed from its original structure, with it’s current stake holders being– a committee of publishers, booksellers and distributors, librarians, and authors and critics who have the most to gain from slapping an award on a novel. This ensures that it is bought by libraries across the nation and may, if they are fortunate, end up being taught in classes. This is a corporate game. The mass market books will sell. There’s an audience. This other market, this niche, is fed in this manner. I don’t object to the marketing, I object to the dishonesty of the prize as something pure.

    I have more respect for the Pulitzer, although that has been changing as well as the number of newspapers that have been responsible for helping pick the winners have been bought up by the conglomerates to become part of one of the five or six media giants that control the output of information in this country.

    So, no…I don’t have much respect for prizes. You accuse me of defending the corporate marketeers who control the publishing in this country, but the prize world is hardly above commercial influence.

    As for the book you mention, nope…it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. Are you recommending it to me? Interestingly enough, the title, according to a quick search I did, is a tip of the hat to Hemingway’s title” The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”.

    Posted by ssternberg | September 13, 2009, 2:47 AM
  3. I’m not going to get in between this. Lord knows there isn’t enough room. But I will put in my tiny little thought. People who are at a place in their writing where they are or could be accepted into publications, literary or otherwise, are well read. Whether well read means the canon of English Literature or nearly everything written in the genre they wish to be accepted by. If you don’t read well, you simply cannot know how to write well.

    On another note, I agree that we’ve reached a point in our culture when pretention and so called literary snobbery is just passe. Something about social egalitarianism and so forth. Right about the time we decided to respect ethnic and feminist writing as literature…

    Nontheless my husband still calls me a lit snob. I can’t bring myself to read mass paperbacks, mysteries, romance novels or Tom Clancy. And I won’t read chic lit or the sisterhood of the pants or that devil and prada thing. Or Dan Brown, among many, many others. Having standards does not make me a brute. I do watch the occasional non art house film. And I once drank cheap wine.

    Posted by moondaria | September 16, 2009, 2:14 AM
  4. I’ll also note, because I’m realizing how sensitive the internet community can be, that I am in no way being adversarial. ;) If you recall, I posted a very similar conversation concerning YA lit on my blog. Students who consistently read poorly written books develop poor writing skills. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Posted by moondaria | September 16, 2009, 2:35 AM

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