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.