How Serious Are You?

When I talk to an author about his manuscript, some will apologize for the type of novel he’s writing. I don’t know why he feels he has to do that with me, since my website is dominated by commercial titles. My response to that author reflects a belief that I’ve felt for most of my career.

I don’t think a “literary book” exists on some exalted plane. Every manuscript stems from an author’s concerted effort, and how gifted she is, and how hard she works at her craft, determines where her book will be ranked along a spectrum. Note the imagery of a spectrum. I have read plenty of books that are “literary,” only to be disappointed by the author’s lack of vision. Yes, each sentence is precisely crafted, sparkling like a diamond, but the characters are fairly ordinary and their developmental arcs fairly low. What, exactly, am I supposed to be appreciating as a superior reader, the one who reads only “those types of books”?

My annoyance with cultural pretension extends to different books by the same writer. We all know that only one or a few books form the pinnacle of an author’s career. So what does that mean about the other works? For example, I flat-out love John Updike’s stories, but I found several of his novels to be disappointing. They did not change my opinion of his literary merits one bit, because I, like most readers, know that an author will not hit the ball out of the park every time. Wouldn’t I have been better off reading a highly entertaining thriller rather than a literary writer who churns out a book a year?

Naturally, I like to edit books that are better written. My reading in my spare time is dominated by literary lights. Yet I firmly believe that writing is individual. If your book is reaching a certain audience, if your readers gain enjoyment or knowledge from what you’ve penned, what is wrong with that? Why are you worried about the clown who can so casually sit in judgment on that? Ask him how many books he has written.

The fact that you’ve gotten up all those mornings, kicked yourself during all those sessions to try harder, should be applauded, I say. Forget about inhabiting some mythical literary heaven. Do what you can, and you may find that you’re closer to the literary end of the scale than you think.

“We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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