“don’t think the writer and director—-especially if they happen to be the same person—can exhibit a similar problem (if, indeed, it is a problem)?”
I don’t (think it’s a problem . . . and, FWIW, I also don’t think it’s an accurate description of the writing of Roth and McCarthy and DeLillo and Oates), but, sure, it can happen, but I think one is less likely to have this perception of a film than a novel, because the insularity tends to be defused, not only be the filmmaking process, but also by the differences in the way it’s encounter by an audience.
^ A cry for help?
^ Um, yeah RUS, that was pretty fucking jerky. I will snipe back — leave if you think we’re all a bunch of fucking idiots. Love ya too.
IT ENDS HERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(i peed in the sink and left you guys an upper decker. happy hunting.)
Seriously, RUS, you should seek the help of a qualified mental health professional. Or have you already been diagnosed? I’m concerned.
Why American novelists don’t deserve the Nobel Prize – too much of an emphasis on self
^ LOL, good one Mischa.
Get help, RUS.
(and FYI, Ari finished the thread by comment five)
“Some mediocre writer trying to make a name for himself by writing some polemical and controversial and profoundly stupid piece? No way!”
he get’s credit for being perceptive.
okay. now i’m done.
It’s too general.
Oh, thank Shiva. Now stay gone.
He won’t. But I don’t want to talk about that right now.
Two things worth bearing mentioning from previous discussion in this thread:
The Help. The Help is the precise problem being talked about in terms of “write what you know” instead of expand your horizons. It isn’t about Mammie, it’s about the little white girl who was oh-so-inspired by Mammie, and then wrote a wonderful feel-good book about it.
Secondly, I am very much a fan of questioning “write what you know”, BUT with the caveat that we have to keep the instruction whilst altering the perceived message (which is false). Santino does half the work by pointing toward emotional truth. The other half of the work is, "if you don’t know it, research. " Again the issue in the long run really comes down to a literary laziness. You get some exemplary memoirs from the likes of Joan Didion, Jeanette Walls, and love-him-or-hate-him Dave Eggers (who basically fully embraces the conflict of narcissism in memoir writing as a recursive loop in and of itself, hence A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius being actually heartbreaking but maybe not so staggering), amongst a world of authors who essentially are summed up in Burn after Reading as recently-fired analysts wanting to focus on their “memwahs”.
Write what you know, and if you don’t know, do your research. The extremes of this are usually still strikingly interesting to see. Neal Stephenson is a writer who way over researches and could really use a good editor to cut through all the detail, but the fact is that the amount of detail he is capable of injecting elaborately at any moment makes it worth the time to slurge through his sometimes 1000+ page texts. The opposite of that, someone writing an apologetic introduction to their memoir explaining away their lack of ability to remember the actual event but a promise to stick to the emotional truth of it, makes every last page of the ~180-300 page piece unbearable.
And I fully agree that this misconstrued form of “write what you know” is affecting how literature is taught and thought about even in higher levels of education in a negative way, not necessarily fully as a fault of the education system but more of a lack of a focus on definitive craft and clarity. For instance, in most creative writing classes professors rightfully tell students that they are not allowed to write genre lit like horror, science fiction, mystery, fantasy, romance, et al. The reason why they do this is to get these kids out of those modes that are limited and lazy unless you do some real work with characters and emotional truths and all the stuff Santino is talking about. However, the message that gets received is that “proper” literature is what the author in the OP is describing, internalized emotionalized micro-bits of Emotion Truth. Those that then go through these classes and go on to write science fiction, say, do so as if writing the science fiction is an angry counter-argument to all that pseudo-intellectual stuff or whatever. The point that gets made, the process being taught, ultimately gets lost, and as that message is separated from its intent further it trickles through society and you get those middle-aged writing groups where everyone drinks coffee together and discusses the most recent sharer’s use of the daisies in the field when she was a five year old. Miscommunication on the professor’s part? A little bit. Also a problem of students not really listening.
I think that there are people who have experienced stories that should be told, but they needn’t be and probably shouldn’t be the authors of those stories. In the United States, everyone has “a book” they are “writing” or “will write someday”. They also all think they can be filmmakers! The fact is that writing, filmmaking, painting is just like engineering, science, and design. It takes work, it takes research, it takes a lot of time and a lot of training, and the exceptions to those rules are always exceptional which is why we put them on pedestals. I do not think it is true that “American authors don’t deserve the Nobel prize”, I think it’s true that “write what you know” has sent the wrong message for its intended meaning.
“Not everybody can be a cook. But a cook can come from anywhere.” — Ratatouille
Maybe the shorthand is, “Write what you feel.” And if that means you have to do some research to fully express it, even better.
…you get those middle-aged writing groups where everyone drinks coffee together and discusses the most recent sharer’s use of the daisies in the field when she was a five year old.
Ugh. As this whole thread has become to me, after all that psychotic ranting…
Odi, I’d feel bad saying this if it weren’t for the fact that my mother agrees and we laugh about it all the time, but that is most of my mother’s friends. It’s one of those situations where my mother really loves them and wants them to feel comfortable expressing themselves, but whenever she gets invited to those events she says, “I don’t want to make you guys feel bad if I think your writing is bad.” What she neglects to state to them but she takes care to express to me is that that “if” for her is a “when”.
When I worked at Hastings, there was a group of about four or five self-published authors who got together to sell their wares via consignment. On the one hand it was really nice seeing these people really support each other, push each other’s work, and get themselves out there. They certainly got further than most, I’ll tell you that. On the other hand they never got further than that, and what I mean is that they never bothered to push themselves to do anything better than what pleased each other. Familiar as they were with each other’s work enough to help each other sell it to the right audience, they were never critical enough to try to help each other grow as artists, and in fact used each other as emotional, artistic, and social crutches. None of them would face a group of customers on their own, or bother trying to sell to a professional publisher.
On the one hand, one has to fully admit that maybe that is really all they needed. There are people who really are not seeking the moon, and just want a small, focused outlet for something while they spend the rest of their lives doing something else, probably more important. And again, at least these people had each other, which is more than many artists can say in a strangely chaotic and backstabbing world of this type. Finally, there is something to be said about not overextending yourself, knowing how far to reach.
However, I do not think all of those things applied to all of them, really, and I had enough experience working with them to get a sense of their personalities, hopes, and dreams. They wanted to get published. They wanted an audience. They wanted to do store events like this, but while traveling the US. And the biggest things holding them back was themselves, which was also each other. But instead of developing themselves critically and holding each other to a standard, they turned their unease outward and blamed the world for it. They blamed a lack of education. A surplus of marketing requirements in professional publication. All that familiar stuff that is staple of every art community—and is true to a point, but is not an acceptable excuse to stop trying if you are doing what you want to do.
These guys I just hold as a case study because they actually managed to sit their asses down and type something out, get it printed, and make some extra sandwich cash off of it. They’re observable characters of what seems to go on, in my mind, inside many writers and writer’s workshops and writing groups around the nation, if not the world. People who really do not want to do the work to succeed for the fear of failure, so they turn to their peers to get the self-recognition they need. And again, this may not be a bad thing, as with many of these people we really have no interest in reading their books anyway, so it’s probably a good thing they are not getting published. But what it has created is a culture of that type of expression, that quite often and pointedly gets published. Memoirs by navel-gazing people written pretty much to inspire navel-gazing people to get together and write memoirs. And they sell ’cause, guess what, the audience relates to them. It is, after all, “writing what they know.”
I don’t know, I’m going back and forth here because the fact is that I really dislike this part of contemporary culture and it’s views of art, but I cannot fully state that it is my business to tell people not to do it. They’ll do what they want and that novel that everyone is always going to write is always going to be going to be written (not a mistaken double-copy). I cannot fully criticize that group of authors because they sure have sold a lot more copy than I have; I just intensely dislike it when I run across literature that reads as if it were written by writer’s group, memoir or not. Michael Cunningham, for instance, literally reads as if it were written by he and a bunch of New York middle class together while they praised themselves on “capturing the essence of Virginia Woolf” in The Hours, e.g. And that type of literary novel is in vogue right now, and has been for quite a while. It’s why A Million Little Pieces became the thing that it did. It’s why those already awful political books make themselves worse by starting out with idyllic descriptions of a blue-collar country youth. It is, indeed, “American” insofar as Americans have a culture of personal importance that makes their profound moments of understanding in youth something to be shared with everyone, instead of translated into an actual story we can actually enjoy.
Mumble mumble grr grumble. I’m finished.
I love your grumbles, and if I don’t have the stamina (in this forum) for an appropriately measured response, know that they are still received as intended—to foster conversation and to continue to figure out just what the hell we are all really doing.
Polaris, as a slight aside to your post I would point you to Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of The Hours for a different perspective on it if that is of interest since Mendelsohn’s an excellent critic and his appreciation of it is worth reading.
I do not think it is true that “American authors don’t deserve the Nobel prize”, I think it’s true that “write what you know” has sent the wrong message for its intended meaning.
You seem to be suggesting that the participants of writer’s workshops (for both young and old writers) have gotten the wrong message or that teachers have unwittingly contributed to these negative results. Perhaps you’re right. But I’d like to suggest some alternative ways of looking at this:
1. I haven’t really had my writing criticized (constructively) by a group of people, but I’ve had to comment on other people’s artistic endeavors. Based on that experience, I would suggest that the lack of criticism may stem more from the difficulty of being completely honest with someone else about their work. It is not easy—especially to criticize with tact—and it is often brutal—even with tact. I think the difficulty is even greater—if not impossible—with friends.
2. What I am about to say is vague and probably incoherent, but I wonder if the navel-gazing, narcissistic approach is not so much a product of writing courses but a product of the times; something a part of the Zeitgeist. I’m thinking the self-consciousness in post-modern art; the reflection on culture and the proclivity for “meta” thinking. Maybe this is something different from what you’re talking about, but I thought I’d throw this out there.
I occasionally do this thing where I list the Amazon.com best sellers and give my curmudgeony, cynical take on it. I believe it is ripe time to do it again:
1) Steve Jobs
Obivous, innit? Every time I do this, memoirs and biographies are featured. Every time a biography or a memoir is featured, I think back to my friend Andy’s statement about how, “Benjamin Franklin is one of the most interesting people in history, and his autobiography is only 81 pages long. Why is [Enter newly deceased/newly risen political figure here]’s biography stretching over hundreds of pages?”
2) The Heroes of Olympus, Book Two: The Son of Neptune
Rick Riordan is on this list every single time I do it, which means he falls somewhere in between James Patterson for output and Glenn Beck for persistence. I’ve actually heard good things about him but hey, I have nothin’, no clue what the deal is.
3) I Never Thought I’d See the Day!
See?! What the fuck is this shit? To be fair, “best-seller” in book world means a dozen thousand people bought it—really. In the United States, with 307million people, you can see that the idea of a bestselling book is actually quite overrated as it doesn’t even mean being read by 30% of the 30% that actually vote. BUT
Who the fuck is Dr. David Jeremiah and why does anybody give a shit about his opinion on the “decline of civilization?” This is very much a rhetorical question because there is no way in hell the answer is of any importance. The only way he will become important is by people actually listening to this nobody bitch about atheists.
Sometimes, guys, I REALLY consider writing this kind of book. I think I could write it very well and make a lot of money essentially being a snarky dick about people I disagree with. I’ve got the form down:
“What in the Hell?!: or, How the Best Seller’s Wall in American Bookstores Reflect the Degrading Quality of Critical Thought: an Exegesis by PolarisDiB”
Introduction: “Take a look at any book store in America and what you will find is…..”
First Chapter: “How the Corporate Media Empire is to Blame”
Second Chapter: “The Cult of Personality”
Third Chapter: “YOU. YOU’RE THE REASON TO. YOU’RE THE ONE.”
Fourth Chapter: “Why the Last Chapter Doesn’t Apply to You, because You are Intelligent Enough to Read this Book instead of all of the Other Awful Ones.”
And so on….
4) Boomerang: Travels in the Third World
POINT AND FUCKING MATCH MOTHERFUCKERS. Proof. I win this round.
5) Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever
Before you click the link…. by Bill O’Reilly.
6) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever
Also always featured is the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I’ve read one, they’re okay. I still have a pet joke that it’s because readers feel like they should be considered wimps and that is why they read science fiction hero books in between memoirs about traveling third world countries and biographies of big people like Steve Jobs and political shit from fat white people.
7) Inheritance: The Inheritance Cycle
AS I WAS SAYIN’. Nothing we love better than a child prodigy even though his books suck as much as if they were written by… someone his age.
8) Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse
Eh, I just sort this one under our zombie apocalypse fetish. Since we’re always reading Dr. David Jeremiah’s horseshit, we then get really anxious and want to know that we’ll be the few to survive in the cutthroat world of the post-apocalypse. Hence this. I’m okay with that.
9) Hunger Games
Now a major motion feature.
10) This is Herman Cain!: My Journey to the White House
This is how much I give a shit! Herman, you’re not the Republican Obama.
11) The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems
Hey! Oh wait, had to win an award to become a best-seller. What the hell, I’ll take it anyway.
12) The Best of Me
Nonsense. If this were truly the best of Nicolas Sparks, it wouldn’t exist at all. Not that that is what this is, it’s probably just another… you know… Nicolas Sparks novel.
13) Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
This has been on the list for nearly a year.
This is because we ’Mericans love our WWII stories of survival, resilience, and redemption. We especially like the part where we redeemed the debts of much of the rest of the world.
14) Life’s Golden Ticket: An Inspirational Novel
15) The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True
If it weren’t written by Richard Dawkins, I’d dismiss it on title alone. In other words, hint to Dawkins: write better titles.
16) MockingJay: The Hunger Games book 3
Soon to be a major motion feature.
17) Leveraging the Universe: 7 Steps to Engaging Life’s Magic
And, always, there is one of THESE books on there. You know what’s really fun, guys? Working at a used bookstore. Where you see boxes upon boxes of this shit returned by the people who buy them. And while unloading all of these books, you turn to them and in a friendly and of course not sarcastic manner, say, “So how did these work out for you?”
18) Seriously, I’m Kidding
I can relate, Ellen Degeneres. Note to readers: Ellen Degeneres wins best and most appealing title. Think about that for a moment. Also note that there is usually a comedian in the top 20 as well.
19) The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer
For those of you who don’t want to glurge through the collection above, here is one aptly named “Half-finished” and “best of” so that you can know, but don’t have to work.
20) Catching Fire: The Hunger Games Book Two
Soon to be a major motion picture.
Jazz, I agree with your points.
I liked your run down of the bestsellers. Mubi should pay you to write a column in the notebook section or something. I’d probably be a regular reader. :) (You kinda lost steam at the end, but who’s noticing? Bravo!)
You need to revive the “defending a movie challenge” thread—except for every defense you should start a separate thread. C’mon!
What the writer describes what literature should is still a limitation of the meaning of great literature.
Most best-sellers are primarily American. The fact most of the people of this world care more for American literature in the same way they care more about American music and cinema is insulting to say the least and a backlash to the true promotion of world literature as an essential study to older, current and upcoming readers. It’s a backlash as well as a negative stability which is a reason why most publishing houses won’t care to translate many not-as-of-yet-translated novels, poetry collections, philosophy treatises, short stories etc and no, this has nothing to do with Nobel prizes, critically acclaimed books, catalogs and what you have, it’s about a future perspective, struggling to grasp from a cliff of knowledge, having dealt with an exasperating perseverance towards something impossible as that of persuading someone to read a book for starters.
Dim, it’s not that people care more for American stuff, it’s that we all, world;-flippin’-wide, are inundated with the marketing of American stuff, if people stop going with the hype and start making informed decisions then things will change.
Don’t blame America for a worldwide laziness, or to put it in basketball terms, don’t hate the playa, hate the game.
That’s a pimp term that actually.
My two cents:
The idea ‘Write What You Know’ is meant to discourage writers from trying to write about things they don’t have the background for to be interesting or realistic. If you try to write about being in the army, but you have never been in the army, you will end up just repeating cliches and soapboxing your personal opinion of the army.
But, ‘writing what you know’ doesn’t preclude the idea of ‘Perspective taking’. You imagine yourself in the character’s situation, with their goals and beliefs, and figure out what emotions you feel and what you do. You attempt to do so without venturing outside your knowledge base. A good example of a writer who does this is Philip Roth, who is good at explaining the situation from several different characters’ perspectives.
Probably already has been covered, but the Nobel Prize in Literature is for the most part a politically motivated beauty contest. Not that there haven’t been some great writers awarded over the years, but there is no great set of criteria at work here. To think Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pound, Joyce, Proust, Borges, Nabokov and many others were passed over makes me wonder why so many persons take this award so seriously.