Tuesday, August 2, 2011

We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants? Or We Prefer Pipsqueaks?

In recent months, I've heard writers diss or dismiss these "giants":

Here I don't mean a reader expressing personal taste ("Dickens doesn't do it for me") or analyzing and finding some issue ("Dickens's plotting so often relies on ridiculous contrivances"). But rather the dissing is (I think) as much about the writer's own writing than reading: "Dickens has nothing to teach me about writing."

I keep hearing variations of this, probably because I am too much the blowhard about how great all these guys are, or because of lingering resentment of "the dead white guys" (of course, Austen isn't a guy, and they're all dead because it's been centuries ...), or because the speaker thinks I'm the elitist talking about stuff I learned in grad school (actually, I was reading most of them in middle school, but that sounds even more elitist, doesn't it? But MOST of us were reading them in middle school, because that's when they're taught).  

And you know, really, you can make a case for any of that, and if you want to make that case, go ahead, I'm listening (and my arguing back with you doesn't mean you're wrong or, conversely, that I'm stomping on your freedom of speech).  But now I'm talking as a writing teacher, and WTF?

Yes. Categorically. Every writer has something to learn from each of them. You don't HAVE to learn from them. It's entirely possible to be a great writer without ever having read any of them.  It's possible even to be a great writer in English without reading any of them.  However, that doesn't mean they've nothing to teach you, only that you might not need to learn it, and/or that learning it would cramp your own style. (And this would be a much better case if writers who dissed them were more obviously great writers on their own.:)

But the real point here is: Don't come to a writing teacher and then get all patronizing about how wrongly my advice was formed (I rely on the shoulders of giants, etc.).  For that matter, don't ask anyone for advice and then dismiss it to their faces. You don't have to take it, and you can even argue about it, but it's plain rude to be patronizing to someone that a minute ago you thought was worth asking for advice. What's a good response to advice you have no respect for?  "Thanks so much for your time. I'll definitely have to think about this!" Then don't think about it, and go ask someone else next time.

Anyway, this dismissal of my advice isn't any big deal (I give bad advice all the time, I'm sure, to judge by how many politely reply, "Thanks so much for your..." :).  But it does trouble me how frequently this dismissal is not of me (fair game, and hey, I can take it), but of the relevance of the above to writing today. Let me try to enumerate what and why--

1. Well, first, it's wrong.  Dickens has a lot to teach modern writers; so do all the others. They are by no means the ONLY ones who can show modern writers something, and definitely we can discuss what Racine might have to offer, or Zadie Smith, etc.  But yes, Shakespeare's examples of comic plotting are just as useful today as they were in his own time-- more maybe. These writers are a large part, or representative thereof, of the cultural soup that we all imbibe before writing, whether we admit it or not, and didn't just imbibe it, but contributed ingredients for it.

Even the writers (from Keats to Joyce, particularly) who consciously tried to push away, say, the overwhelming bulk of Shakespeare influence, were pushing away FROM Shakespeare. Shakespeare gave them something to rebel against; he was the big daddy who started the buggy company whose domination made you decide you had to invent the automobile just to show him.  That is, whether we admit it or not, if we write in the English language (or the large genre of fiction in almost any language), we're going to be influenced by these guys and many others. Why be so delighted to be misinformed enough to dismiss it?

2. It's a sign of limited understanding. There's a great moment in Woody Allen's Annie Hall where he suddenly produces Marshall McLuhan to wither a debater's phallus: "You know nothing of my work!" McLuhan pronounces.  And in fact, so often when I hear the sort of "nothing to learn from (name of giant guy)" it's rapidly clear that the speaker "knows nothing of the work". (Hey, I've taught college students for 20 years. I can tell when a student hasn't done the homework. :)

As I said, real disagreement is worth expressing, but you might actually have to know something better to diss it than to celebrate it. TS Eliot studied Hamlet for years and years before deciding that it was an "artistic failure," and his criticism is cogent enough that we can learn from that. (In fact, I think to some degree he's nailed it-- an essential problem with the play, and maybe a clue to the reason it's so long-- because S was aware something was wrong and kept writing hoping to figure it out.)

And it helps a diss if you're scathingly hilarious at it, like Twain on James Fennimore Cooper. Of course, that requires even more work!  It's actually a lot less work to look for and find one of the many things you can learn from Shakespeare ("You know what I just learned? Foils. Shakespeare really did a great job using foils to show character journey"). If you want to diss him, you have to maybe read a lot more of the work, and why read a whole lot of something you don't like?

3. It's pretentious. Woody Allen again-- I think probably he is a genuine enthusiast surrounded by "fashionable pessimism," as he terms it, so he keeps encountering these pretentious "Van GOCH" people most of us would avoid. But he comes across a couple -- the man is named "Yale," which just goes to show something, at least his unfortunate choice in parents-- who proudly declare that they keep track of people they think are "overrated".  And Allen is left sputtering, "Mahler??? Mahler is overrated? Bergman? Where the hell does this little Radcliffe tootsie get off spouting that Scott Fitzgerald is overrated?"

This kind of dismissal is just cheap. It's really easy to do, and when you do it without, you know, Eliot's erudition or Twain's acid pen, you might come off as, well, jealous. Heck, Eliot, erudite as he is, comes off as jealous.

4. It's narrow. "I'm sure Euripedes had lots of influence on Greek theater, but I write fiction, not drama, and anyway, I'm not Greek."  Cough. Choke. Greek theater probably has more to teach us fiction writers than ever, because fiction is getting more visual (we live in the age of cinema and TV, after all). Even if you're Italian.

I remember -- I guess I know some pretentious people myself! Hey, Woody! My bro!-- hearing some contracts lawyer say dismissively, "Clarence Darrow might have been a crackerjack defense attorney--" (I love that "might have been" :)-- "but he knew nothing about contract law!" To which I replied, "WTF?"  (Or something like that.) (In fact, the dh reminds me that Darrow started out in contracts law.)

"Michael Jordan might have been a good basketball player, but he couldn't hit a fastball!"

Greatness in any form is worth learning from, or at least acknowledging. And being great at one thing does suggest that you might have insight into other things, if only "why I'm not so great at that other thing." (I bet MJ has some good theories about fastballs.)

But more than that, the world and especially creativity are full of patterns that replicate in different media. One of the tenets of modernism (a "school" across several art forms) is that writers can learn from artists and vice versa. By narrowing the perspective so much in order to dismiss a possible influence, we have to deliberately ignore the reality of the wide scope of creativity.  Frank Lloyd Wright, for example ("just some architect" of course :), drew a lot of inspiration from Japanese woodcut artists who were in their turn influenced by, get this, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The "Greek dramatist" similarly drew widely from other influences like epic poetry and legal philosophy, which should be a lesson to us all. To create something really new in our medium, we might open our minds to another art form or genre and see what we can steal. I mean, learn.

5. It's insecure. Sometimes I get the idea that the dismisser is insecure about his or her work, and that shows in the dismissal especially of contradicting advice, wisdom, or example. Someone doing something differently from me doesn't make my own work crumble to dust, however, and I shouldn't fear that. What I might be afraid of, however, is that when someone points out, say, that Shakespeare had "negative capability" -- that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason--   I might realize that my personal need to have everything calm and complete has resulted in a sterile story... and I really don't want to realize that. I mean, what am I going to do about it, but give up writing forever, huh?

Well, I guess now I've realized it, another possible option is to explore how I could experiment with leaving something ambiguous in my story, maybe go with a bittersweet not happy ending, or quit striving for a contrivedly "perfect" match of conflict and character need and instead go into the character and see where that leads.  We might all benefit from a bit of "negative capability" about our own work, allowing ourselves to be momentarily uncertain of its universal and constant "rightness".

Something I've always noticed is that writers who are good or on the way to being good generally aren't this way. They might "protect the work" by deliberately shielding themselves from influences-- many writers won't read fiction while they're writing fiction, frex-- and they might be resistant to wasting a lot of time in cafes and blogs talking about writing rather than writing. (Harrumph.)  I get that. (I even sort of admire that, I say as I head out to hang with some other writers at the coffeehouse where we're going to totally diss JK Rowling-- wanna come?) But they aren't dismissive of the value of others' examples or advice. They just don't want, for a number of reasons, to learn that way. They learn better by doing, maybe. And some, of course, learn by learning, and like to study what others have done.  (I happen to be, I learn so late in life, more analytical than creative, and it occurs to me that there are some who are more creative than analytical, and might not benefit so much from analysis.)

Just dismissing ("Dickens has nothing to teach ME about writing") is a sign that the writer has a way to go towards confidence in his/her own work, or rather, having work good enough to legitimately inspire confidence. And often, you know, I get the idea that if Dickens agreed with this writer ("See? Dickens's narrative roamed back and forth across the continent, and if he can do that, I can do him one better-- mine zips all over the cosmos!"), the writer would not be dismissive of Dickens's relevance. Again, that's a sign of insecurity, accepting wisdom only when it correlates with what you've already thought.

(Once an attendee at one of my 8-hour workshops came up to me afterwards and said proudly, "I've already thought everything you said!" And he meant that as a compliment!  How smart I was to think the same thing he's already thought! I felt like a big rubber stamp. "Approved!" That's all I was good for to him. And I suspect-- or at least I hope-- I didn't in EIGHT HOURS -just- replicate his pre-existing brilliance, or he should be the one getting paid to share it, right?)

6.  It's short-sighted. When I started working at the writing center, we frequently observed the "varied voices" dynamic of teaching. Some student would come in and stubbornly (I'm always making personal value judgments, unwarranted no doubt, about people who don't take my advice :) resist what I had to teach about, say, topic sentences.  And then the next week she'd come in and pointedly request another tutor, often that one with the cool Aussie accent-- hey, Belinda, miss you-- and I'd overhear that tutor talking about "idea coordinates" and the student would say, "Oh! Is that like that topic thing Alicia was blathering about last week?" and go away and now happily write effective TOPIC SENTENCES only to call them "idea coordinates" forevermore.  Many voices. We can never know what voice will get through our thick skulls to the grey matter underneath, and that is quite enough of that mixed metaphor, I promise!

And I can't tell you how many students-- well, two-- came back after a semester or so to say, "Oh, Alicia, now that I am more experienced, wiser, and older, I  get what you meant about using the last sentence to make a final point about the significance of the thesis! Wow! That was brilliant! I'm glad I've lived long enough to realize just how brilliant you are!" (Okay, maybe the students said just a few of those words, and not necessarily in a row like that.)  We don't always know what insights will resonate for months, like the tune to a country song, and suddenly make perfect sense when we're presented with the right opportunity to make use of it. ("That Garth song about friends in low places! I so get it now that I've got my own favorite dive named the Oasis! It RHYMES! I can do it in karaoke!")

If we dismiss advice out of hand when we first hear it, we might never get the echo later when we need it. And now that we finally recognize the brilliance of the adviser, we might have alienated her so much by our early resistance that she won't give us any more time-release wisdom.

7. It's mean. "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."   Okay, maybe, sometimes. Teaching is itself an skill worthy of respect, I think (I would think that, though, wouldn't I?). And sometimes brilliance in doing doesn't translate to brilliance in teaching. (I'm reminded of Larry Bird, great great player, not very good coach. Same with Bill Russell.) Vice versa too. Often the middling player is the one who studies the game most (hoping maybe to get a bit of advantage) and shares it best. (For some reason, perhaps traumatized by the prospect of an NBA lockout, I'm thinking in basketball analogies today, but really, has anyone else noticed that the championship-less Indiana Pacers-- yes, they had championships in the ABA, lest we forget, which is a lot cooler-- turn out disproportionate number of good TV basketball commentators-- Jalen Rose, Chris Mullin, Clark Kellogg, Mark Jackson-- and only one of these could be universally acclaimed a great player?  Hey, diss Shakespeare all you like, but don't you diss my Reggie! And no, Mullin wasn't better; stop smoking that funny weed and watch some highlight reels.)

After all, Aristotle didn't write great drama, but he wrote great drama commentary. Distance can help with analysis, and we can learn from that, especially when we're down there in the creative muck with no distance at all.

And and and and! You know what I really love? When someone else first makes a mistake so I don't have to make it myself! I was just noticing this in the comments to an agent's blogpost about how self-publishers need agents too. Anyway, along with all those current and would-be clients who, not being stupid like I have been in the past so they didn't have to be, averred often and enthusiastically how utterly wonderful the agent was, were a few grizzled veterans of various publishing wars who were willing , nay, eager, to share what they learned from their many wounds--loudly and obnoxiously, perhaps, but honestly. (As the proud possessor of seven count 'em seven former agents, I tend to get obstreperous on this subject myself, though not on an agent's blog. I'm not THAT helpful.) You know, some of us learn best by trial and error, emphasis on the "error," and in fact, the method of acquiring the knowledge might make it even sounder. Frex, when some guy who took his then-agent's advice and turned down a million-dollar advance for his history of the toilet because surely somewhere in publishing was an even bigger fool who will offer him two mill says now, "Don't listen to your agent! Grab that bird in hand and squeeze it till it poops!" well, I don't know about you, but I pay attention. This guy knows whence he speaks! There's something about a veteran's woulda coulda shoulda that gets me where I live. And I like the generosity here, the "I was stupid so you don't have to be," the willingness to admit mistakes and share lessons learned, like "I learned that all agents aren't all-knowing all the time."

Of course, then other commenters inevitably respond huffily, "I don't know why on the internet there are so many whiners and complainers who just want to tear everyone else down and destroy dreams and impugn the integrity of the Greatest Editor/Agent/Publisher/Human Being Evuh!"

Oh, then there's the priceless, "And notice he didn't sign his name! 'Anonymous' is a big coward! See, I signed MY name when I said proudly that (blog owner) is the greatest writer since Euripedes, no! Even better! She's not GREEK!"  Uh, yes, when we're sharing horror stories, we might be a bit less likely to use our names than when we're kissing up. Just a thought. Maybe when you're a bit older and no longer blinded by Justin Bieber's smoldering gaze, you'll understand how a writer might be disenchanted with Big Publishing and still not quite ready to destroy any potential future in it. 

Anyway, scoffing, "And what NYTimes bestsellers have YOU penned lately?" works only if you yourself have had a NYT bestseller lately.  And generally those who have had bestsellers know it's bad form to insult someone trying to help. Don't forget what that non-NYTimes bestseller John Lennon used to say, "Instant karma's going to get you, gonna knock you upside the head."

First rule of life: Don't be mean. Or rather: First rule, flush. And second rule, don't be mean.

"Thanks so much for your time. I'll definitely have to think about this!" 



Shalanna said...

BRAVO! XOXOOXOX, but then you already knew that. I grow weary of hearing how "NO ONE" reads Dickens or Shakespeare or Herman Wouk or whoever any more, that they're dated and the ONLY thing that matters is what's being published NOW. They then insist that you refer to Lady Gaga instead of Frank Sinatra as a classic lounge singer in your book so it won't be "dated." It is futile to try to explain that in the future, many more people will have a glimmer of who the Chairman of the Board was than who this flash-in-the-pan ga-ga-goo-goo was. (I also defend Aristophanes and am constantly pointing out that HE had better ideas, such as in The Birds and Lysistrata. I am such an old coot.)

Point: I can learn from those who did it wrong, even myself. Reading a bad novel tells us just how tough it is to write ANY novel, not just a good one. The test of time means something. Even if we no longer use adverbial dialogue tags or compound-complex sentences, we can study plots and characters. I see many Uriah Heeps around these days. Man is ever the same. We can learn from seeing how Hotspur and Falstaff function as foils to Prince Hal. Yay for standing on the shoulders of giants! (Sorry about that frozen shoulder they're getting)

Edittorrent said...

And Game of Thrones, complexly plotted, very long, with ornate syntax (relatively-- not Henry James), is a huge cult hit. There are plenty of readers who like a good old-fashioned thick book. Of course, it might take most of a lifetime to find all those readers. And promoting a book as "fiction for smarter people" probably isn't very tactful!
Alicia (blogger to smarter people :)

Edittorrent said...

Oh, and I meant, far more than who writes coolest, just that writers should be careful how they respond to advice. It's rather personally harrowing, even if (especially?) the writer asked for the advice, but I think in many writers it brings up feelings of insecurity or something.

All those writers have something to teach us, but more about plotting, I think, than prose. Austen about prose maybe. We can certainly learn how to do irony with those double-bladed sentences. What else? I don't think she ever forgot that the purpose of sentences is to convey some meaning beyond the mere words, and that's my latest thinky thought.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant & funny! Perhaps writers/teachers/editors like Alicia are too generous about giving advice. If you charged as much as doctors, lawyers or psychologists, the advice seekers might be more appreciative. Then again, that old Greek Socrates didn't charge for his advice. Nor did Jesus for that matter. Yikes! I hope martyrdom is not the fate of our beloved blogger.

Karen said...

Anyone who thinks Shakespeare is irrelevant is just plain wrong.
Refer them to his influence on modern language here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/04/0419_040419_shakespeare.html

Why are insecure people so vocal and mean?

One lesson I learned from hearing Bob Mayer teach is that our strongest defenses are built around our greatest weaknesses.

People who refuse to learn from the classics need to take a close look at themselves and figure out what major flaw they're trying to cover up in themselves and their writing. The flaw is theirs, not yours.

Even if they're not ready to learn the lessons you teach, is it really so hard to be gracious and polite?

Alicia, you are a wonderful teacher, and your advice is incredibly useful and insightful. You've helped me and many of my writing friends more than you'll ever know. I think we need to tell you that more often and not lurk so quietly.

Shake it off, and move on. Your quiet students appreciate and value your knowledge and advice. Please don't let the noisy ingrates get to you.

Alicia said...

Thanks, Karen. It is wonderful how writers are so willing to share with each other, even (cf. Euripedes!) long after death.
But I know what you mean. For some people, there really is a block that keeps them from being open to learning from others and being able to find joy in existing works as Shalanna was saying.

When I'm like that, when I find myself getting tight and resistant, it does feel like insecurity. I keep coming back to that, maybe because I can feel the tendency in myself.

Also, however, I think "grizzled vets" have such a tendency towards grim and gloom (I guess that's where the grizzle comes from), and I wonder if that attitude doesn't create some resistance in others? I know I've been accused of "being a wet blanket" because I keep coming up with doomsday scenarios for publishing.

Alicia Rasley said...

Shalanna, thought of you today because I went for lunch at a restaurant that played Sinatra the whole time. Fly Me to the Moon, that sort of thing. :)

kelly said...

I agree with you 110%

kenradaniels said...

This post makes me grateful that when my dad taught me to respect my elders, he emphasized that learning at the knee of a master makes the learning easier. I'd much rather learn about writing from a master - or giant - than muddle through on my own. Or worse, learn wrong by following the teachings of someone who only thinks they're a master.

Edittorrent said...

Kenra, when would it be better to learn by mistakes? I ask because I'm definitely the "lecture" preferring type. I'd rather sit at the feet of someone brilliant and take notes, but I know some would rather try things themselves and make mistakes and learn from them
I guess doing both is an option too.

But imagine if we could get Euripedes, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens to do a writer's conference for us. Come on, it would only take a time machine!