The other day I was reading about Booth Tarkington. If you haven’t heard of him–as I hadn’t until just recently–he was a novelist in the early 20th-century. Apparently, he was quite famous in his day, but has since been largely forgotten. Wikipedia informs us:

By the later twentieth century, however, he was ignored in academia: no congresses, no society, no journal of Tarkington Studies. In 1985 he was cited as an example of the great discrepancy possible between an author’s fame when alive and oblivion later. According to this view, if an author succeeds at pleasing his or her contemporaries — and Tarkington’s works have not a whiff of social criticism — he or she is not going to please later readers of inevitably different values and concerns.

Think about that second sentence a while. Chew on it. Do you think this is true? (By the way, although Wikipedia doesn’t say so directly, I’m assuming this is a close paraphrase of the cited text.)

I have recently been part of a discussion, started by Mark Paxson, about whether writing needs to have a point. The overwhelming consensus I’ve heard is, “No, it doesn’t. It just needs to tell a good story.” Anyone who subscribes to the theory Wikipedia describes above is implicitly saying that it does need to have a point.

Who would say this? I’ll tell you who: a critic. Critics are always looking for the point in any work of fiction. I should know, being one myself and constantly trying to tease out the hidden deeper meaning in things.

Critics, according to this theory, are who keep books relevant. The thinking goes, in order to preserve an author’s works as significant, there must be something in it for the critics to evaluate and discuss. Naturally, critics are big proponents of this idea. (I like to imagine all the important literary critics gathering to celebrate their control of authors’ legacies, ideally singing a song similar to this Simpsons classic.)

But the problem is that this theory is blatantly wrong. From what little I’ve read of Tarkington, his writing reminds me of Wodehouse. Wodehouse, whose works contain barely any social criticism and unabashedly take place in some sort of eternal “Edwardian never-never land,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the English language, exactly because his books transport readers to another world.

I suppose one could write a critical academic analysis of Wodehouse, but I think it would just come across as ridiculous. Such was Wodehouse’s mastery of comedy that you cannot even begin to consider his works in a normal, “serious” fashion. Something in their comic spirit defies it.

If you try hard enough, I suppose you can impose intertextual and social commentary on anything. Again, if I haven’t demonstrated this repeatedly on this blog, I don’t know what more I can do. But is that necessary to ensuring an author’s works live on? Somehow I don’t think it is.

Still, there must be some reason I never heard of the guy until now, despite living in the American Midwest, with which his work is (or was) as closely identified as Twain’s is with the Mississippi or Steinbeck’s with California. I wonder what the reason is.

Let me start by making something very clear: I have nothing but respect and admiration for Paul Graham. I’ve read most of his essays multiple times. A few of them have completely changed the way I look at the world. He is, in my opinion, nothing short of a modern Renaissance man. So please don’t think I’m attacking him or trying to tear him down. Not that I could even if I wanted to, but I would never want to. Nevertheless, he has made a claim I disagree with, and I want to examine it.

Graham recently posted an essay entitled “Write Simply.” It’s a subject he’s written about before, especially in “Write Like You Talk.” You should read these essays before reading this post.

There’s always been something about “Write Like You Talk” that bothers me, and I got the same feeling from “Write Simply.” But it was hard for me to figure out what it was, because generally it seems like sound advice. There was nothing in them I could point at and say, “That’s wrong.”

But I think I’ve finally figured out what nags at me: it’s that most famous writers through history clearly didn’t write this way.

Let’s look at some examples. Here is the opening of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely any one at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand “under the shelter of the wall,” as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions.

Is this simple? I don’t think so. Here is a rewritten version that contains basically the same ideas.

The best thing about Socialism is that it would allow everyone to have more independence. There have been a few gifted people who have had this independence in the past, and who have done great things that benefited society, but not many.

Does this mean I’m a better writer than Wilde? Seems unlikely. Nor is Wilde’s style unusual for his time. Read anything written in English during the Victorian period. I’ll bet that the language is more complex, the sentences more intricate, than an equivalent piece of writing today. Whether you compare Oscar Wilde to Paul Graham or Varney the Vampire to Twilight, you will see this pattern.

What explains this difference? I can think of a few possible explanations:

  • Writers today are smarter than those fussy Victorians, and use simplified language to make our point clear.
  • The Victorians were smarter than writers today, and could handle more complex language.
  • Victorian writers and modern writers are, in the aggregate, equally smart, but fashions have changed.

There are probably good arguments to be made for each, though I tend to favor the last one. In particular, Victorian writers were writing because they knew they had to justify publishing their writing in some physical form, which meant a higher word count. With some exceptions, writers today face no such requirement. Maybe that is sufficient to explain it.

But let’s look at another famous writer, from a more recent period:

I have before me a bibliography of P. G. Wodehouse’s works. It names round about fifty books, but is certainly incomplete. It is as well to be honest, and I ought to start by admitting that there are many books by Wodehouse – perhaps a quarter or a third of the total – which I have not read. It is not, indeed, easy to read the whole output of a popular writer who is normally published in cheap editions. But I have followed his work fairly closely since 1911, when I was eight years old, and am well acquainted with its peculiar mental atmosphere – an atmosphere which has not, of course, remained completely unchanged, but shows little alteration since about 1925. 

This is from George Orwell’s 1945 essay “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse.” I can make a lot of cuts to this:

I have not read all of Wodehouse’s books, but am familiar enough with them to say that his style has changed little since 1925.

Doesn’t this communicate the same point? And might not Orwell himself approve, since he also once wrote in another essay, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” I think Graham and Orwell would agree on this rule.

On the other hand, Orwell also wrote the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a totalitarian government systematically eliminates words from the language in order to make certain thoughts unthinkable. In the appendix to the novel, there is an example of how this works:

Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation — that is, alteration in sense as well as language. Take for example the well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government. . .

It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.

And this is what I find scary about writing simply: there is a fine line between writing so simply that you get your ideas across, as Graham advises, and writing so simply that your ideas become too simplified.

Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” In fact, he didn’t say this. What he said was, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” But, amusingly, someone decided it was better if it was made simpler. And they were right, in this case–but it’s still worth knowing the real quote.

If there’s one point in all of Graham’s essays where I just don’t see things his way at all, it’s this from “Write Like You Talk”:

But just imagine calling Picasso “the mercurial Spaniard” when talking to a friend. Even one sentence of this would raise eyebrows in conversation. 

I love the phrase “mercurial Spaniard.” It’s been stuck in my mind ever since reading that essay. (I haven’t read the book Graham references.) It just has a nice feel to it. I admit I’m unusual in this regard–both my mother and her father loved unusual turns of phrases like this, and that’s probably where I picked it up. Would I say that in conversation with just anyone? No. Would I say it in conversation with a friend who loved it as much as I do? Absolutely.

Graham asserts that, “The gap between most writing and pure ideas is not filled with poetry.” I think that it used to be. Or, if not poetry, then clever and original prose. Of course, this doesn’t mean the ideas were good. But if they were bad, at least you still had some poetry. What do we have now?

Graham’s method is to convey his ideas as cleanly and precisely as possible. The old method was to communicate ideas with some ornament, some extravagance, in order to make them not only interesting, but aesthetically pleasing.

It’s true that bad ideas can be disguised with clever language. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the history of communication. But my fear is that good ideas can also be eroded through oversimplified language. The great writers of past eras were distinguished by their love for language, and their ability to use it in its most complex and most basic forms.

Graham says, “Write simply.” If I’m going to dispute this, I’d better offer some kind of counter-advice. Here’s my suggestion: write memorably. But understand that nine times out of ten, writing memorably is writing simply. Complexity is usually ugly, except when it’s necessary. But when it is necessary, be sure you can do it.

Writers Supporting Writers is a new blog run by Mark Paxson, Audrey Driscoll, Susan Nicholls, Trent Lewin, and yours truly. You can find posts and video chats about all sorts of indie writing matters there. Go check it out, and please feel free to comment. 

One of the greatest things about the indie writing community is how indie authors continually support one another. We occasionally say it feels like the only people who read our books are other authors–but by my lights, that’s a good thing. It’s better to get feedback from people who actually have a handle on how tough writing is. 

My hope is that this site will be a place where indie authors can gather to discuss our experiences. I’ve already met one indie author thanks to this site–C. Litka. I’ll be reviewing one of his books later this week.

So visit Writers Supporting Writers; read some posts, make some comments, and maybe discover some new indie authors!

Lydia Schoch has a fantastic post on why she blogs about multiple topics, contrary to the conventional wisdom. This, combined with Audrey Driscoll’s recent blog anniversary post, set me thinking about blogging in general, and why I like blogs.

I am in complete agreement with Lydia’s point: a blog should include the blogger’s observations on multiple topics, not a narrow focus on one thing.

Here’s why I think this: my introduction to the world of blogging was reading Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. While it’s true that the main focus of his blog was political news and commentary, Sullivan would post about other subjects, like his beagles and the show South Park and the band Pet Shop Boys.

The other thing that made Sullivan’s blog great was the community. He would regularly post stuff readers would send in, including the long-running “View from Your Window” series.

Most of the people who discovered The Daily Dish probably did so because they liked politics, but the thing that made it great were its non-political aspects. You didn’t feel like you were going there to get the latest talking points of the day. You felt like Andrew Sullivan had invited you to come in and chat with him and some of his other acquaintances about what was on their minds. It felt sincere.

The best blogs feel like a spontaneously compiled record of what the author thought was interesting at the time. What that is varies from person to person, which is what makes each blog unique. Trying to refine a blog down to just one topic is no more realistic than defining a person by just one characteristic. In fact, in both cases, it seems vaguely sinister.

Now, of course, a good blog will have recurring themes, just as a novel or a piece of music has a leitmotif. But these should come about organically–the results of patterns in how the blogger’s mind interprets the world.

I read once that novels are supposed to capture the totality of life. I’m not sure I believe this. I thought novels were supposed to tell a story. But capturing the “totality of life” is a great description of what the best blogs do.

According to my stats page, over the entirety of its existence, I’ve written 628,932 words on this blog. As any writer knows, that’s a lot of words. As someone who struggles to write stories that surpass a word count of 15,000, I’m pretty confident I could not have written that many if I just focused on one topic.

Blogging is an art, and it’s an art that calls for freedom to improvise. As Andrew Sullivan himself once observed, it’s like jazz in that respect. There is a feeling of spontaneity, and even though the artist may revisit the same material, they never treat it exactly the same way twice. That’s what makes it interesting.

I often see indie authors bring up the fact that the audience for their books seems to be composed of other indie authors. I’ve written a bit about this before, but now I feel compelled to do so again.

Also, I will be making some assertions that I don’t have hard numbers to back-up. If anyone does have numbers that either support or contradict, please say so in the comments.

Fewer People Are Reading

There’s little doubt fewer people read for pleasure than in the past. In 1900, for example, your options for in-home entertainment were much more limited. After a century that has seen the rise of radio, television, and of course, the internet, it’s impossible to imagine books not losing some market share.

Media like television and online videos are also inherently easier than reading. Watching is a passive activity. You don’t have to engage the imagination to the same degree as you do when reading a book. 

This also means that now, more than ever, the people who are reading must really like reading. Because if you just kind of like reading as a way to pass the time, there are lots of other things tempting you. The people who are reading books now are people who are serious about it. Which leads to a second point…

More Readers Are Writing

As Mark Paxson pointed out in the foreword to The Marfa Lights, readers, like pretty much every consumer of media, believe at some level they could make something better than at least some of the material they’re getting. But whereas with, say, movies, it takes a lot of money and buy-in from other people before you even get the chance, publishing a book just requires that you have the ability to save a Word file and upload it to the internet. Of course, publishing a good book takes a lot more than that, but the fact is, publishing has never been easier than it is now.

As a result, readers who in past eras might have had no viable path to publishing their work now have the ability to do so, and consequently, more readers are also writers. Or more accurately, published writers.

Is Any of This a Problem?

The simple answer is, “Duh, of course it’s a problem.” Fewer people read, and if you’re trying to sell books, that’s obviously bad news. And I’ll agree that, for a number of reasons, it would be better if more people read. But that isn’t something we can do much about, at least not in the short run.

I think many people still have in mind, at least subconsciously, the model of The Famous Author and Their Readers. I know I did, and this is probably because the most well-known current authors—Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, to name a few—fit into this mold, and by definition, they and others like them are the authors we hear the most about. 

However, these are exceptional cases. Many authors, including some who became quite famous, often did a great deal of their work as part of small groups of writers who shared their writing with each other. H.P. Lovecraft, whose name is now synonymous with a whole sub-genre of horror, was part of one such group, which also included Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and Robert Bloch. (Psycho)

More generally, good things seem to happen when you get a small group of talented people working together. One person alone usually can’t create something great; if nothing else, they need the support of their friends and peers. Likewise, large groups of people struggle to do anything at all, which is why big governments and corporations alike are famously inept.

In this regard, indie writers are actually quite well-positioned. The set of people who read is being whittled down to those who really care about it, and we have more ability than ever before to share our work.

Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin

What I’m saying here probably runs contrary to the general feeling among most indie authors. No matter how much we (and I include myself in this) may say, “We write for the sake of writing,” the truth is, we want to be read by people. Hopefully, a lot of them. I don’t think any of us expects to reach Rowling or King-level fame, but it would be nice to have a following of people who, of their own free will, read our work regularly.

At the same time, I think it’s a mistake to wish for that at the expense of appreciating what we have. A community of writers, even a small one, is a recipe for producing great work. And, in my opinion at least, it can be satisfying in ways that having a lot of readers wouldn’t be. I may not be a famous writer, but unlike King or Rowling or Martin, I can count on the fact that all my feedback, whether positive or negative, will be thoughtful and well-considered.  

I realize that by writing all this, I may be coming across as a “Professor Pangloss,” the absurdly optimistic character from Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. But if by doing that I encourage my readers to continue their writing—as Voltaire was supposedly encouraging his readers by writing Candide—it will be worth it.

On the face of it, it hasn’t taken me that long to write any of my books. The long short stories are very quick: I wrote the first draft of 1NG4 in about three days last year, and had it published in a couple of weeks. Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival took about two weeks to write, and about a month before I finally published it.

As for novels, I started writing The House of Teufelvelt in mid-February, and had it finished by late July or early August. And The Directorate, my longest book, as I have recounted before, I started on August 17, 2017, and finished a first draft by October 5 of that year. For the next two months, I did revisions and gathered feedback, before publishing it in January.

Looking at the start and end dates of when I began writing something and when I finished, it seems logical to conclude that a long short story takes about a month to produce, and a novel takes maybe 4-5 months. Not too bad, right?

Except this is deceptive. Because when I first began putting down the words on what would eventually become a recognizable first draft of something is not really when I started working on it. 

Take 1NG4: I’d wanted to do a weird, cyberpunk-ish story full of mystery and conspiracies for years before writing that. My 2014 novella Start of the Majestic World is a primitive forerunner of it. The November before I wrote it, I wrote a complete first draft of another story full of weird conspiracies and hints of the paranormal. And I was completely unsatisfied with it. Only one line from it lives on in 1NG4.

Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival is another example: I’d been obsessed with doing a story about a mysterious cryptid living in rural hill country since reading Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness in 2009, and doubly so after discovering the Mothman legend in 2013. A lot of the scenery and descriptions came from trips to West Virginia and Southern Ohio made in 2012 and 2015. (Again, my less-successful attempts at these ideas appear in Majestic World.)

With novels, it gets even more dramatic: The House of Teufelvelt was also the title of a short unpublished novella I wrote in 2013. It also featured a character with a dark past named Roderick Teufelvelt, a place called Leviathan State University, and a few other shared story elements. But it was very different in a number of ways, and I was a not happy with it, even after reading every bit of Gothic literature I could find for inspiration. I had to let it simmer a bit, and come back with a fresh perspective.

Taking this more expansive view, the true “production time” on 1NG4 goes from two weeks to at least five years, Teufelvelt’s goes from six months to six years and Vespasian Moon’s goes from one month to ten years.

And then, of course, there’s The Directorate. I’ve discussed this before, but to recap: In 2002, I tried making a stop-motion film with action figures about a station, accessible by a space elevator, that had an ulterior purpose unbeknownst to most of the occupants. In 2007, I made another animated film around the same theme. In 2012, I wrote yet another outline of the same plot, but eventually abandoned it.

I essentially kept playing with the same idea for fifteen years before I finally told the story in a way that satisfied me. I didn’t realize this until after publishing The Directorate, but in retrospect, it looks as if I was on a schedule where I would try telling a new version every five years. That wasn’t deliberate, though; it just worked out that way.

In summary, while the time from when I began writing might seem short, in reality there is a much longer, less obvious stage of storytelling, during which ideas get generated, examined, changed, and in some cases, thrown out and replaced with new ones. 

This isn’t a huge revelation. Indeed, it may seem quite obvious to creative types. But to their audiences, it may be completely invisible. This, incidentally, is probably why sequels are almost never as good as originals, and why artists so often “burn out” at some point in their careers: they amass a stock of ideas they work on in the back of their minds for years, and finally are able to mold them into a coherent whole, which they are able to show to the world. And if their work is popular, people immediately want more, not realizing that what they have just enjoyed is the result of years, or perhaps decades, of the creator tweaking various aspects of a concept. 

It’s commonplace to hear of creative people being “out of ideas” or feeling like they’ve lost their creative energy. I wonder if this is actually because it’s not obvious, even to them, how long it takes their mind to create ideas. I know I didn’t realize how long I’d worked on some ideas until I made a conscious effort to remember. An analogy: if you were used to going out to harvest the crop from a flourishing garden, and then one day you arrived to find that it was all gone, it would be kind of a shock, especially if you’re not aware of how the growing process works.

Generating ideas—for stories, for music, for art, for new inventions—takes a long time. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our brains do it best when it’s not their primary focus. The idea of a flash of inspiration is largely an illusion—but it’s a powerful illusion, because the moment the “missing piece” clicks into place and you have a great idea is so exhilarating that it feels as if it just came to you all of sudden, rather than being the last step in a long, laborious process.

So if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, a good cure can be to revisit old ideas you hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you’re a creative person, and I think everyone who reads this blog is, you very likely have some. In fact, you might even have some you didn’t remember you had. While I was working on this post, I suddenly remembered the existence of a short story of mine that I had completely forgotten about. It’s an uncanny feeling, reading something you know that you wrote, and all the time wondering Why did I write that? 

But uncanny is good.  It means you’ve found something interesting. Which is why it pays to revisit your old ideas—it’s the best way our minds’ have of looking at something from the perspective of the creator and the audience at the same time. 

It’s a gloomy, wet, unseasonably warm night here in Ohio. It feels like a good night to write a story, although I’m not sure what it would be about. But it set me thinking about how the immediate environment can influence one’s writing.

For example, I’ve never been to sea. I was on a boat in Lake Erie a couple of times, and I’ve been to the beach twice. So when I wrote 1NG4, I mostly used my imagination–but I did go down to a bridge over a river the day I wrote the first half of the story. I stood around, soaking in as much detail as I could. Doing that helped me write some of the description of the sun reflecting off the water.

Another example: for the scene in Vespasian Moon that takes place inside the title character’s cabin, I purposely stayed up much later than I normally do, turned out all the lights except for a flickering jack-o’-lantern, and then wrote the scene. That helped me with describing the way the shadows on the wall moved in the candlelight.

As someone who has long struggled with writing description, I’ve found this is a helpful trick. Of course, it has its limits. I doubt I’ll be traveling to any other planets to get the vibe I want for my science fiction stories.