From Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences (1895):

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.
[I omit rule 7 from this list, as it contains language which may shock modern readers–B.G.]
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

Obviously, ol’ Samuel Clemens is not acting in good faith. He has devised these rules specifically in order to ensure that Deerslayer will be in violation of them. I suspect nearly all other purported rules for writers are created through a similar process. Probably not with the same degree of venom as motivated Twain, but in the sense of being designed to fit pre-existing books, and not as independent criteria.

Still, Twain’s essay is hilarious. I’d be honored if someone hated my books this much!

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.