Nathan Bransford, Author


Friday, February 6, 2009

This Week in Publishing 2/6/09

But first, a word on yesterday's You Tell Me, which was one of the most fascinating discussions evah.

While I will leave it to everyone else to decide how they personally feel about the appropriateness or accuracy of King's statement, I would like to address the broader question of who can and should decide what books are "good," and push back a bit on the notion that "the reader" is or should be sole arbiter.

Yes, individual reader opinions are all valid in their own way. But I would not say that all opinions are equally valid, and if we as a culture completely devalue the role of experts and critics in shaping and helping define what we consider good I think we will lose a collective appreciation and elevation of artistic merit.

You would not value my opinion on particle physics, nor should you, because all I know about particle physics is that wave and particle duality makes my freaking head hurt. So would you value a particle physicist's view on books equal to a book expert's? Have we gotten to the point where everyone's opinion on books, no matter their expertise, background, insight, and level of literacy, should be treated with equal reverence?

Yes, art is at least partially subjective, we all read different books for different reasons, and there is something to appreciate and learn from in every single successful book. But in terms of opinions and discourse, the American Idolization of culture can only go so far. Otherwise we might as well just do away with Oscars and National Book Awards and crown whatever books are most accessible and successful "the best" and scrap the notion of ideal books that, yes, not everyone might appreciate or find easy to read, but which advance the art form, represent an artistic ideal, and break new ground for those who follow.

Anon@9:37 this morning put it more eloquently than I could: "One of the worst things happening in public discourse about the arts is that there appears to be an attempt to bring criticism down to the level of mere opinion, with the further claim that everyone's opinion is equal, and that all opinion is "just opinion" and nobody's opinion is more valid than another's.

This false conflation of criticism with opinion and the misguided egalitarianism in which it's wrapped is leading to the death of informed criticism, which is being drowned in a sea of uninformed opinion."

Word.

I hesitate to describe King as a critic because he's primarily an author, and in no way should the preceding be construed as an endorsement or rejection of his views. Call me Switzerland. I also will freely admit that the "experts" sometimes get it spectacularly wrong both in the short term and from a historical perspective. But consider me a little nervous about the pendulum swinging too far toward an artistic elevation of mass appeal and the yes, "misguided egalitarianism" of treating all opinions as equally valid.

Now then. There was news in publishing this week, and I aim to bring it to you.

The big news today is that HarperCollins reported a 25% drop in sales in the last quarter compared to the final quarter last year. Let that sink in. 25% drop. I can't even bang my head on my desk that's so depressing.

Meanwhile a new website geared toward all things self-publishing has gone live, edited by one of the best self-pubbed authors out there, Henry Baum. His excellent book NORTH OF SUNSET was named one of the best self-published books by POD-dy Mouth in Entertainment Weekly.

It turns out that Pilot Sully, he of dropping a plane down smoothly in the freezing Hudson, had a library book in his luggage, which he lost in the crash. What was it? A book on professional ethics. OF COURSE IT WAS. Can we please appoint Pilot Sully to the Supreme Court or name him pope or something? My goodness. Also the library waived his fees. Which he then probably insisted on paying anyway.

HarperStuido had a (typically) great post this week: they asked an independent bookseller three things publishers could do better, and then dished right back on three things independent booksellers could do better. The answers were insightful.

Google and Amazon are making waves today as Google announced plans to bring Google Book Search and its 1.5 million public domain books onto the iPhone. Meanwhile, Amazon dropped a huge bomblet by suggesting that they're going to make Kindle books available on mobile devices. (hat tip Pub Lunch)

Meanwhile, thanks to reader Jan Whitaker for a great article about the past, present, and future of e-books. Written by an e-book junkie, it's really worth a look as it puts both the past and future in perspective

And finally, Anne and May (Dayton and Vanderbilt) have killed many characters over the course of their writing careers, and Anne recently wrote a hilarious look back at the poor saps who were edited out completely. RIP, suckers!

Have a great weekend!






106 comments:

Anonymous said...

Arrrgh about HarperCollins! My agent just sent my novel there last week.

I could cry.

The Rat said...

Good read, Nathan. I didn't leave a comment yesterday on the King/Meyer fiasco because, like you just reinforced with Anon's message, I just didn't feel like I had the expertise. I leave it up to the critics because-hold your breath now-they are critics. Profound, I know. Anyways, I'm off to finally crack under the almighty Kindle pressure and go buy one of those damn things. If I hate it, I'm blaming you.

ryan field said...

"But consider me a little nervous about the pendulum swinging too far toward an artistic elevation of mass appeal and the yes, "misguided egalitarianism" of treating all opinions as equally valid."

Me too.

Anonymous said...

If I were a survivor of that flight, and the airline offered me compensation for the inconvenience of having my life saved by that pilot, I would forward the check to him.

Oh, and I loved your bit about book critics.

The other Olga said...

Just read an interview with Tom Jenks on Maud Newton's blog on the same issue: http://maudnewton.com/blog/?p=9152#more-9152
"The concern is over the growing sense, online, that anyone’s opinion about literature is as valid as anyone else’s, and given the overwhelming mass of information and conversation online, and given the temptation to take so much in and to respond to it in some way, a lot of mere, hasty opinion passes for thought. As the newspapers and print magazines constrict and curtail many of their features, it is vital for the best, most knowledgeable, talented, and sophisticated observers of culture to find places in the new media and for reliable, recognized sources of criticism and review to be established, much more so than at present."

Miss Viola Bookworm said...

Good post, Nathan, and thanks for sharing your views on literary criticism and the King article.

You're right; opinions about any art form are subjective, but I think criticism by experts is different. Often times, we go around spouting our opinions about things because of our experiences, and we are certainly entitled to those opinions, but does that mean they equal those of someone with credentials, education, and much more experience in that field? In my opinion, no.

We see this all the time though. I'm an educator, and believe me, I'm often told how teachers should teach or what schools should do to improve education because many people think they know something about education. Why? Because they went to school. The same could be said for literary agents. You choose books that you like for their writing quality and because you think they can sell in this publishing world. You have the experience and knowledge from a business perspective that the rest of us don't have, yet many of us (myself included, sometimes) vent and decide that we know what is best and should be published. Why? Because we are avid readers, so surely we know what is good reading material and should get published.

Nobody does this to doctors or lawyers though because we don't have that experience. We also don't do it to pilots or chemists or anyone else with more experience or education in certain fields, but we do this when talking about things we have experience with, like the arts. Still, just because we all have experience reading or watching movies, does that make us qualified to state what is the BEST in those art forms? I think we can state our opinions and share those, but to claim our opinions are more valid than an expert in the field, in my opinion, is wrong.

Steve Fuller said...

Let's not confuse "good" with "entertaining." Reality television is (sometimes) entertaining, but that doesn't make it good.

Everyone's opinion is valid if the discussion is about entertainment value. Expert opinions are valid if the discussion is about "goodness."

Michael Pickett said...

Nathan,
Your response to yesterdays (throat clearing) discussion was a breath of fresh air. Thanks for that.

Doug said...

Nathan, while I agree that you cannot just leave the decision about whether a book is good or not simply to the uneducated horde, neither can you leave it only to the critics. In a lot of cases, especially with movie reviewers I find that the movies or books I liked the best, and are the most successful are the ones that they panned. I find this especially true when critics get so wrapped around the use of language, e.g. how this particular successful book had no literary value. It's true that most of the Clancy or Crichton books had little or no literary value, but look how successful they were. They were successful because they told interesting stories, not because they made good use of the language.

Whether a book is good or not to me has little to do with how literary it is, or how well it used the language. I want a great story.

FYI, I want a Kindle badly, and I also want to get my book on there ASAP.

Rick Daley said...

Nathan,

Congrats on yesterday's post, you broke 300! It's like the Energizer Bunny of comment threads, it just keeps going, and going, and going...

Thanks for bringing us more publishing news, even if it does make you the Harbinger of Sorrow :-(

At least you balanced it out with something uplifting, and also something funny.

WORD VERIFICATION: sesses. Don't know what it means, but it's a cool palindrome.

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

I'll gladly appoint myself to Team Stephen King, and I strongly agree with his statements, attacking that awful Twilight author.

Too bad about HarperCollins, but hey, welcome to 2009!

mnemosyne's afterthought said...

This is a propos of nothing in your post.

But it is funny:
http://www.scifiguy.ca/2009/02/the-impotence-of-proofreading-by-taylor.html

other lisa said...

I have to quote this too:

This false conflation of criticism with opinion and the misguided egalitarianism in which it's wrapped is leading to the death of informed criticism, which is being drowned in a sea of uninformed opinion.

I completely agree.

And to add to the amusing links, here's 28 Ways Twilight the Movie is better than Twilight the book.

(ducking now)

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan,

In regard to the part of your blog post today about yesterday’s discussion and the important role of trained experts: Amen!! In my opinion, it’s going to be up to the gatekeepers (publishers, bookstores, etc.) to keep high standards even if money can be made by selling inferior books. More importantly, it’s going to be up to professional reviewers to maintain high standards. Twilight has won some top awards from major reviewers, including being named a Best Book of the Year. Seriously? Best book of the year?

Pilot Sully has restored my faith in humanity.

Harper Collins’ may have had a 25% drop in revenue for the last quarter of 2008 compared to 2007, but their revenue dropped down to $350 million. Is that really a problem?

Thanks to the link for NORTH OF SUNSET. I love that a self-pubbed book has received such incredible reviews, and wonder why the author went the self-publishing route.

wickerman said...

The problem with leaving the valuation of good vs bad writing to 'experts' is that - unlike physics - it is ALL subjective. Science and math have far less subjectivity to them. 2+2 will always = 4. e=mc^2, period.

This or that is good writing is alot more wishy washy. What was good 50 years ago is not necessarily good now. 2+2 still equaled 4 50 years ago. Sure you can say grammar has to be this or that and the like, but mechanics are hardly the measure of a good book. Textbooks can be grammatically perfect too - are they art?

The bottom line is, 'experts' is a tough term to use in a subjective business. It's like being a political expert. There are Republican and Democratic 'experts' who read the same thing 2 different ways. The thing is, there is too much room for interpretation. Likewise, books, movies etc, are all subjective 'art' forms. The idea that the unwashed, uneducated masses are just too stupid to be allowed to judge for themselves what is or is not 'good' is elitism and nothing more. One can insist they are educated and cultured and well informed, but when it is being used as a smoke screen for snobbery, it is just pathetic.

The above said, I intend it all as a sweeping generalization and I hope no one thinks I was pointing a finger - I most certainly do not intend to.

Peace, love and a winning season for the 9ers in 09-10.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Nicely said, Nathan.

lotusgirl said...

I hold with what I said yesterday, but I didn't really comment on the whole "should this or that book be canon" debate.

For a book to be considered Canon or great literature, I think it should be judged by experts in the field as worthy of extreme merit.

I would never consider Meyer's work as Canon, but the same goes for King as well as Rowling. They all have their place just not in what is considered Canon.

Nathan Bransford said...

wickerman-

I knew it wouldn't take long for someone to articulate the counterpoint to my argument, which is that reliance on experts quickly devolves into elitism. And perhaps that is a fair result for a critics class and academia that too long has associated any measure of accessibility with insufficient literary merit, and ignores great works of genre fiction.

But at the same time, if there were pure subjectivity in books, yours would be a very fair argument. If everything is purely subjective then no one opinion truly matters. But just as some people are able to hear when a singer is out of key and some are not, there are people who are adept at recognizing good writing from bad. Not everyone has the skill and talent. The boundaries and definitions of "good writing" are slippery. But not endlessly so.

Either there is such a thing as good writing, and it takes a literary elite to spot it and champion it, or there isn't such a thing at all and every writer and reader is on an even playing field. I tend to think it's the former, at the risk of sounding elitist.

Arron Ferguson said...

"The big news today is that HarperCollins reported a 25% drop in sales in the last quarter compared to the final quarter last year. Let that sink in. 25% drop. I can't even bang my head on my desk that's so depressing."

Expect more of this. Not just because of the global economic meltdown. It's also indicative of the change in business model that is affecting industries whose product is virtual content.

A good read on how this new business model works is at:

http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free?currentPage=all

I suspect that like the music industry, film & television industry, literary publishers are next on the chopping block and will suffer the same consequences if they don't manage to adapt to this new model. Amazon seems to "get it".

Laura K. Curtis said...

Going on three years ago, John Connolly put a post on his blog about reviewing, its difficulties, the problems with online reviews all counting equally, etc. As you can see from the fact that I am writing about it now, it really stuck with me. One of the things he says is:

the rise of internet reviewing which, by giving the impression that everyone’s critical opinion is equally valid, has had the effect of devaluing criticism in general. The result is feature articles disguised as reviews, and insipid efforts at “balance” that do no favors to either the critic or the book in question.

And almost a year ago, I put a post on my own blog which also referenced Connolly's post because reviewing had come back to the forefront of my mind.

I do think opinion has a place, especially when considering genre books. Getting critical reviews for them is difficult. Here's the thing -- you can give an opinion that has weight, or you can toss one off. Let's say I go look at an Amazon review of a book. It's by some stranger whose other reviews I haven't read, so I don't know whether I tend to like the same things as he does.

But if the review is internally meaty, it counts to me as criticism rather than opinion. If the reviewer gives me excerpts, specifics, analysis, it doesn't matter to me whether I know who he is or what his qualifications are; for that review, he's a critic.

On the other hand, while I agree with King in principle, I consider his actual words in this particular instance just opinion. It happens to be an opinion I agree with for the most part, but it's not really criticism.

Rick Daley said...

Hi Marilyn,

I can share some insight into your question:

"their [Haper Collins] revenue dropped down to $350 million. Is that really a problem?"

Yes. The numbers seem big to us lowly unpublished writers, even bigger when you recognize that as 1 quarter, not the whole year.

But another, and more dramatic figure, is that their earning are down 76%.

As companies grow in revenue, their infrastructure to support the sales also grows. When revenue shrinks but infrastructure does not, profits go down. If the company is publicly traded, the board does not have the option of being nice; the responsibility is to protect the investment of the shareholders, and earnings per share is a key metric for stock performance. the result is layoff and lass spending on things like new contracts and high advances.

To put it in perspective, imagine you made $1000 per month, to use round numbers. In 1 quarter, you earn $3,000, and your living expenses like mortgage, car payments, food, etc. are based off of the expectation of having $3,000. But then, you only make $2,250, losing almost a complete month's income.

You probably won't starve, but you're not going to be saving, and you may need to borrow some cash to get by for a short time.

Now imagine that no one will loan you that money, because the banks have their own financial meltdown to deal with...

That's a very simple way to look at the current economy, there's more to it than that, but the 25% drop for Harper Collins is pretty bad.

Word Ver: imofta. As in, imofta start my weekend,

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts about critics, Nathan. But it is still spectacularly murky, which is not your fault.

SK is a book critic for EW -- does that mean he is less of a valid critic than another critics?

Also, though it is vastly accepted that SM is not a "great writer" but a "good storyteller," Twilight was awarded coveted "star reviews" by both Booklist and Publishers Weekly -- two of the most respected review outlets out there. Which seems the antithesis of SK saying, "She's just not very good."

So who are we to lean on in seeking to unravel the beauty of a book? I say we can glean critics thoughts and compare them to our own about books we've read, but, we, still, as the reader know in our gut if something truly moved us or not.

Audrianna said...

Thanks for the info, Nathan. I have to laugh every time I hear the playback of the air traffic controllers and the pilot, simply because he is so utterly cool, calm, and collected about it. I would be screaming, "Good Lord!!! We're going down, people! Hold on like your great, great, great grandchildren's lives depend on it!"

Or something like that. Anyway, back to writin'.

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Rick,

That’s our current business model, but it didn’t used to be so. Stable earnings, rather than unlimited growth, used to define business success. Experts have pointed out that, at some point in the future, population growth will most likely slow down and there won’t be an increasingly large demand for products. At that point, businesses will probably be forced to go back to the model they had years ago in which stable profits, rather than markedly increased profits each and every quarter, define success. Most likely, there will be a huge bailout in the U.S. any day now, caps will be placed on CEO salaries and other huge corporate expenditures, and many of the largest businesses will survive. Who knows for sure, though? In many ways, the bailout is an enormous financial experiment. I’m crossing my fingers it works, and staying calm in the meantime. :)

Kristan said...

"I also will freely admit that the 'experts' sometimes get it spectacularly wrong both in the short term and from a historical perspective."

(PLEASE don't take these as fighting words, but...) Isn't that just an opinion right there? How seriously should we take it? Are you an expert/critic?

(Again, not fighting. Playing Devil's Advocate!)

I just don't think your argument is sound. (Ironically, because it is an opinion, and mine contradicts it.)

In math, there is right or wrong (1+1=2) but not in art, dance, writing, etc. If there were, think of all the new forms of painting (cubism) or dance (hip hop) or literature (flash fiction) that wouldn't exist, because it would have been deemed "bad" or "wrong."

(In fact many new forms probably WERE given those labels at the time of their creation.)

So it's one thing to be a critic or an expert, but I still don't think their opinions should matter more than anyone else's. Because in some cases, we may all agree on what's "bad," but in other cases, some may like the "terrible" thing, and that may spark a change, an evolution, a revolution.

In many cases, knowing what a good thing "should" look like prohibits you from appreciating a new spin on it.

Kristan said...

I guess I'm sort of adding on to wickerman's comment.

Lady Glamis said...

Thanks for a great post, Nathan. I loved your comments on the "reader" issue. Very well put.

Crimogenic said...

"The big news today is that HarperCollins reported a 25% drop in sales in the last quarter compared to the final quarter last year."

That hurts. Ouch.

Nathan Bransford said...

kristan-

I guess what I'm pushing back on is the notion that there is endless subjectivity in books. Is there really? Are all books really created equal? Or can't we agree that there is a degree of objectivity involved, namely there is such a thing as "good writing" and "bad writing"?

And then, who best to define good writing vs. bad writing but the experts? Surely there are some who are better at spotting and separating the good from the bad than others?

I'm not, for the record, putting myself in that category. An agent's concern is more economic -- it's my job to spot what will sell more than what is "good," even if "good" is certainly a part of what will sell.

But if there's nothing separating Ian McEwan from someone who wrote a NaNoWriMo novel in two weeks, why are we here?

Allegory19 said...

There's definitely a distinction between good and bad writing. Sometimes it just seems that rubish gets published and I for the life of me can't figure out why. I know there's subjectively involved, but sometimes the standards seem off.

Mira said...

These discussions are so interesting!

Well, I'm standing by my perspective in yesterday's discussion. I believe the true measure of writing is in the impact on the reader and even society.

But

this discussion is about the value of writing itself, right? Not as a craft, but as an art?

So, I think we're talking about beauty.

And maybe power.

Can an expert measure whether a work of art is more beautiful, more clear, more powerful than a layperson?

In the same way a jeweler can look a gem, and see flaws, that an untrained eye can't see.

But flaws in a jewel are objective. Beauty in writing, or art, can't be measured empirically. Does that mean it's not there?

That's a really good question.

I have no idea.

I need to think about it some more.

Karen C said...

Well said, Steve Fuller!

Since we were talking about Stephen King and Stephanie Meyers, I WAS confusing "good" with the far less refined "good at entertaining".

I would never have guessed that we were trying to decide whether Stephen King or Stephanie Meyers was more likely to make it onto the list of the greatest literary figures of our time.

Now if we'd been comparing Austen to the Brontes . . .

Anonymous said...

So, Allergory19, apparently not everyone in publishing is an expert?

Nathan Bransford said...

allegory19-

People buy books for different reasons, and not everyone cares about whether a book is written well from a technical or artistic standpoint. Or, should I say: most people do not care whether a book is written well from a technical or artistic standpoint.

However, there are people who do care, and there's a market for well-written books. I'm not terribly sympathetic to the argument that there's so much "rubbish" on the shelves, because it's not hard at all to find more terrifically written books than you can read in a lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Steven King trashed another writer in a public forum and I for one, think it showed a severe lack of class on his part. It was bad form.
Nuff said.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Nor, for the record, am I defending him.

Anonymous said...

Karen C, you missed this in the previous blog then:

"Jane Austen -- the queen of TELL, who never seems to grace us with an actual scene if she can help it... instead she just tells us about how it all went down. No SHOW for this amazing author."

Anonymous said...

Nathan, do you agree with SK's opinion on the all of the author's?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

It's not really my place to say. I have my own opinions, but I'd rather not come down either way.

Denise Eagan said...

I agree with Stephen Fuller. The real question is, what is your definition good writing? Is it inspired use of language? A story that enlightens? Or something that entertains? If it's the latter, then truly the readers are the ones who decide what is good writing and they speak with their wallets. They know what entertains them and Steven King's opinion isn't going to change that.

If your definition, though, is enlightenment or use of language, that's a different matter. That's when you delve more into literary merit, and yes, a more educated opinion should matter more.

Personally, I'm happier being one of the masses. Entertain me, please! If a book has literary merit, I'll take your word for it--and grab one of Ms. Meyers' books.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "Can an expert measure whether a work of art is more beautiful, more clear, more powerful than a layperson?"

Yes, they can. I'll give you a simple example: On Antiques Road Show, sometimes they'll bring in an expert, and the expert is presented with an array of vases or paintings or rugs, that all look the same to the layperson's eye.

And then the expert goes through and explains why out of 4 rugs, one is priceless - the tightness of the weave, the pattern, the color choices on the part of the weaver; or why a vase is not quite as good as all the others, because of the color or the shape, that once the expert points it out! - you see it too.

It's kind of irksome to me that, it's almost as if a piece of writing isn't a made thing like a rug or a vase or a painting - part of the beauty of an object is the skill and care that the maker put into it. The force of the imagination that propelled the body of work (looking over an artist or writer's entire career) into existence. Have you made something only you, with your particular life experience, could have brought into being?

I'll borrow the idea of depth from another poster: You have to live deeply in order to write deeply. Charlie Parker: "If you don't live it, it won't come out your horn." Or pen or keyboard.

Well, I'm disintegrating into irksomeness here, so I'll stop.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Another great Charlie Parker quote:

“I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melodic line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That's when I was born.”

Isn't that a wonderful thing to say about a piece of writing too? "When I wrote X, that's when I was born." Pays you back for the terror of poverty, many times over.

Scott said...

Not only truth well put, Nathan, but important to share. However, of all the spot on comments in your post, I liked this one the best:

"I hesitate to describe King as a critic because he's primarily an author, and in no way should the preceding be construed as an endorsement or rejection of his views. Call me Switzerland."

I LOL'd, and I don't do that letter thing, ever. Professorship in your future, sir. Or art critic, who to me is someone who knows enough about a collection of subjective material to convey its meaning in relevant terms; not a decider.

Sadly, there will still be those who confront a critic's allegations with the argument of "success". Sigh. Orange, meet apple.

And Sully for...something!

bacho n. 1. slang term that refers to the relatively rare incidence of finding two nacho chips stuck together.

Stephan Alexander Scharnberg said...

Well said, Mr. Bransford. I see it as a subtle blend of informed criticism and personal taste. In an educated, cosmopolitan society this trumps uninformed opinion--the junk food of the lowest common denominator. The voices of the masses do not determine, should not be, the yard stick of good taste. All opinions are NOT equal.
Equality is the utopia of a shackled, suppressed society. Fraternity, brotherhood, and personal responsibility are the hallmarks of a loving, respectful, healthy, diverse society.

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

I have to admit that I found this post extremely depressing. I am a fan of Kings and a fan a quite a few other authors.

I am an aspiring author myself. I'm just a normal mother of five, wife of a plumber. I love books and have just discovered a love of writing.

I've haven't had a formal educations in writing nor do I know all of the rules. But I do love to tell stories and would bask in the light of publication if it ever came my way.

I would be very hurt to be told I was a terrible writer. I am doing my best. I have been accepted to a writing course, but do I write like an astute English major. I truly doubt it.

Am I doomed then? I don't know, but I'll tell you one thing, I will keep plugging along. Even if I am no better than Stephanie Meyer, I would be happy with her success.

Mira said...

Wanda, yes! I think you're right.

Like your Road Show, I was thinking about Sister Wendy. I dont' know if you've seen her, but she has T.V. shows where she talks about great art through the ages.

I'm an art dunce. I could never 'get' art. But when I watched the programs, and she explained why a certain picture was great, I could suddenly see it.

So, there are probably people who can - either naturally or through training - identify great art in writing as well.

Of course whether those people are the same people who are labeled 'experts,' is another question entirely.

Doug said...

I forgot to add earlier that as a fellow pilot, what Sully did was nothing short of amazing. He truly deserves all the accolades that he is receiving.

I also have to admit that while my latest book has a theme not far from what happened with Sully, seeing it performed flawlessly by a real person totally eclipses anything that I can write.

twitter.com/thenextwriter

Kristie said...

Nathan, first of all thank you for this blog. I have learned more here than at any other sites, and as a new writer, I truly appreciate the content you've included.

I have a question, but didn't find an answer in the FAQ's or The Essentials sections.
An editor has requested to review the full manuscripts on two of my novels, but didn't mention anything about the submissions being "exclusive".
So, should I assume the request is exclusive and put on hold any further querying? (Is querying a word?)
Also, if I want to continue to shop my novels around, do I need to disclose that the novel is being reviewed by another editor in the query letter?

Anonymous said...

Wanda,
If not enough buyer's want to buy the rug then it becomes worthless.

Anonymous said...

God, Nathan, I knew you were smart and nice, but today you've proved yourself wise. Great thoughts about the value of criticism. Thanks you.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

Partical physics and reading? I've never even heard of partical physics, but I, along with the majority of the world, have been reading since 1st grade. Someone mentioned a doctor or lawyer, same thing, never studied medicine or the laws, but I have been reading for a very long time. Reading is something we are all exposed to. The experts know what they like, and I have to tell you I know what I like better than you and the rest of the experts. No one can look at a book and tell me (as was suggested by the art correlation) the critic says this is a good book so you will read it and like it. You may fool someone intermittently into buying a Marc Chagall because an expert says it is a true work of art, but the only reason I would hang it in my living room would be to show off my wealth. I'd have to cover it with a blanket the rest of the time. There are priceless books out there, but not because of the words printed in them. I would think most people do not buy books because they are a narcissist, and have something to prove by showing the world we only read he finest literature. I'm not going to buy an ugly rug, because it is woven finely, not matter what an expert tells me.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I'm sure you do know what you like more than any expert does. But I wouldn't confuse personal taste with a critical consensus (if there is one) of what is "good writing" or "good literature." You may not want to read those books, which is fine. Everyone reads books for different reasons. But I think the world is better off with the existence of an artistic ideal that is usually (but not always) different from what is the most commercially successful at any given time.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nathan, while I agree somewhat that we should allow critics to critique and should value their judgment incrementally more, your particle physics analogy is specious...

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whether that's a stuffy suit or a bare-skinned Bohemian... String theory, quarks, GUT and all that mind boggling boggledom of physics is not the same thing - Being a left-brained person, I need a right-brain to right-brain analogy, not a right vs. left.

Ultimately, I believe that art critics, movie critics, literary critics, etc. are overvalued (frequently by themselves) - they're useful for those who follow them and can trend their opinions and thus know whether said critic is someone whose opinion they respect or can discount. Ultimately, their opinion trends are more valuable, not their individual stand-alone opinions.

Nathan Bransford said...

Also, I don't think just reading throughout one's life necessarily translates to expertise. I have played the piano all my life, but I'm no Rachmaninoff.

Nathan Bransford said...

bane of anubis-

I actually agree with you that critical consensus is more valuable than any one critic. This whole argument isn't going to apply to individuals, it paints with too broad a stroke. I just think we're better off with the notion of a critical hit (implying a consensus of experts, or at least the ideal of one) vs. just bowing to mass appeal.

Ink said...

Call me Satan, aka the Devil's Advocate (Yes, I represent myself. Who else would I trust?)

Let me say that we'd all better believe in writing experts, because that's what we're trying to be. Or at least all of us who see ourselves as writers (which I assume is most of us here in Bran Land). To say otherwise is to strip all the meaning from what it is we're trying to do. What are the choices a writer makes except to write something that's "good"? Why do we choose one word over another except that it is in some way a "better" word for the story? To deny expertise, to make all opinions equally valid, is to deny your own talent and knowledge, your own sense of artistic merit. If all things are merely subjective taste then why revise at all? One choice is as subjectively valid as another. But we all do. We realize when a word isn't right, a sentence stumbles, a rhythm falters. We feel when there's a lack of clarity, when there's a rift in the vividness of the dream. We edit, we choose, and in so doing we validate our belief in good writing, our belief in our own expertise. We validate that all writing is not equal.

How can we do otherwise?

Now, subjective taste is a part of this. Everyone has a subjective opinion. No one can say what's "good" for us except us. But this amounts to what we like, not what is objectively good. Expertise is earned. It's talent and knowledge applied. And whatever our credentials the words are merely opinion until we back them up. And if we are experts we can back it up, whether creatively or critically. The better an expert we are, the more convincing our words will be.

As writers we want to be published. When we're looking for an agent, do we want a random subjective opinion to represent us, or an expert? Who will be better for our book? Do we want an "everyone's equal" opinion at the editorial stage, or the views of an expert, the views of a successful editor? Grab a hundred people off the street, and then grab a hundred of the most successful editors in the publishing world. Now have them all read our novels and offer constructive criticism. How often do you think we'll take the advice of the people off the street?

Let's say we have a person... a smart person, someone who likes books. They read a thriller or two every year, every now and then a self-help book. So in fifteen years they've read thirty or so books, most of them by a few favourite authors. Great. They have the right to decide what they like, what they think is "good". Their subjective tastes are perfectly valid. But that's a limited view from which to try and decide any objective value in regards to writing.

An expert in the business will have studied extensively. Writing, critical theory, reviews... and they will have read widely in many fields, quite likely thousands of books across different genres and time periods. They've worked with writers, worked with editing and copywriting. They know the history, they know the market, they've kept up to date. They've seen successful books, and unsuccessful ones... and they'll understand many of the reasons for both. Perhaps they've written a few million words themselves...

Who has the better basis for forming an opinion on what is "good" writing? Who will be able to make a claim and back it up with evidence and analysis? If it's you in the cookpot, who are you going to ask for advice? Better hope there's an expert around...

All stories set forth their own parameters, construct their own expectations, whether it be to entertain or edify. How well they meet those expectations reveals their quality. And the experts are the ones who are best able to reveal the efficacy with which writers accomplish this, the ones who have devoted their lives to understanding the craft.

Anything else is artistic anarchy.

Your friend,
Satan
(please ignore the sulfur)

Eiko said...

As writers, I think we absolutely need experts – to help us improve our work. The public can tell us what it does or doesn’t like, but I don’t think it can tell us how to make our writing better.

Yes, there is a certain amount of subjectivity in novel writing. Yes, the success of a novel is partly defined by its sales – but I think sales are due to the heart of a story (which I don’t think can be taught). An expert can tell us how well our writing communicates what we’re trying to get across, and more importantly, how to improve it. Ideally, those same experts tell us what “good” is.

I find it particularly sad that one should ever aspire to be “good enough”. Meyer writes an engaging story, to be. But she’s targeting a particular audience, and even admits to her limitations http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1734838-2,00.html.

If the worth of books were based solely on public opinion, we’d be at the mercy of one big popularity contest.

Bane of Anubis said...

True, but if you know you're a beer and pizza type of guy in some area, you probably appreciate the popcorn gallery's opinion more than the champagne's...

Perhaps the best thing about things like this SK brouhaha is the dialogue it's created -- I wonder how many people went to check out Twilight just b/c King bashed it? Perhaps the literary world needs a few Lindsay Lohan/Paris Hilton spotlit falling outs (or a Christian Bale style throwdown on his agent for checking his grammar :).

Kristan said...

I agree with (and appreciate!) your response to my comment: writing isn't infinitely subjective. If one person likes it, that doesn't make it good (except to them), and if one person hates it, that doesn't make it bad (except to them). I guess that's why I was objecting to the idea of a critic/expert's opinion mattering more: at the end of the day, that's still just ONE person.

So, "I just think we're better off with the notion of a critical hit (implying a consensus of experts, or at least the ideal of one) vs. just bowing to mass appeal."

Agreed. I think that's a key aspect to all of this: consensus. (Or at least majority?) Whether from the critics or the masses.

Anonymous said...

Just a note about that self-publishing link....an authoritative looking site but some of the companies linked to and talked about within the site do not work within the best interest of the authors. There are a number of self-proclaimed sites on self-publishing with the stated intent of providing "legitimate" info on self-publishing but the real intent is to scrape as much money as possible from naive authors. Got to be careful in the murky world of self-publishing.

Anonymous said...

Do you listen to only musical masterpieces? Are new bands told how they should play there music? Do we get new masterpieces because they follow the rules and someone told them exactly how to play? You may not be Rachmaninoff, but I would bet that is not the kind of music you prefer to listen to on an everyday basis. Nor would you listen to only Rachmaninoff advice if you were writing music. I would bet you would write the most poular music you could, what normal everyday people want to hear, which isn't Rachmaninoff. You may not get it right for everyone, and certainly not the professionals, but like music which has changed every year I have been alive (and that is more than you)books should change too. What my children listen to I would never call art, but they would. As professionals we need to grow and envelop new ideas. If we can't see new techniques as art then we will get left behind. Books will get left behind. Harry Potter is a masterpiece. Twenty years from now, the proffessionals will say why aren't they writing books like that anymore? You can study what has been done in the past all you want, but I would concentrate on the future.

Nathan Bransford said...

The metaphor is breaking down, as now I'm completely confused. But! I'm not trying to say that there is only one good or fun type of book to read. I love just about every single book I read, even if it's not what the "critics" deem the best. All I'm saying is that books benefit from the fact that we don't simply deem whatever books are most popular "the best." They might be the most fun to read. But artistic merit and good writing have their place, and for that, not all opinions are created equal.

Two Flights Down said...

Sorry I missed the original discussion. I feel the need to put in my two cents, as I have run into people who like to rant at me about how unworthy or stuck-up critics are. Then, there's the dreaded, "how many books have you written?" comment that people like to throw at the literary critics.

Critics are outside the world an author creates. The average reader doesn't usually try to take that extra step back to analyze the writing on a different level. Most readers want to be entertained, enlightened, inspired, swept away, etc. A critic, however, takes this step back and looks at the piece of work from different angles. An interpretation from any one of these many angles can be an art in itself.

Anonymous said...

Which modern day books would you consider good literature?

Nathan Bransford said...

Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, Aleksandar Hemon...

Nathan Bransford said...

Oops, those were authors instead of books. So uh, their books. And obviously just a spattering of authors. And just my opinion.

For the record, I don't consider myself a critical expert, and I don't have time to read as much of what is out there as literary critics. My job is very different. I have to stay up on what is considered good, but I'm not really a tastemaker.

Scott said...

You skipped me Nathan, but that's cool. I still got yer back, here.

Nathan Bransford said...

Also Scott.

~Jamie said...

I am happy you remained neutral on the little King v. Meyer showdown, there's no reason to get involved in that.

Now, about this Kindle... I used to hear that word once every couple of weeks, and now I hear someone mention the Kindle at least once a day... that alone is telling me that this entire industry is about to make a CRAZY change. It is so remnant the CD to mp3 transition we all witnessed a few years ago... and with that, we all saw how crazy the transition was... it's going to take a little while for this industry to right itself... we just have to hope it happens soon!

Scott said...

*thumbs up*

Audrianna said...

Just wanted to point out that, regardless of what everyone else thinks, Stephenie Meyer has made no comment on her website or elsewhere (as far as I know), so one of two things:

1. She either really doesn't care and is just blowing it off and letting the situation cool down

Or

2. She is still too angry/upset/sad/(insert emotion here) to respond just yet.

Or both...

Granted, the story only hit the Arizona Repulic three hours ago (online, anyway) so she just may not have heard anything yet, though, I seriously doubt it.

Hmm...I guess that's four options, not two. Anyway, just thought I'd add my two cents' worth. :)

Dara said...

I see the need for critics, but I generally don't pay much attention to what they say. :P I know, I probably should care, especially if my book gets published, but I have a hard time with agreeing with their evaluation.

That sounds bad, I know, but I've read books that critics hated and simply loved them. And also vice versa.

Maybe I need to brush up on who are considered the good literary authors as I've only heard of two on the list you posted a few comments up (Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy).

Ann Victor said...

Great post Nathan! It's a worrying trend and I don't think it's limited to the arts.

candicekennington said...

I agree that there are critics whose opinions are more important than your average consumer of lightweight novels. But I would argue that critics are just as guilty of the “idealization of culture” as everyday readers. Critics are nothing more than informed, educated readers who, by the nature of their profession, have the need to distinguish themselves in their opinions. As a result, I believe they are particularly susceptible to the promotion of what is considered “forward thinking” or “highbrowed” in the current cultural or political climate. I consider that many award winning books and films are nothing more than critically acclaimed propaganda for whatever social movement or crisis happens to be at the forefront of the public consciousness.

I think that the “misguided egalitarianism” of treating all opinions as equally valid would be to assume that any single individual’s opinion is as valid as another’s. But I do not believe it is misguided to consider that mass opinion can and does often distinguish works of artistic merit. But those works are generally only recognized as having that merit by so called experts if they are socially and politically expedient in elite literary circles. This is not to say that all wildly successful, bestselling novels are worthy of critical acclaim.

Theophagous Monkey said...

Andrew Keen, who happens to live in the Bay Area, I think, has been writing on this subject for a while. "The Cult of the Amateur," I think is the title I read. It's worth a read for anyone interested in this argument - and it is an argument of prodigious proportions in these times, as we move from the Web to the Cloud, as in Cloud Computing. Keen makes a good case for the role of critics and other experts in mediating the onslaught of so much content, in helping us, as readers, for instance, or as consumers of music, etc. to ferret out what's worth having a look at. I want to know what's worth spending time just thinking about spending more time consuming. The marketing departments are so good now at picking titles and cover art and hype that I for one want to hear from an at least nominally disinterested party before I spend the time even thinking about thinking about buying and then spending more time consuming a book or a recording. Once in a while you come across a great book that has not been blessed with great reviews. Not often though. Think about it. You do hit the odd stinker that got great reviews, yes, but the odds are in favor of the critics - as opposed to any one critic at any one time - getting it right.

Cheers

Anonymous said...

Well said Mr. Bransford - everyone is entitled to an opinion, but uninformed opinion cannot be said to have the same value as that of an expert.

Harpers as just one case study / job losses / future of e-publishing and effects on bricks 'n' mortar stores. Is there no move afoot in the industry to work together in a business forum to make things better? Reps from both big and small houses, agents, e-channels and booksellers (chain and independent) to see how the process works today, where it's going and optimize it for everyone involved to make more sales? Each function would need to map out its current processes - decide what doesn't work, and want to improve, then all come together and see where the similar points can be achieved? They could achieve a lot in two days, in a conference center with enough breakout rooms and neutral process leaders. Is no one wanting to take up the gauntlet of making things better, rather than waiting for the further demise of the industry and each pointing the finger?

Luc2 said...

Nathan, It seems from your comments that literary critics are mainly experts in recognizing “good writing” and “artistic merit”. How would you define both?
I think that these definitions are relevant to this very interesting discussion.

I just want to respond to one of you statements: Also, I don't think just reading throughout one's life necessarily translates to expertise. I have played the piano all my life, but I'm no Rachmaninoff. Then what does? What makes these people experts? Having degrees in English, or literature? Because your statement seems of the mark: most of these critics have not written masterpieces a la Rachmaninoff.

In my field of work, I’ve met and studied many experts, with an impressive scholarly background, publications and years of experience. I admire many of them, but there are more than enough who aren’t that impressive and don’t deserve to be labeled as experts. And that isn’t just my opinion.

So what makes a critic worth listening to?

Kimber An said...

While I respect your opinion, I still hold to mine. Readers rule!

Rick Daley said...

Alrighting is up too the reader if, its good or not. You no what I mean? That means it is all ways objective, even if words are miss-used wrong and not spelt write.

All hyperbole aside, you don't need to agree with a critic to enjoy the viewpoint. I read Roger Ebert's movie reviews regularly. I agree with his ratings most of the time, but even when I don't agree with his assessment of the film's quality, I think he does a good job of stating his opinion. He is usually very clear as to why he didn't like something. Maybe it's just that he's a good writer.

terri said...

Nathan - I am taking my birthday off from my two jobs and catching up on blogs, articles, etc. Thanks for the great links, I plan on following up on them on this wonderful lazy day.

A few quick comments:

1. Great post on the library book and the pilot. In the big rush of everyday life, we tend to overlook the everyday heroes. The people with such high standards and ethics that they refuse to compromise. Surprised by your post? Not one bit. I want to go out and book one of his flights just to show my support!

2. I do believe SK qualifies as a critic. He was a professor and is a student of language and storytelling. When he uses some dreadful adverb in his story it is because he wanted to, or felt the need to, not because he didn't know better. As I said yesterday, he was offering his opinion on the story, not the storyteller. SK has always had a lack of ego about himself and his work, more writers should adopt his attitude. Had that comment been directed at me, the sting would have been far over come by the thought, "Stephen King read my book!"

3. You are correct, there is a place for experts. I read a lot of SK. I also read the experts analysis of SK and use this to find depth and breadth in the stories that I didn't see the first time.

4. I take the Harpers 4Q results with a grain of salt. 4Q of 2008 was an unusual period of lack of consumer confidence. Things are already starting to turn around just a fraction and the proverbial proof will be how things go in 2009.

5. A Kindle is on my 2009 Christmas wish list. I figure they will have worked out some of the initial bugs and I put a bit aside every week to take the plunge. Can't wait! I love short stories and novellas and that format is going to be alive and well in ebooks!

Love the blog, and going back through some of the posts and links is definitely on my 'day off' to-do list.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

People Don't Make Ugly Rugs

Re: "I'm not going to buy an ugly rug, because it is woven finely, not matter what an expert tells me."

and

"Wanda, If not enough buyer's want to buy the rug then it becomes worthless."

Rugs, old rugs, handmade rugs - it used to be textile arts were handed down from one generation to the next - their beauty was a source of individual, family and/or community pride. Therefore: People didn't make ugly rugs!

You, today, may not like a particular style or color combination - the market as a whole may not be interested in those kinds of rugs at the moment - that doesn't make the rugs "ugly" or "worthless."

I point out it is possible to not like something, at the same time recognizing it's beauty - "just not for me." As well, as time goes by, you may find you DO start liking that particular style. One thing I used to do in art history classes, I would ask, "why is that supposed to be a great work of art?" And yes, your professors - or Sister Wendy :) can tell you.

Regarding rugs and writing: Most of us don't learn how to write novels the way people used to learn rug making - as a communal activity, handed down from one generation to the next, with the expectation that someday, you'll be the oldster teaching the youngster. I mean, even if you join a writing group (as an adult) in Illinois, you could always pick up and move to Texas and join a writing group there - or you could post on a certain blog, then one day stop, and start posting on some other blog - with a "different identity" even - we're just not tied to each other, or dependent on each other (?) as previously...not saying better or worse (why do I get the feeling though, I would have been one of the ones branded a witch and burnt at the stake? Or at the very least, illiterate and never having written a single word...) So maybe I'm saying now is better...no, wait, union membership in US stands at 12%, the bestest would be for that number to be around 50%, because then my own personal finances...ai yi yi...

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "You may not be Rachmaninoff, but I would bet that is not the kind of music you prefer to listen to on an everyday basis."

I listen to Tchaikovsky every day (I struggle with properly spelling his name, but that is a separate issue). When I was growing up, my familiarity with Tchaikovsky consisted of hearing Swan Lake and Nutcracker jokes in TV sitcoms. I also saw The Nutcracker ballet on TV once, but not the whole thing, because my siblings wanted to watch something else (the after-school battle between watching Dark Shadows and Hogan's Heroes was INTENSE).

I love Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, and Symphony #6. I listen to them because they give me insight into the tone of my novel, as well as one of my characters, who is Russian and of a certain (implausible) age.

You add lime or dolomite to sweeten the soil - adjust the soil's pH. I think music is a wonderful (nonverbal) way of adjusting the pH of your novel - sweetening it, if that's what's needed. Interestingly, you add sulfur (the devil's powder!) to make soil more acidic. I think of acid rock - or maybe heavy metal.

I also listen to KC and the Sunshine band and a lot of disco - I'll go out on a limb and say there is a lot of similarity between disco and Tchaikovsky!

Moral: Feel free to explore hoary old works of art, translations, and music people make jokes about - the pH of your novel may depend on it!

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Hi Terri,

Happy birthday. Two jobs - a day off (even if you did put it in scare quotes) - definitely a reason to celebrate.

Geoff Thorne said...

In discussions like this I'm always reminded of the Scarecrow receiving his "brains" from Oz in the movie. The Scarecrow was already smart but he needed that sheepskin diploma to "prove" it to the world (and himself). In the literary world I see the critic as Oz and writers who buy into the paradigm as very much Scarecrows.

The way it works for me is this:

1) If I'm lucky enough to have pro writers whose work I respect and who're farther along in "the game" than me vet my work, I will take their criticisms to heart. I won't necessarily follow their advice 100% of the time but I will take it extremely seriously. I listen to them the same way I'd listen to a pro athlete giving me tips on how to adjust my batting stance or swing.

2) If enough lay people or fellow journeymen read my work and I begin to see patterns turn up in the aggregation of their crits ("What's with the constant allusions to sunrise, Geoff?" or "Do we really need the strange repetitions on page X?") I will look to that. The more people who read and have the same or similar response to your work, the closer you can come to "objectivity" in criticism of that work.

3) If a professional critic gives me a good review- especially if they clearly understood what I was going for and actually read the story (not always the case. Sometimes they skim)- I will be very happy. Conversely I will be unhappy if said critic gives me a pass.

In both cases my response is largely due to the fact that some people buy books from writers they don't know based upon pro critic reviews and so negatives in this area hurt my sales. And, of course, we all want to be loved by everyone so any falloff from the desired 100% makes me wince.

Personally, I don't believe there can be true literary criticism in an objective sense as there are too many different tropes from genre to genre, too many different goals from writer to writer (certainly different styles) and massively different tastes from era to era.

We love Shakespeare and Austen or Twain and Lovecraft but just try and let a modern writer attempt something in any of their styles and wait for the sound of slamming doors.

Empirically (heh) you have to consider all artistic criticism as expressions of personal opinion and taste. The professional and/or "scholarly" crits are just more wordy and can be footnoted. That doesn't make them superior to the opinion of the "Average Joe," only more verbose and shouted from a soapbox.

On a side note:

Those who consider Mr. King to be inherently subpar or genre-restricted should really take a quick look at his DIFFERENT SEASONS collection of novellas. THE BODY and RITA HAYWORTH AND THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION are two non-genre stories that stack up against the best stories in our language.

In my opinion, THE BALLAD OF THE FLEXIBLE BULLET (from the SKELETON CREW collection) is one of the best pieces of short fiction ever written in or out of genre. In the top five certainly.

These don't make his opinion of TWILIGHT any more or less valid (no more than does the crappiness of some of his output) but they may change some minds vis s vis his own relative abilities.

He may call himself a hack but I think he's just being modest. Jury's still out on Ms. Meyer and the rest of the noobs.

Ink said...

Geoff Thorne,

Some interesting points there. I'd have to say that a good critic's opinion is better than an average opinion, though. Now, not everyone who is a "critic" is a good one. Credentials don't make a good critic. Fine critique makes a good critic. And a good critic has the skills and knowledge to understand the workings of language and narrative. Yes, there's a vast diversity among different genres and periods... but a great critic will evaluate a piece of writing on its own merits, on the expectations that piece of writing sets up for itself. A great critic won't evaluate Stephen King's Dreamcatcher against the expectations of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. The stories are attempting different things. A great critic will, however, be able to evaluate Dreamcatcher against the expectations the narrative sets for itself, and how well it meets these expectations.

Again, lots of people call themselves critics, and some of these won't be good at it (and, yes, politics and theory cliques can be a problem). But lots of people call themselves writers, too, with equal results. That doesn't mean there aren't great writers or great critics. Both, I think, have something important to offer. And the proof, as always, is in the pudding.

My best,
Bryan Russell

MzMannerz said...

Re: the King/Meyer drama

My thought that the reader was the final decision maker was less romantic and more realistic. The reader buys the book. Plenty of bestsellers (Meyer's, in fact) have been critically panned by important people, and plenty of critically acclaimed books, movies, television shows, etc., have never found an audience.

Of course an expert's opinion *should* carry more weight, but in the end, the layman's dollar is actually king.

No pun intended.

Nathan Bransford said...

luc2-

I think it's partly the amount of time that experts devote to it, partly talent. Casually reading books over a lifetime isn't the same thing as, say, Michiko Kakutani devoting her career to it, and then writing provocative and insightful enough criticism to be taken seriously. Yes, there are terrifically insightful people who don't read often and are talented at spotting good books, but there is something to be said for a group of people who are insightful and devote their lives to it. Those are the experts.

Anonymous said...

Expects aside, I keep thinking about SK's book ON WRITING where he says something to the effect, here are the rules...now feel free to break them. He also stresses write to your "reader". Obviously SM was able to reach a few of those.

SK also (in his book) likens Danielle Steel's novel's to something you might have to read in hell, as well as taking Nicholas Sparks down a notch or two as a writer. IMHO...I think SK is on point with all of his observations.

zoewinters said...

I think it's up to each person to decide which authorities they consider authorities. While I agree that not every viewpoint on any given topic is equally valid for a variety of reasons, each individual will decide for themselves who is an authority and who isn't. Someone I think is an authority on something, you might disagree. So how do we pick who the authority is?

When it comes to art, my best friend's view in the end normally carries a lot more weight than a well-known critic.

Also, most people reading fiction are looking more to be entertained than to participate in the intellectual exercise of higher criticism.

On the Stephen King specific issue, I think the whole thing has been blown up way too big. He is one person and one opinion. People who are major Stephen King fans for the most part unsurprisingly supported him and his right to voice his opinion whether or not they personally agreed with his view of Meyer's writing.

Those who are Meyer's fans unsurprisingly might take a bit of umbrage at King's viewpoint.

My point (I promise I have one) is that at the end of the day, every individual human being must decide for themselves whose views are valid and what views they'll listen to. The Pope is a high authority for people who are Catholic, but I'm not Catholic, so his views on things are only of mild passing curiosity to me.

We can't really close Pandora's box now that it's open. What we can do instead is teach critical thinking skills so people can better gauge who should and shouldn't be an authority "for them" on any given topic. But the days are gone where we'll ALL just nod and smile and agree that the same people are the "authorities" on any given matter.

Mira said...

Discussions like these can become complex because whenever you identify something as 'good,' there can be a hidden factor of 'value.'

I do agree that art can be evaluated in terms of it's beauty and purity.

But that doesn't mean that less beautiful, or even ugly, art isn't valuable and necessary.

I will never write great works of literature. Beauty in art isn't my talent. But I can write things (I hope) that are useful and potent.

I'm in a writer's group. One writes lyric description; she writes beauty. Another writes pure entertainment; she writes fun. A third writes emotional pieces: she writes 'wake-up.'

They're all valuable.

Maybe we can all aspire to make our writing beautiful, but it's not a requirement for value. That's what I think anyway.

JTF719 said...

How do you explain the entire universe of 19th century art 'experts' failing to find any value whatsoever in the impressionist movement? I’ll buy your logic with the qualification that'experts' in the field of art and literature have a long history of being comically wrong - the results being too often tragic.

Mira said...

I was thinking of a quote to 'beautify' my argument. And I found it!

"Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang the best."

- Unknown

Steve Ballmer said...

... well written people, I enjoy a good, interesting blog!

Vic said...

What worries me about critics is their focus on 'literary' works and their apparent willingness to ignore genre fiction.

It also troubles me that it is occasionally only after sufficient time passes that some works are considered literary. Lord of the Rings, for example, now seems to be acknowledged as a masterpiece, despite being dismissed by critics during Tolkien's lifetime.

It has always struck me as a kind of Emperor's new clothes kind of thing - along the same lines as those art critics who admire art that could have been produced by my five year old.

'If we critics all agree that it is good, it must be good. And then the masses will see that it is so and they will bow down before our wisdom...'

Writing grew out of the tradition of storytelling. I don't necessarily think it is a bad thing to praise those who write well and sell well. Because usually, the bestselling writers are great storytellers.

Sure, as SK suggests, (and I do think he shouldn't be throwing stones on this subject, myself, but that's an aside) it is possible to tell a good story and become immensely popular without being a great writer. However, I think it is wrong to devalue work that is popular.

I believe in any of the arts some inherent skill should be mastered and produced and therefore rewarded by the critics. For example, I'm uninterested in the writer that can't structure a good story or writes poorly just as I can't see why critics praise the artist that plants a dot in the centre of the canvas and calls it art.

I'm willing to listen to the experts and critics to a point, but their inclination to ignore popular works or genre fiction make them appear not only elitist but also narrow-minded. I feel they lose credibility when they do so.

Michelle said...

I had a discussion of a very similar nature on a writing website recently. I reposted my answer on my blog, but in essence, I said that great writing (not just good or adequate) is writing that tells a deeper truth about who we are as people or the world around us.

While I see the difference between good books and entertaining books, those classics that stay with us for our lives have something much deeper and extraordinary in them.

My two cents, for what it's worth.

Rick Daley said...

Nathan,

You sure do attract a savvy crowd. Steve Ballmer visiting and giving props...That's awesome!

Wendy said...

Is it too late for us to get Pilot Sully to be our Vice President?

Anonymous said...

For those procrastinating today -- Reviewer X's blog has a great question: Do you finish every book you start or do you abandon some halfway through/after a few pages if you are bored?

Interesting responses.

Anonymous said...

While reading the comments about what is good in fiction, and who determines it, I was trying to sort out my thinking when Nathan's comment above--and especially the concept of consensus--gave meaning and clarity to the argument. While that consensus is never sharply defined or immediate, it usually brings together all the people Nathan mentioned: writers, critics, and scholars--as readers. Nor is that consensus like a canon or an exclusive set of principles about story and style. Nor does it set the experts against the common knowledgeable reader.

I believe that a consensus over good fiction develops over time, and could be described as a convergence toward consensus. Like an inverted tornado, the publishing world picks up a vast array of material from the creative landscape, and much of it falls out at one stage or another. Works that remain can hold the public's attention for a while, but they also fall away as time goes on, and those that remain the longest become favorites, classics, or expressions of a cultural period or setting.

Why? Because they contain one or more of the elements others here have defined so well--story, style, depth, relevance, and significance. Critics will disagree over which novels and writers should belong to the recognized body of superior literary works, but the determination of what's good, and what belongs in or out of the consensus, is really beyond the scope of one critic, even a Harold Bloom.

So it becomes a kind of reality in itself, even though fluid--and does not rest on the whims of individual taste, knowledge, and opinion. You and I may differ over whether Hemingway is or is not a great writer, or as great as F. Scott Fitzgerald, but both will remain a part of the twentieth-century classics for decades to come.

In this respect, too, a writer's style is integral to the story and can hardly be separated from it. Consider Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and John Dos Passos, who wrote the marvelous but formless trilogy U.S.A. All wrote about the same period of time, and all their styles were individual and distinct. One could argue that Dos Passos lacked the stylistic mastery of the other two (and his trilogy may become completely forgotten in time), but U.S.A. still provides an important window into American life in the early twentieth century.

One simple test for the power of consensus is to consider which writers, 'literary' or 'popular,' might become the subject of an English lit course. I certainly could see Stephen King and J K Rowling as subjects in this regard, even if the Lecturer on Hemingway complained to the department chair about the young Ph.D. who was abusing the students low taste for popular literature.

No one can really change the consensus except excellent, relevant, powerful writers.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "...John Dos Passos, who wrote the marvelous but formless trilogy U.S.A. All wrote about the same period of time, and all their styles were individual and distinct. One could argue that Dos Passos lacked the stylistic mastery of the other two (and his trilogy may become completely forgotten in time)"

But maybe...John Dos Passos's "formless trilogy" would be more "excerptable" for download onto mobile devices, than Hemingway or Fitzgerald...that is, the impact of technology may include redefining canons...based on how creative you can get with a particular piece of literature...how "stretchy" it is - or "mobile."

So, if the quotation police want to get on me, ok, guilty as charged!

Library of America has all 3 novels of U.S.A. in one volume - $30 bucks on amazon.com.

Scott said...

I like the new format, Nathan. A little tricky, but I think I'm getting it.

And I hate to quit anything, especially books, but I have. Recently I ground out a title and it was torture, but I'm loathed to leave something half finished.

candicekennington said...

Anon @ 12:31 - I think you put it best so far. Well said!

Luc2 said...

Excellent comments, Vic!

I'm willing to listen to the experts and critics to a point, but their inclination to ignore popular works or genre fiction make them appear not only elitist but also narrow-minded. I feel they lose credibility when they do so. My thought exactly.

Dale lvcabbie said...

I remember my first typing school when I had an old Remington and had some teachers carped about how nobody would give up the pen and paper (still got a pen and piece of paper in front of me right now) but then along came the IBM Selectric followed by the MSTS and other types of early word processors. My next step was a Franklin-1200 with a word processor that wasn't much more sophisticated than the IBM machines.
So, i don't think it's time to tear down the libraries just because people aren't going to read a piece of paper anymore.

However, got to admit that even an old fogie like me will buy an e-reader when the price comes down enough and most of the bugs are worked out.

BarbS. said...

A new format! LOL, My brain is full: I thought comments were turned off...

RED STICK WRITER said...

Nathan, your comment regarding “American Idolization” blew through the bull’s-eye with such accuracy and velocity that there was nary a target left to hit. Everyone feels empowered by the myriad of ways to express opinions, neophyte to expert and everything between. Anyone can ramble on ad infinitum or nauseam by means of a personal blog or comments to the blog of another. I’m guilty. Anyone can call in comments to talk radio. Not guilty. Then there are the polls. We are besought by the media to respond to polls to determine guilt or innocence, correct public policy, which person can stay to sing, who can stay to dance, whose writing is good, and thanks to the cursed BCS, who has the best football team. Why, revered voices such as that of Nathan Bransford ask us to make the grocery store decision about how we take our reading, paper or plastic.

I’m with you, pal. I don’t always agree with the experts. For instance, I sometimes watch movies simply because a critic said, “Negatory.” Though I know you are in the expert category and I am not, I have in at least one instance that comes to mind disagreed with your decision to decline taking on a new client.

I wanted to write a novel. I did and enjoyed doing it. I’m tweaking that novel and having fun at it. I’ve continued to write other things and relish every moment. The process of learning about publishing, querying agents, learning more about writing from the likes of you and others who I’ve met at your sandbox or those of your peers, continuing to pursue the dream, and even getting rejected have become a pastime every bit as fun and rewarding as any I have. I could pony up some money and publish my novel myself, but I think I’ll wait to get validated by an expert. How much more fun will that be? Why, lots, of course.

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