Being a Better Writer: “High-Class” Literature and Shakespeare

This post was originally written and posted June 2nd, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s topic is a little different. And a little late (for which I apologize, but I was wrapped up finishing reading a book, which I’m sure most of you can understand). Today’s topic is more on the philosophy of not just writing, but reading as well. I’m going to talk about the semi-divide between what’s often called “high-class literature” and what’s written for entertainment.

Sound a little confusing? Bear with me.

Remember those English classes you had in high school? Or maybe you’re still having them. Crud, you might be waiting for them to arrive. Well, I had those just like most people. And one of the defining memories I have of those days is of my teacher and the choices of literature they made.

You see, to my teacher, unless the work had been rubber-stamped by a faceless, indiscriminate board somewhere with the term “classic,” then it wasn’t worth reading. No joke. Our class actively debated this with our teacher on several occasions, because there were plenty of us who were active readers and enjoyed thumbing through a good book. The conflict was, however, that we “weren’t really reading,” at least, that was how we saw our teacher’s stance. We were told that Tolkien was garbage, that Harry Potter was trash, all because whatever high-class group our teach took their opinion from had disdained to give those books their stamp of approval. Instead, we were given books to read like Ethan Frome or The Catcher in the Rye. The first I absolutely despise to this day for its complete dryness and lack of real depth, and the second I could replicate my feelings for simply by browsing livejournal for a few hours until I’ve had my fill of teenage angst.

As you can tell, I wasn’t fond of either of them. But we had to read them anyway, because in our teacher’s words, they were what we were supposed to be reading. They were classics. All that other stuff we enjoyed? A waste of time. Not real literature.

Bottom line? If it didn’t have the classic stamp on it somewhere, we shouldn’t have been reading it.

My teacher back then was a practically a card-carrying member of what some authors like to refer to as the “literati.” It’s a bit of a joke term, but as I see it, it boils down to any collection of individuals who will argue that one book is clearly superior to another because of high-minded reasons.

Now don’t get me wrong. We all know that there are some things that just aren’t worth reading. Bad plots, unending horrible grammar, overabundance of prose and showing, bad characters … these are all things that can make a story not worth someone’s time. I’ve read some books before that I only finished because they were so bad I was mentally cataloging all the mistakes and reminding myself not to make them.

But there’s a difference here. The “literati” mentality is more rigid. Less flexible. Take for instance, an aforementioned example, The Catcher in the Rye. We all know it’s a “classic.”

Can any of you tell me why?

One of the largest reasons is because it’s an adult author writing a very in-character viewpoint of angst and alienation. That’s pretty much the whole book: A teen disjointedly raging in period-accurate vernacular about his life and everything he doesn’t like about it. And you know what? For that, it does a pretty impressive job. It won awards for that portrayal, as well as a lot of readers.

Now, as most of you know, teenage angst isn’t exactly in short supply. Livejournal, facebook … There’s no shortage of teenage angst in the world. And you know what? Since The Catcher in the Rye has been written, there have probably been (and I only say probably because this really isn’t a genre I read) dozens of books that explore the same subject with just as much skill and modern vernacular that aren’t listed as classics. And that’s because Catcher was the trendsetter. It was the first. Kind of like how everyone remembers the first marathon (nike, anyone?) but they’re a dime a dozen today.

The problem is that in a literati’s mind, Catcher having that “classic” stamp on it makes it automatically superior to any of the “lesser works” that lack that same stamp. The classic moniker is a the end all, the all-determining mark. A panel of experts somewhere got together and determined by some criteria that this story is the absolute best work there is. Nothing is better, because the experts said so.

Now clearly, not even some of the experts would say that (although some of them would), but that point doesn’t matter to the mind of a literati. They’re pushing “high-class” literature. The experts have awarded a book an award, and that means that it is superior reading to anything else out there. In fact, if the book doesn’t have one of those awards, it’s not worth anyone’s time, because obviously these are the best, right?

This mentality exists everywhere, in every form of entertainment, but with literature, thanks to the longevity of the art form and the established presence it has, the mentality has some pretty strong roots. Like my old English teacher. Or even here, in a fandom devoted to, of all things, fanfiction. Again, I’m not saying that there aren’t stories which we all agree could use work, but I’ve actually conversed with individuals who have expressed that they “only read fiction that has been ‘approved’ by certain sites, because that’s the only stuff worth reading.” You see, it has the “rubber stamp.” And quite often, it’s a rubber stamp that passes over a lot of works for very arbitrary reasons, defined by incredibly narrow parameters. There are plenty of great reads that are infamously turned down for one reason or another. Restricting yourself to reading only works they post because those are somehow “better” is the exact same literati attitude that had my teacher arguing against The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. You don’t have to like them for reasons of personal taste, but you can still acknowledge them as works that many enjoy.

Worse yet, sometimes the rubber stampers themselves fall into the same trap. A new work comes in, but if it doesn’t meet some arbitrary standard—like holding to one style of English over the other—out it goes without a second thought. There’s a huge debate roiling at the Hugo awards this year over a bunch of authors who got tired of the nominations being more or less cherry picked by the fans of the select few running the panel and encouraged their own fans (of which there were many) to vote in the Hugo’s as well (anyone can attend Worldcon and vote for the awards, but for a while a good chunk of the reading public hasn’t). The result has been a firestorm of flame from those who had, up until this point, ruled the panel (one which has gotten quite nasty). On the one side, the newcomers are arguing that the Hugo’s have become incredibly polarized by the group in charge and turned it into little more than a back-slapping circlejerk, while the panel contends the upstarts are terrible people who write literary trash. Sound familiar?*

I enjoyed Wuthering Heights quite a bit. That’s a classic a lot of people don’t like. I thought it was a good read. Still have my copy. I enjoyed Dracula. I wasn’t a fan of Jane Eyre, nor did I enjoy The Glass Unicorn that much. Everyone has tastes in their entertainment.

Which leads me to the latter of the two approaches I mentioned in the title this morning. I call it the “Shakespeare” approach, after a blog I once read discussing this same topic made this observation: Literary critics will often retreat and hide behind the mantra of “Shakespeare” to defend themselves (famously lampshaded in an amazing absurdist play I once saw in which the only actor drives the critic in the audience back by using a book of Shakespeare’s plays before driving a stake through his heart), when in fact if Shakespeare were alive today he wouldn’t be doing the same. We revere Shakespeare quite a bit for his talent and wordplay today, but what we tend to forget is that Shakespeare wasn’t foremost trying to craft great literary works. He was an entertainer. At the time, many “literati” considered him a hack. He made up words, broke rules of English all over the place, and didn’t conform to the current accepted standards at all. But with all that, he was popular with the regular folks. Shakespeare was a rock star in his day. If you’ve ever seen the Doctor Who episode where they meet Shakespeare, well, that’s not too far from the truth. Shakespeare wrote stuff that was fun. He made up words. He knew he was on to something, ignored the “high-class” of his day, and wrote stuff that was fun. And the public loved it. As someone once pointed out, if Shakespeare were around today, he wouldn’t be writing some sort of “high-class” novel that most people would never touch. He’d be writing the next Star Wars, and quite possibly making it a crossover with The Avengers because that would be crazy-fun and get a ton of people to watch it.

But this is the kind of mentality that gives us things like Artemis Fowl, Hard Magic, or Die Hard. They’re not written to change lives or win awards. They’re written to be enjoyed. Let’s face it, Hard Magic probably isn’t going to win any Newberry awards. This doesn’t mean it can’t be a great, fun read. I’d say more on this segment, but I think that pretty much covers it: if it’s fun, it’s fun!

Alright, so that’s fairly straightforward, but most of us are already determined to read what we want anyway. So what about writers? What do we take for this?

Well, I don’t think it’s fair to say that all we should care about when writing is straight entertainment. Popcorn for popcorn’s sake is fun, but at the same time it can be tiresome, and everyone loves a bit of variety in their meal. At the same time, a diet of pure health granola is very dry, and likewise, writing solely to be “high-class” tends to go the same way. So where should you be going?

If you write nothing but entertainment, you’re going to wind up in a rut. There are only so many times we can read about a character facing an action packed, end-of-the-world battle before we get tired of reading it. One the other side, whatever requirements make up the literati group you’re writing for won’t really leave you much to go off of. You can’t write for that group, as Billy Collins so eloquently alludes to with his poem An Introduction to Poetry. They aren’t interested in what you have to offer.

My answer is: Be Shakespeare. He wrote for entertainment. He didn’t let the high-class concern him. At the same, time, he wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries. He invented dozens of new words (check this list out and be amazed, given how common many of them are now), tried new things, and made points in his own way. Are many of his plays funny, poignant, or otherwise influential? Of course! But that isn’t all that holds us to them. They’re fun. Shakespeare was an entertainer. As writers, that’s what we are. And if we don’t entertain, no matter how amazing we think our idea is, if it isn’t entertaining … few will read it.

As readers, we can’t let this escape us either. I have a story on my kindle called Unicorn’s Kiss (and no, it’s not what you would think after reading the title). And you know what? It’s not the world’s greatest story. You’ll never see it on a good chunk of recommendation sites out there, or probably stumble across it at all. But you know what? I liked it anyway. It has mechanical flaws, and the story itself isn’t exactly original, but at the same time, it has a few clever ideas that are entertaining (the “kiss” concept itself is an idea I wish I’d thought of, as it’s a brilliant one). Is the story going to win some sort of award? No. The errors alone would disqualify it from most literati, who wouldn’t even read it. And you know what? That could be their loss. Because it’s still a good little story that I liked despite it’s rough edges.

With both writing and reading, we can’t let out own sights be blinded by arbitrary requirements and requests. We shouldn’t refuse to read a story just because it has’t been approved by some musty internet critic or uses the wrong form of “grey/gray.” Likewise, if you’re thinking that your action story must have something deep and mind-blowing (or controversial) in order to be “good,” well, you’re wrong. If someone is telling you that your story can’t be good simply because they want the main character to have an existential crisis of being rather than a chase through downtown, ignore them! It’s your story, and it doesn’t have to be one way or the other to be good. Your talent and practice make it good. Not the inclusion of arbitrary requirements or ideas.

Be a Shakespeare. Not a high-minded literati. Write what’s fun. Read what you enjoy. Step outside the zone and try new things, see if you enjoy them as well. The results will speak for themselves.


*My own stance is siding with upstarts. As they’ve pointed out, all they’ve done is asked their fans to attend and contribute by voting, while the panel has gone as far as to tell their own fans who to vote for. Also, after one of the fiery panel authors argued that some author deserved to win with their nomination, not because of what they wrote (in fact, they didn’t even mention the name of the work or what it was about), but because the author was a woman, I’d read enough. I’m all for judging a work on its own merits. Did I like it? Did I not like it? But to vote without even reading the work simply because the author is a woman? What kind of horrible sexism is that? “Oh, you’re a woman? I guess I should give you this award, since, you know, ovaries. This has nothing to do with the author’s work. I’d be just as offended if someone demanded to win an award for his writing because they were white. That has nothing to do with your story! You could be E.T. for all I care. Is your writing good? That’s the defining point. I stopped reading the Hugo award collection books a few years ago not because of who wrote them (and I have no idea who did), but because quite honestly, they’d gotten really dull.

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