Monday, September 21, 2009

You're Perfect. I'm Doomed!

I was listening to a radio interview with James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker, discussing his book How Fiction Works when the topic of the role of the critic came around and I was struck by one of the quotes (to paraphrase) that the critic should be interested in identifying how the writer failed to meet an 'ideal'.

Now I'm sure all of us (as either readers or writers) have our list of top authors as well as books that we feel epitomize the 'perfect' novel - but the thought of constantly being measured against such an ideal is daunting. I started musing (and agonizing I have to confess) over how the concept of the 'ideal' affects how I write as well as how I read. My experience with book groups and writing groups has led me to suspect that while the concept of seeking perfection in the writing craft can be noble it can also be devastating. How many of us haven't been stymied by the inner critic while writing - the one that says 'this stuff is crap, it'll never be as good as [insert appropriate esteemed author name here]' or who hasn't, as a reader, felt a novel pale in comparison to another to the point where all possible merits of the first book disappear completely?

It's taken me a while to overcome that fear of failure and commit a first draft to the page but there's no way I could complete a manuscript if I thought about the critics - especially not if they have some mythical ideal in mind (which no doubt no author could ever meet all the time!).

So - do you have an 'ideal' author or book that you think sets the standard? Do you ever feel intimidated by that in your writing? Who do you use as your 'ideal' when you think about honing and (dare I say it) perfecting your craft?


  1. I just finished listening to Dead Sleep by Greg Iles. It makes me feel like I could never compare to his writing. Ughhh.

    But I will continue, maybe not as good as he does, but I'll keep working on it.

  2. I think it’s an exercise in frustration to compare ourselves to any other writer. We all have access to the same words, but our choice of which ones to use and in what order is totally unique. Write the best book you can and hope the publishing gods take pity. :-)

  3. I read some critic responding to a question in Parade Magazine of whether America had a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The answer was basically that with Styron, Updike, and Mailer dead, the only author left standing who's work rose to the standard was Phillip Roth. What an ass. Top of my about Annie Proulx, (or one of thousands of great story tellers rising to the top of their craft?) and what is the criteria for being literary enough to tickle the Nobel judges' fancy fancies? What obnoxious, academic-puckered-ass stack of cow pies. Roth can write, but he's hardly alone in that ability and hardly one of a few in his class. Most "critics" couldn't write an interesting story of any length if their self-imagined reputations depended on it. Do these people even read? Don't get me started.

    A lot of academics believe they know what makes great writing, and, when they sit before a blank page, are paralyzed by their "knowledge" of what makes a great writer, what they know through training (and perhaps their instinct) comprises a great work of literature.

  4. I agree with Joe. It's a trap to compare yourself to another writer, and pointless, because their particular blend of experience, talent, craft, etc. is not yours, and you have a package that is not theirs. You have to work your own package.

    That said, i do like to learn from those I admire. Stephen King's characterizations and John D. MacDonald's prose style come to mind.

  5. The notion of an absolute ideal for any type of novel is a critic's fantasy, not a working author's reality. Woe unto the writer who breaks the "ideal" mold when he or she is reviewed by that particular critic. We have to know and absorb what has been published in our areas of writing, but to try to model oneself after a particular "ideal"? No thank you.

  6. You would think that writing something down and then having it typeset and printed would make the thing fairly permanent. But I believe it was Tony Morrison that once said that she still rewrites her work - even after it has been published for years. Just because we put it down on paper doesn't end its life. Words and stories live both on and off the paper - it's a continually moving target that all are trying to hit. It's catching motes of dust in the sunlight. But we keep trying. And occasionally, when the angle of the sun is just right, we catch one of those motes of dust. And that gives us encouragement to keep trying.

  7. I really, really disagree with the notion that critics/reviewers should compare a book to the "idea" novel.

    I used to do a lot of book reviewing, for The Armchair Detective, ForeWord Magazine, Mystery Scene Magazine, and a ton for The Oakland Press. I realize this might be heretical, I try to evaluate a book on whether I thought it accomplished what the writer set out to do. If they tried to write a page-turning thriller, by God, I'd better have been turning pages. If it was an engaging cozy, then I'd damn well better be engaged. If it was a hardboiled PI, etc. And if it was supposed to be a whodunnit, then I'd better be pleasantly surprised that I didn't figure out the puzzle 50 pages in.

    I also took into account readers and what they want (I know, I really was a radical, wasn't I?). I memorably reviewed a novel by Iris Johansen who I thought was a smooth enough stylist, but her character made no sense to me whatsoever. So I suggested that depending on the reader, she was going to be a spunky, hard-headed girl who knew what she wanted and went after it. Others would undoubtedly think she was a flaky airhead with impulse-control issues. Well, it was obvious what I thought, but Iris has her fans and I'm sure a lot of women thought that a woman who jumps on a plane with a sexy mysterious stranger without telling anyone or even packing a toothbrush is showing initiative and having an adventure, while others of us thought she pretty much got everything she deserved by being an idiot.

    But there's no "ideal." I might believe the "ideal" thriller novel is John Sandborn's "Winter Prey" or Stephen King's "Bag of Bones" or Dick Francis's "To The Hilt." Others might think something else, like Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" or John Ramsey Miller's "The Last Family." It depends on the reader. It always depends on the reader.

  8. Thanks for all the great feedback - it's a relief to know that others also find this concept of the 'ideal' novel absurd and self-destructive. I'm relieved to see Mark say that as a critic he has taken a different approach and actually taken into account what readers want! JRM - that critic in Parade sounds like a complete ass.

  9. It's one thing for the writer to have an "ideal" author or book in mind. I agree with the other comments that it's foolish, but setting a standard to strive for is probably okay, so long as the measurement doesn't include how close you came to the ideal, but how well you wrote your book that was inspired by the ideal.

    As for the critic measuring a book by how closely to approaches an ideal, what a bunch of self-aggrandizing bullcrap. How does the reviewer know what ideal this book should aspire to, and who is he to say he's qualified to decide now only that, but how well it was done.

    I've written over 100 reviews, and I hope my editor stops sending me books if I ever get even 1/10 that full of myself.

  10. Absolutely, there are authors whose books I finish and say to myself, "Never in a million years could I accomplish that." But then, I made peace a long time ago with the fact that I'm never going to write the next War and Peace. My goal is to write the best book I can, period. And hopefully with each one, my grasp of the craft of writing improves.

  11. By the way- I always loved Toni Morrison, but she went way up in my estimation when an interviewer from the New Yorker expressed surprise that she owned a television, and she said of course she did, she'd never miss an episode of Law and Order, she's a huge fan. I could just picture his shocked expression at the fact that a Nobel-prize winning author not only owned a television, but was proud to admit that she watched it. And not for PBS, oh no, she was digging crime shows, no less. Go, Toni.

  12. I think my ideal changes every time I read a good book, and since all my ideal writers can't be perfect I get used to the idea that I never will be either. (Though I'd love to be published.)

  13. The only writers I yearn to emulate is that class of old Irish story teller, the Seanachi. They would take the stories with them in their heads and compile national histories then be able to spew them forth like living beings with their own style and drama, but never failing to keep true to the facts of the story as they learned it.

    I want to be that guy.

    Seanachi Basil, travelling storyteller.

    Give me a pint and a stool next to the fire and ready your soul to watch a story of old take form before your eyes.

  14. When I read a book I mostly want to remain interested and have some fun. I am quite happy when that happens. It doesn't have to be an ideal donut, just a good enough donut.

    I wonder, should books that come closer to ideal than others cost more? You know, like a good steak cost more than a slice a meatloaf?