Why does <Insert Highly Regarded Writer>’s work suck?
Educating yourself when the good books are boring
I’ve been thinking to reach out to you. I can’t financially invest much in my writing at the moment, but I feel like I want to grow more in my writing and learn more and I’m trying to figure out what the best course of action might be.
I feel like I'm theoretically familiar with what makes writing good or not so good, but I'm not always able to translate that into my own writing, and at times, also unable to recognize it in writing that is generally deemed good. For example, I've been reading <Insert Highly Regarded Writer>'s short story collection and many of the stories stump me - a lot of them feel to me like they're incomplete, like they end too soon, and I'm not quite able to grasp what it is that makes them worthy of celebrating, if you will.
So I don't know if I just need to study those stories more deeply and try to break down what's structurally happening there, or if I need more general instruction, but at a bit more advanced level than most general creative writing courses.
What do I do?
Need A Writing Education
Dear Need A Writing Education,
The classic advice for teaching yourself about writing on a budget is to read. Except most of us who write have been reading all our lives, and yet somehow we aren’t magically brilliant writers for it.
But if we can read and break down the stories in terms of writing craft to see how they did that and why they did that, we can learn a lot to bring to our own writing.
Still, the question remains, what should we read?
I think in the beginning as writers, we look to people who are well-received or have many awards as something aspirational. They are good, and we are somewhere struggling along the path to get to where they are.
But at some point, we start looking at some of these authors and their work, and think "I don't get it. Why is this good?"
And because the people we're reading have books and awards and a lot of buzz, and we're some unknown with hardly any publication credits to our name, the first instinct is to think, "Well, it must be me. I clearly do not know what I'm doing. I don't even understand this, how am I ever going to write this?"
So clearly the whole issue is that that we are nowhere near good enough and probably never will be.
But consider this. What if the writers being feted for their stories aren't good?
I mean, obviously they have technical proficiency, they know about show don't tell, they can put together a good sentence. But what if this style that they write in, and the choices that they make, and their weirdly unresolved stories are just not something that reads as good writing to us?
What if we don't get it because it's just so anethma to our sense of what good writing is? What if we'd never write like that because it's just a terrible style.... which for some bizarre reason happens to be in vogue among the award people right now?
Now, I have never read this particular <Insert Highly Regarded Writer>’s work and I don't know them, so I have no idea about their writing. But I have a hunch that when you read their stories and find them confusing or unresolved, it's that it's them, not you. I am sure there are craft lessons in their work, but I also suspect that digging those lessons out of their work isn't necessary. You'll learn, but is it what you need to learn right now?
So if that's the case, maybe the issue is that you are developing your own voice as a writer, and I think perhaps you need to look inward some and trust your own instincts about what is and isn't good writing... even if that means that you don't like Canlit's latest darling. That's okay.
The question may be, not "Why aren't I good enough to understand this?" but "Why am I good?"
I suggest that you instead explore what you love and why you love it and how you can bring that to your writing, so that when you read it, what you see is not some attempt to do things "right" per who is getting a lot of buzz for work that isn't a fit for you. I think you may be in a place where you need to trust and hone your own instincts for work that you love.
Look inward, not outward.
Now that said, one day in the future, maybe you’ll be inclined to take a look at <Insert Highly Regarded Writer> and re-read their work. Maybe after you’ve grown as a writer, you’ll see what they are doing and why and appreciate the craft of it more. Maybe you’ll even like it.
Or maybe you’ll think, nope, still shit. That’s okay. This isn’t the book for you. It doesn’t spark joy. Let it go.
Yes to this! I find the question “is it good?” to be nearly useless. So much if what goes into us believing something is good is down to taste. I have a dear friend and we have such diametrically opposed taste in books that one of us loving a book guarantees the other will hate it. So is one of us “wrong?” I don’t think so. I don’t want to write that way as the style doesn’t appeal to me.
Sometimes it makes more sense to me to think about award-winning work that leaves me cold in a different context, like music. I think of some writing like prog rock- that corner of music that is technically very difficult to play, but which I find boring. Musicians listen and say “damn!” and are generally impressed but it doesn’t make me feel anything, so I don’t listen to it. Perhaps this is an aspect of what some writers are doing- stopping a story in an odd place, which didn’t feel right to you as a reader looked like a tricky scale to the award committee.
Love these thoughts Sonal- thank you for sharing this one! 💗
“Why am I good?” The million dollar question. I like this reframe very much, even if it’s hard to answer. I’m reading a Pulitzer Prize novel right now (recommended by a writer friend/teacher I hold in high regard) and it’s taking me ages to get through it. This is not my norm—I can typically rip through a novel of any size in 7-10 days. But I’m struggling with this one. The writing is beautiful and lyrical (my typical jam) but the story and pacing and characters are creating stumbling blocks for me. So I’m trying to focus on the parts I like: the magical turns of phrase, the heartbreaking detail. Stuff that resonates with me, that if / when I write this way, shows me the “why” (am I good). ☺️