There are writers, and then there are writers. We all know this.
And we all know that “good writers” don’t need to be our favorites. In the eyes of the audience, the quality of a story is relative. Who is doing the judging, and what they want from their reading, are just two of the big questions that immediately erupt anytime we start separating writers into categories like “good writers” and “hacks.”
The beauty of books is that we all get to judge. Much like picking political candidates, readers get to decide for themselves who holds the magic sauce of self-revelation, gripping plots, and characters with magnetic appeal.
Like many people, when I talk books with a stranger, I tend to hold back on opinions until I get a sense of where other people are in their thinking. I don’t always do this, since I’m well-acquainted with the taste of my feet, and chew my toes often when I blurt out something I shouldn’t. Social anxiety is easy to be victimized by, and I most often cure it by remembering, “Life is too short to be stressed out by stuff no one cares about anyway. You’re going to die. Maybe one day quite soon. So let it go.”
Except it’s hard to let go and not care. That’s always the hitch. We care about the stuff other people have no reason to care about, because our egos often run the show.
So we go around judging. First ourselves, then other people. But the first judgment is always within. Our perception of self provides the glasses we put on to gaze out at the world.
Not that I’m saying anything anyone doesn’t already know here — because duh.
But self-judgment and its impact upon a person’s judgment of art — specifically, the art of writing — are fascinating topics.
I was at a gallery show for a friend this past weekend, and I was talking to other people at the event. My friend started telling people I was a writer, which is something I take massive pride in, and also something that immediately opens me up to delightful questions like this —
“How much money do you make?”
“What’s your yearly income?”
“Have any of your books been made into movies?”
“How much money are your books worth?”
And so on and so forth.
Because when I shake hands with an accountant, or a real estate agent, or a chiropractor, I *always* immediately ask, “How much money do you make?”
I confess that being asked, “How much money do you make?” by strangers is not something I relish. It’s the kind of situation that just makes my social anxiety even worse.
But over and over, I have to face the fact that these questions will never go away. They are just my opportunity to smile and nod, while my eyes slide into the middle distance, and my brain does a little what-the-f*ck jig, which is like Irish stepdance, only more what-the-f*ckery.
These questions are made even better by the fact that they are almost always followed by this enthusiastic declaration from the person I’ve only just met: “I’ve always wanted to write a book!! God, I hate reading, but any hack can write a bestseller! I know I could make millions, and have my book turned into a movie — because if those idiots can make millions on crap, anyone can! Anyone can be a writer!”
As to the last sentence of that declaration, I agree that this is a great sentiment to have. Because YES, anyone can be a writer. Absolutely.
But are successful writers all hacks?
I’d say no. Even writers I don’t personally admire, who find financial success and can support themselves on their writing income — they’re doing a lot right with their work. They’re doing something that not just “anyone” can do.
I certainly judge art, and I’m highly judgmental of books. To me, even someone who’s being dismissed as “a hack” has something to teach me about how money chases a story. Learning what people will spend money on, and why, is useful knowledge to have.
When I look around at the list of financially successful writers, I don’t see an ocean of “hacks” cranking out “crap.” (Although this also falls under the message: seek and you shall find. If you want to see an ocean of hacks, you’ll see them. But the landscape looks very different to me.)
I see a lot of excellent writers out there, authors who set a high mark, and my sentences had better measure up, or forget it. The bar isn’t low, it’s really, really high. And damn if I don’t want to jump till I reach it.
So for me, the question is: can anyone be “a good writer”?
And I believe that anyone who tells me they “hate to read” or that “books are boring” or that “no one has time to read anymore” is NOT going to ever qualify as a good writer.
I think of these I-hate-to-read writers like fourth grade kids who learned to play the recorder in school. Like all the other kids exposed to this valuable skill, they really enjoyed tooting the melodies of “Three Blind Mice” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Ba Ba Black Sheep” because thrilling.
So they say to themselves, “I know everything about music now! Because I can play a recorder!”
And then this thought follows: “I can make TONS of MONEY playing recorder music!!”
So they book some studio time, and record an album of their uber-awesome recorder songs. All-time favorites like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Hot Cross Buns” definitely make the list. The finale is a rousing version of “Ode to Joy” that these savvy entrepreneurs are sure will make any listener’s heart soar.
Quick as snapping their fingers, the perfect album is ready for sale. Let the millions of dollars rain down from above!
Such is the thinking of an I-hate-to-read writer. They are so ecstatic about playing their fourth-grade level recorder music, they fail to understand that when people spend money on albums, they’re not buying collections of fourth-grade recorder solos.
They’re buying something far, far more sophisticated than “Ba Ba Black Sheep” tooted with the skill of a novice.
For an example of literary genius, I’ll share a paragraph from Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. Here is a great writer. Someone who doesn’t rent studio time to make a CD of recorder music. Jon Krakauer is a Yo-Yo Ma with his words. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
This paragraph appears on page 63 of the 1999 trade paperback of Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 climbing disaster atop Mt. Everest —
“The ad hoc village that would serve as our home for the next six weeks sat at the head of a natural amphitheater delineated by forbidding mountain walls. The escarpments above camp were draped with hanging glaciers, from which calved immense ice avalanches that thundered down at all hours of the day and night. A quarter mile to the east, pinched between the Nuptse Wall and the West Shoulder of Everest, the Khumbu Icefall spilled through a narrow gap in a chaos of frozen shards. The amphitheater opened to the southwest, so it was flooded with sunlight; on clear afternoons when there was no wind it was warm enough to sit comfortably outside in a T-shirt. But the moment the sun dipped behind the conical summit of Pumori — a 23,507-foot peak immediately west of Base Camp — the temperature plummeted into the teens. Retiring to my tent at night, I was serenaded by a madrigal of creaks and percussive cracks, a reminder that I was lying on a moving river of ice.”
That paragraph is the product of a highly organized mind with a beautiful vocabulary. Yes. But more importantly: Jon Krakauer can VERB. He uses ALL ACTIVE VERBS in his sentences and they make his writing AMAZING.
Just look at those wonderful verbs: draped, calved, thundered, pinched, spilled, flooded, dipped, plummeted, serenaded.
My favorite phrase in the whole paragraph is a tie between “calved immense ice avalanches that thundered down” and “serenaded by a madrigal of creaks and percussive cracks.” The ending phrase — “a moving river of ice” –gives the entire paragraph such a beautiful power. This is prose fueled by poetry. The very best kind.
Someone who claims they have no time to read, or that reading is boring, will probably never encounter that gorgeous paragraph — and if they did read this exquisite book, they wouldn’t bother to try to understand what makes the writing so damn good. And that’s what separates someone tooting recorder music and squealing, “I’ll make MILLIONS on this CD!!” from Yo-Yo Ma.
The writers who are out there making a living from their work are doing a lot right. And Jon Krakauer is so utterly brilliant, he’s a deity in my brain. One of those writers I have a mental altar to who compels me to worship in an attitude of gratitude and awe for his works of creation. Some people worship at the altar of NFL superstars and musicians and singers and celebrities and politicians and mountain climbers and you-name-it. I worship at the altar of writers. The great writers. The ones who are also great human beings. And Jon Krakauer is definitely one of them.
When I’m out at a social event, managing my Party Awkward, I always know a non-reader from a reader by how they respond to the news of encountering a writer. If their first question is, “How much money do you make?” then I know I’m talking to a non-reader who dreams of bestseller stardom. If their first question is, “What kind of books do you write?” — then I know I’m talking to a reader. My eyes don’t slide off into the middle distance, and I don’t feel the need to flee.
Readers, like music-buyers, don’t flock to the store to purchase albums of solo recorder tunes once sung in elementary school.
A statement I make because I also say THIS: I heartily recommend that *everyone* write.
But there is writing that you do for yourself, and writing that you do to make money. And the two are very, very different.
Now I’ll totter off to pen my next bestseller: “The Dead Cat: A Mystery” because BRILLIANT.
Followed by: “The Desperate Writer Who Wanted a Book Deal So Bad She Sold Her Soul to the Devil to Sell a Manuscript to Random House — Based Upon the Made-Up True Story of Nonsense.”
Anyone want a CD full of my recorder solos? I’ve got a great hit album I’m sure is worth *millions* — email me, k? This music will change your life. Oprah will be inviting me to play any day now, because once you hear me belt out “Ba Ba Black Sheep” your life will be TRANSFORMED.
Or you could go buy some cheese. I like cheddar cheese.
Here are some books I bought on Sunday during the Super Bowl Halftime Show, because Maria’s Bookshop ran a Super Bowl sale (shop during the game and you received 18% off — SCORE!!) —
Because this is me when I feel like a ROCK STAR —
In case you can’t read the small print — she’s spending just the minimum amount on groceries, clothes, and household items, but throwing the money down at the bookstore. Of course.