The Fault In Ourselves

I find it amusing to notice how a lot of writers and critics like to talk about the literary fashions of the day as though they are eternal truths rather than today’s fads. In the past week, I’ve seen writers bashing on J.R.R. Tolkien for writing long, info-dump chunks, both in descriptions and dialogue, not to mention for creating scenes (Tom Bombadil, anyone?) that had very nearly nothing to do with the major plot of the books. I’ve also seen another writer taking down Tom Clancy for, again, huge chunks of meandering text explaining the minutiae of the military, and giving huge chunks of backstory for minor characters. In both cases, the writers said something like, “I feel these works succeeded in spite of their flaws.”

Well, all works do, to a certain extent. I mean, Dan Brown can make money by publishing his grocery lists, and he wrote passages in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons that conclusively prove that he doesn’t know how either cell phones or air travel work. But these same writers, who will tell you, “You can’t write the way people did fifty years ago and expect to sell” are saying in practically the same breath, “These thirty-to-seventy year old books sucked.”

Well of course they didn’t suck. The standards just changed. Hell, a lot of people didn’t like them then, but the point is that a whole lot MORE people did, and pretending that the books (any books) both violate fundamental rules of writing AND aren’t in tune with the times is just silly. It’s like saying that Shakespeare succeeded in spite of his obsession with writing in iambic pentameter, or that Sophocles succeeded in spite of insisting on having a chorus parade around the stage narrating it. Obviously, they succeeded either because they did these things and people liked it, or because that’s just how things were done and nobody cared. And they remain classics because they are such good works that even these strange features can’t turn people off to them now.

Now the observation that fashions and styles and expectations exist is a vital one for the young writer to understand. I don’t care how good you are, you are not selling the next fantasy epic in iambic pentameter. But we must not mistake our preferences for the eternal rules of good fiction, or one day it will be us who are wondering why no one will buy our ten-years-ago styled fiction.

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5 thoughts on “The Fault In Ourselves

  1. 30 year old books sucked? That’s only 1989. David Brin’s SF Novel “The Uplift War” won a Hugo in 1988 as did the classic film “The Princess Bride.” I think those claims are more than a little fanciful.

  2. You, yourself, are responsible for the Bombadil Unit of Distracting Sidequest Measurement, and significantly earlier than a week ago. Tom Bombadil was never anything but a narrative flaw – or, at least, only the hippie fanbase ever had any idea to the contrary.

    That said: Tolkien, without the extraneous-to-this-story exposition or the extremely formal dialogue… Wells, if he stopped all that longwinded musing on sociopolitical tides… Stowe, without the Victorian melodrama… not only would these guys fall short of the Stephen King Style Guide, they never would have been the foundational authors that they were.

    • Well, yes, I am responsible for that, but I think that you are overlooking the significant fact that I am always right about matters of literary taste. 😉

      More seriously, I agree with you that Bombadil was a significant literary flaw in LOTR. I think it would be silly to suggest that even great novels never contain passages that are just bad. But I don’t think that’s the same as saying that ALL deviations from The Currently Accepted Conventions qualify as bad writing. It’s a judgment call, but I think you can build evidence to make a case for the difference.

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