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Literature and Mediocrity: The Good, the Bad, and the Popular

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Somebody who’s not a big fan of me and my writing posted a comment on my other blog awhile ago telling me that I’m an amateur and blissfully unaware of my own mediocrity.  Being the relentlessly analytical, self-doubting writer that I am, of course I had to use that as a catalyst to explore the constantly-troubling question of where exactly I fit in the great pantheon of writers. Because I’d at least like everyone to know that I’m blissfully aware of my own mediocrity, if not obsessed with it.

I’m pretty sure my talents fall somewhere between Danielle Steele and Shakespeare, but that’s a wide field to land in. Am I an amateur? By definition, no, since I make money by writing, which makes me a professional.  But that says nothing about the literary quality of my work. Some of the professionals who are doing the best, dollar-wise, out of this business are writing what I’d consider utter trash. Am I mediocre? Of course — by somebody’s standard.  How do I decide what are “good” books and “mediocre” books, and where do I place my own writing?

Stephen King in On Writing divides writers into four categories and pictures them in a pyramid, with many writers on the bottom level, fewer and fewer on each level as you ascend the pyramid.  On the bottom are bad writers, then competent writers, then really good writers, and then the geniuses.  He says that while you can’t turn a bad writer into a competent writer, and you can’t turn a good writer into a genius, you can, with effort and dedication, turn a competent writer (yourself, presumably), into a good one.

I think I agree with King’s basic paradigm, but the problem of labelling writing “good,” “bad,” “competent” or “genius” is that it’s so absolutely subjective. You only have to go on Amazon.com and look at reader reviews for a book you love, to find other people — apparently as intelligent, critical, and well-read as yourself — decrying it as a piece of trash.  And the reverse, of course. We’ve all seen the phenomenon of a book we thought was garbage becoming a best-seller, or winning a major award.  There is simply no such thing as a book that EVERYONE agrees is good and well-written and worth reading — at least not in the author’s lifetime.

OK, so if we abandon the simple “good/bad” distinction on the grounds that it’s too subjective, what about “literary” versus “commercial” fiction? This is the distinction that interests me most; it’s very important if you want to make it as a writer in the Canadian scene particularly. What category are critics going to place your work in?

In Canada, at least, literary fiction gets all the respect. (I’m not sure if it’s different in the US or other countries).  Literary fiction is what gets good reviews, what gets nominated for the Giller and Governor General’s awards.  You might be flippant and say that literary fiction is what wins awards and commercial fiction is what people actually read. But that’s too simplistic: many “literary” novels make the best-seller lists as well.

What are the differences? It’s hard to define what constitutes “literary” fiction, but I think it tends to be marked by a focus on the language for its own sake, and a willingness to experiment more with form and style. It often includes a more self-conscious attempt to grapple with “serious” issues — political, philosophical, psychological.

I like literary fiction, except when the focus on language is so extreme that the book seems to be all about beautiful words and character and plot seems to get lost.  There are some books almost universally acknoweldged as great which I simply can’t get into, and I truly believe the failure is not with the books but with me. Michael Ondaatje’s fiction is a good example.  I love his poetry and his nonfiction, but I’ve read both In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, and after reading either of those books I could not have recapped the storyline for you — I just got so lost in the beautiful language that I couldn’t follow the plot. While this may well be my failure to be an intelligent reader, and I have no doubt Ondaatje is a truly great writer, I also think that within the broad field of literary fiction there are a lot of wanna-bes whose writing really is a case of “the Emperor has no clothes” — they know how to write gorgeous sentences and paragraphs but have no idea how to string together a story or make characters come to life.

What about “commercial” fiction, then? I would say commercial fiction is fiction written primarily for the purpose of entertaining and engaging the reader, for telling a good story.  There’s a broad range here, including genre fiction (romance, sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries, etc), much (though by no means all) of which is quite sloppily written, with formulaic plots, shallow characterization, and very little if any sense of literary style — all the way up to fiction which actually is very beautifully written and probaly as wothy of winning literary prizes as any “serious” fiction.

In other words it’s a continuum, rather than two separate boxes.  Maybe it could even be represented as two-dimensional, like those “Where do you fall on the political spectrum?” diagrams, because I think there are bad, competent, good and genius writers in commercial fiction, and in literary fiction as well. Some might argue that there are no “bad” writers of literary fiction, but I think the pretentious wanna-be’s are bad; a well-written romance novel is a “better” book, in my view, then somebody’s self-aggrandizing attempt to writer “literary” fiction that isn’t about anything and has nothing fresh or new to say. Some might argue that a “genius” commercial fiction writer should be accounted as a literary writer. and there are certainly writers in the middle about whom you can argue — is she literary? Is she commercial? Is this commercial fiction that happens to be extremely well-written, or is this literary fiction that is highly readable and accessible to a wide variety of readers?

I guess that’s where I’d like to fall — into that gray area. Despite the delusions of grandeur with which I sometimes tantalize myself (like on the back deck at Eastport with Tina saying, “Come on, put it out there in the universe — what do you want?”) I don’t actually believe I’m ever likely to win or be nominated for a major literary award. If that’s mediocrity — the willingness to accept that I’m not a “great” talent, and to stop striving for that level of literary acclaim — then I’m OK with that. But I would like there to be at least a few people (outside my family and friends) who say, “What? Trudy Morgan-Cole wasn’t nominated for the Giller? But her book was so good!!”

Similarly, I don’t delude myself that everyone’s going to enjoy my books.  That’s the wonderful and frustrating thing about books — tastes vary so much that people can come to blows about whether Stephen King is a talentless hack, or an absolutely great writer of mainstream commercial fiction, or a literary genius who is forever barred from literary acclaim because his writing is TOO popular.  There is a book out there for every taste, every level of sophistication, every reading need.

Just a little while ago, I read a review of an inspirational novel (another of those genre categories that produces a lot of bad writing and a few gems — I hope my own inspirational novels are among the gems, but opinions, as always, vary). I had enjoyed this novel and thought it definitely “transcended the genre,” and had given it a good review on my own book review site; I thought it was, while in no way a literary novel, a good piece of genre fiction, well-written and engaging.  Another blogger had also reviewed it positively, citing a few of her favourite passages.  Someone commented on her blog to the effect that, “I don’t think I’d like that book, it seems to have too many hard words in it!”

Now, I can snobbishly assume that anyone who finds a nice little piece of genre fiction “hard” because of the big words, probably shouldn’t be reading books at all. But the fact is, this commenter LIKED to read, even though her reading tastes were obviously very different from mine — and there are books out there that she likes and enjoys.  Who I am to say every book published has to meet my standard of “good”? If it did, lots of other people wouldn’t have anything to read at all.

Sorry, I think my meditations at this point are getting confusing and rambling.  It’s a confusing subject and I guess the simplest thing to say is that there are a lot of ways to define what makes a “good” book.  If you go to my reviews at Compulsive Overreader you can see how I define “good” by example. When I think of writers I admire in that gray area between “commercial” and “literary,” writers whose books are thoughtfully crafted but also simply enjoyable to read, I think of people like Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, Joshilyn Jackson, Nick Hornby, Joan Clark, Bernice Morgan, and dozens and dozens of others. That’s the company I want to keep; when I’m striving to write my best, that’s the kind of book I’m striving to write.  I may not achieve my own highest goals, and to someone else those goals might still place me squarely in the “mediocre” category. That’s OK. The playing field is big enough for everyone, and all I want to do is play my best on my little corner.

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13 thoughts on “Literature and Mediocrity: The Good, the Bad, and the Popular

  1. Ah, I love these sorts of posts. It’s great to read your take on writing. Great post.

  2. As far as what you consider “good”, I have to say that your book recommendations are probably at the top of my list for consistently providing me a favourite book.

    This whole subject reminds me of the Calvin and Hobbes “high art-low art” comic (that you can find here: http://www.s-anand.net/calvinandhobbes.html#19930720)

  3. Thanks, guys. Jamie, I do believe Calvin and Hobbes have some deep wisdom to share in that comic … as they so often do.

  4. But your book WAS so good! I can only say book because I’ve yet read one so far.

    Anyone who was “important” enough to deem you an amateur could never be the kind of person who would leave this kind of comment. Can you imagine Nick Hornby or even the book editor of the New York Times coming by here and taking the time to call you mediocre?? It’s ludicrous. The comment obviously came from someone jealous and petty and, for that, I am so sorry, Trudy. I’m not just saying this because you are so sweet and I like you… you are a GREAT writer. I no longer call myself a Christian, and so I admit that I don’t read a lot of books in that genre anymore. But even here in this blog, you have given me pause. I seriously consider reading your Christian titles and others not only because of how you recommended them but because I thoroughly enjoyed The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson.

  5. Aw Catherine, you’re so sweet. The person who left the comment was a bit of a nutjob in many ways, and I didn’t really let it bother me, but it was, as I said, a catalyst to open up that whole question which to me is so interesting — what is this thing called literary quality, and what kind of “good” am I aiming for as a writer? I really appreciate positive comments from people like you who’ve read and enjoyed things I’ve written, but it’s also true and valid that there are lots of people (not just nutjobs) who don’t like what I write. So even though every published writer is, to some extent, writing to please and impress others, I think you still have to have some kind of internal standard of what you’re aiming for that’s not swayed by either praise or criticism. I’m still working out what that is, for me.

  6. Trudy,
    The scope of your thoughts (and thus your blogs) always amazes me. From aliens to this. You are well-read and thought-provoking–both of which make for good reading in my books.
    I too have only read one book of yours to date (there are others just waiting for me to have time), but I can say that, in the field of historical fiction, you are standing near the top. Historical fiction is my favourite genre to sink into; a well-researched and imaginative book with real and provocative characters with an illuminating plot are just what I found in _The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson_.
    Next, I also found that your book made me reconsider some of my generally accepted truths about Jonathan Swift. Since my first class literature class where I was introduced to “A Modest Proposal” (which started a love of satire in general), I had hailed him as one of literature’s great writers. While I still think of him as such, your novel made me think about him as a human being–with strengths and weaknesses, feeling love and other human emotions. Very few historical fiction texts have taken a well-known historical figure and made them feel more real, more human. And very few have taken a periferal historical figure, relatively unknown to many, and created a character for whom the reader feels such empathy.
    I do understand the feeling of questioning your literary worth, questioning where you “stand” in the metaphorical world of such a, to use your word, “subjective” world. I am not a “professional writer” or a truly worthy critic. I do not even aspire to such. But if I were to place you in King’s hierarchy, I would definitely place you somewhere in the top escelon– all the great writers questioned their worth and their abilities (see John Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.”

  7. I love that Calvin and Hobbs, Jamie! Really summarizes this whole debate in the artworld language. And great to see C&H being quoted in the same blog comments as Milton’s great poem. You certainly attract interesting people Trudy. What I admire is the mental health that your reasoning produces. Better to do what you are good at, and strive to be better at, then to try and meet the capricious standards of juries. When it comes to who is declared a “genius” I often wish I was a man living in eighteenth century New England, with a small publishing industry, a dedicated readership and a clique of friends who continuously promote each other as the latest genius. In my life I think I’ve only met one person who I’d call a genius, Rae Perlin. I think of her as someone who was consumed by her own brilliance and, as a result, did not “manage” her career as well as a lesser light might have done. I think a hardworking “good-competent” writer has a better chance of success (however you define that) than a genius.

  8. Good points. All I have is the clique of friends who continuously promote each other as the latest genius. I hope that’s enough.

  9. Where does he live? 🙂

  10. I haven’t even read one of your books yet, and I found myself wanting to leap to your defense! However, I think you’ve got a very healthy perspective. You can’t (and shouldn’t try) to please everyone. All you can do is use your gifts to best of your ability, which, judging from your blog, is pretty darn good.

  11. See, I know I am your friend and, therefore, my opinion is not supposed to count but let me take you back to before I knew you, to a time where my friend and I were sitting at a table at Starbucks. You were sitting at the next table and I was mouthing to my friend, “that is Trudy Morgan Cole” and trying to subtly point to you. I was a fan then, enough of one that I recognized you even though I had never seen you in person. I know it’s not the Giller but it is something and one day I believe the Giller will be yours. I think there is more to being the “in writer”, stuff like schmoozing with the right people and acting like of course your work belongs on the Giller list. Of course, this is not always true but I think it helps. Perhaps posting about your perceived mediocrity won’t help you get the recognition you deserve but I still think it will happen some day. So says someone who thinks you are a genius and has for some time.

  12. I don’t know your writing, but from reading a bit of your blog, I know that there are a lot of people who value and appreciate it. It’s hard when we get criticism for something that we have worked hard at and put a lot of our own personality into. It’s easy to take it personally. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and you’re never going to please everyone so I hope that you will be able to forget the negative comments and just remember all the good ones.
    I don’t think being an ‘in writer’ is anything to aim for, much better to concentrate on what you do best for the people who enjoy it. I’ve recently tried to read two books by an ‘in’ writer because everyone was saying how good they were. They were absolute rubbish! I couldn’t finish them! It becomes fashionable to say you like a particular author, regardless of the quality of their work.
    You know that what you do is good, because someone is paying you to keep doing it!
    best wishes, Katie-Rose

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