Three Blinding Myths of the Writing Community: A Debunking

I spent most Thursday in heated discussions incited by my latest LitReactor article (“8 Reasons Intelligent Writers Must Read Twilight”). That article drove at but never fully elaborated on some of the key misconceptions of the writing community. I want to talk about three specific myths told commonly in writing circles. These myths are based on dangerous assumptions which blind writers to potential opportunities and build unnecessary walls between the writing community and the rest of the world.

3 Blinding Myths of the Writing Community

The 3 Assumptions

Debates in the writing community often center around “good.” Relevant to yesterday’s article, Twilight is the subject of relentless abuse from the writing community because it’s “bad.” Not just bad, but terrible, horrible, no good, very bad rubbish—all of which are notions derived from comparison with an alleged objective good.

This is the first myth: Objectively good writing exists.

Especially amongst aspiring writers, there’s an implicit agreement that such things as “good” and “bad” writing exist. Naturally, then, we must assume that those who do not appreciate good writing (or who do appreciate bad writing) just “don’t get it.”

That’s the second myth: Readers who don’t understand “good writing” are inferior readers.

Because those readers are inferior, you shouldn’t write for them. What you should do is write toward the objectively good. You may not be appreciated in your time, but as readers become smarter and more aware, your work will make it into the spotlight. This is what it means to be a successful writer.

That’s the third myth: Success as a writer does not require that you sell books.

Getting Rid of “Good”

The myth: Objectively good writing exists.

BUT: “Good” does not exist. “Good” is a construct, and whenever we say “Good,” what we mean is “Good for.”

A book can be “Good for” a great many things. It can be good for entertaining the reader, allowing them to escape, stirring thought, creating a profound experience, examining the human condition, evoking weighty emotional responses, or any number of other outcomes. None of these outcomes are inherently superior. They simply have different consequences which we must evaluate for ourselves.

Twilight may not be good for upholding feminist values or crafting eloquent sentences, but it’s good for ensnaring readers and selling copies. War and Peace may be good for creating a profound experience and examining core human dilemmas, but it’s not good for keeping a reader’s attention or spreading to the masses.

To put it another way, ducks make for terrible lawnmowers, but they’re pretty good ducks. If you’re going to criticize a book for being bad or elevate a book for being good, the next critical step is to clarify what it’s good or bad forThere’s no such thing as objectively good writing, but there is such a thing as functionally good writing. The question is what functions we care about.

It’s appropriate to examine books according to our priorities; doing so is important work in affirming individual and group values. However, to then universalize our values and make global assumptions based on our narrow lens is blinding. We have to maintain awareness of what the book may be accomplishing for others. This opens opportunities for broader dialogue and allows us to concretely affirm our values rather than wildly tearing down or building up specific works.

The “Better Audience”

The myth: Readers who don’t understand “good writing” are inferior readers.

BUT: No audience is inherently superior. They are different in matters of background and priorities.

Many writers complain about their failure in same way a would-be comedian may say, “My jokes were funny, but no one laughed.” In that statement, the comedian reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what “funny” is. Funny is defined by the laughter it evokes. And part of what defines a “good book” in the modern world is whether or not an audience enjoys it.

Yet fiction enjoyed by a large audience is often condemned in writing circles. One popular comment countering my defense of Twilight was a simple quote:

“Bad taste makes more millionaires than good taste.” –Charles Bukowski

This quote ties into the common excuse for why Twilight sells while “good” books often don’t: “Twilight is successful because it’s aimed at stupid people,” and writing anything with an aim at popular appeal is “pandering,” “writing for the lowest common denominator,” or “selling your creative soul to the masses” (to use just a few of the phrases used by critics in my discussions on Thursday).

But let’s recognize that by “bad taste,” what people mean is “taste that disagrees with mine.” More commonly, we’re talking about elitist values typically created through academia. This elitism condemns both specific works and entire genres. Genres are often defined by shared values, whether those values are the escapism and intrigue of a fantasy world or the suspense-driven thrills of horror. Since focus on these genre values leaves less room for the values elevated by literary elitism (e.g., deep and meaningful evaluation of the human experience), the genres are condemned.

No values are inherently superior. Saying “Fantasy is bad because literary fiction is good” is much like saying “Oreos are bad because eggplant parmesan is good.” The existence of these two types of food do not form a dichotomy or mandate a comparison. They’re not better or worse. They’re different. Likewise, audiences who appreciate different types of writing aren’t better or worse. Just different.

Definitions of Success

The myth: Success as a writer does not require that you sell books.BUT: Regardless of your definitions of success, you must have readers for your book to exist.Each writer must define success for themselves. It’s completely valid to say you’re unwilling to exchange your values for commercial success, because commercial success is just one part of the picture. However, it’s an important part in any formula for a book’s success—because your book doesn’t exist until it’s in the hands of a reader.

A book is not simply an artifact. It’s an experience. Readers are necessary not only as subjects but as co-creators of the experience itself. While a book that lacks commercial success may still be profound and meaningful for those who do read it—perhaps far more profound than your typical best-seller—your book also exists less.Writing a book with the intention of selling it is not a bad thing. We’ve romanticized the notion of the starving author who spends their life in obscurity—with their work discovered and appreciated only after rigor mortis has set in. We look to Van Gogh, Thoreau, Kafka, and others who weren’t truly discovered until after their death. But how many more were never discovered? How many rotted in obscurity?

The Path to Creation

It’s a good thing to want to make a living by writing. Capitalism can be a beastly machine, but capitalist systems will distribute our work—and that’s the reality writers must face. We may love the notion of artistic purity, but authors typically won’t starve while clinging to their words; when unable to sell their written work, writers tend to sell their daily labor. They work as a waiter at Chile’s or in customer service for some big-name corporation—and while they may attend a writer’s group and create during their free time, most of their resources are devoted to paying the bills.

Shakespeare was able to achieve his prolific output in part because that was his job. He wrote these plays for a living. He also had an acute awareness of what sold to his audiences. Macbeth was written largely with a one-man audience (King James) in mind, for the purpose of furthering the career of Shakespeare and his company.

Selling our books is the way to open up our resources for further creation. Abandoning an awareness of what sells and the importance of developing work that can sell is not romantic. It’s foolhardy. Today’s artists must also be pragmatists, and this isn’t a contradiction. It simply means we want to change the world—and we must choose to do so in more than our own imaginations.

The Final Breakdown

The writing community often believes in writing that’s objectively good, but there isn’t such a thing. There is only functionally good writing—work that is good for something we care about.

The writing community often believes that audiences who don’t share the values of literary elitism are inferior audiences, but the reality is audiences are simply different—and that these differing values can and should co-exist.

The writing community often believes that successful writing can exist without an audience, but readers are active co-creators of any book they read, and no book—regardless of its objectives—can be successful without finding an audience.

Our elitism can, and often does, blind us. These central myths of the writing community have done us many disservices, and it’s time we abandon them for good.