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The Amateur Writer - The Motive Center
September 11th, 2004
10:52 pm

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The Amateur Writer
Several people in their posts have implied that fan fiction is somehow less than "real" writing. I realized, as my wife and I discussed the posts, that this is an extension of a fundamental issue for writers: you can't be an amateur.

Think about it: Lots of people are amateur painters, amateur actors, amateur standup comics, and so on. Do you know anyone who is an amateur writer? If you tell someone you write, their first question is inevitably "are you published?" If someone tells you they like to paint, do you ask "have you sold?" Or: "Are you in any museums?"

Leaving aside the fact that fan fiction has become a significant percentage of the SF/F market (tell me that the Star Trek, Star Wars, or Buffy novels, etc., aren't fan fiction!), why should you feel guilty or embarrassed to be an amateur writer if it gives you and other people (however few) pleasure? A number of writers have said they write for themselves alone. ("When I want to read a good book, I write one." -- Benjamin Disraeli) I don't think most of them meant it literally; but if it satisfied them, that was enough.

Do I think there is a difference in quality between fan fiction and published fiction? On average, sure, there probably is. But that's not the point. You can use fan fiction to develop skills that enable you to get published, or you can use it as an end in itself, for the sheer pleasure of writing, or even just to explore an idea you got in someone else's world. But in any case I wouldn't be ashamed of it. If you are, then you either need to get over it, or give it up and get serious about getting published.

Writing is a very difficult task. It combines a number of very different skills, and it shows quite readily if any of them are missing. Fan fiction at its worst may avoid dealing with developing characters, universe, or sometimes even plot--but it does help one practice skills required for any fiction, if only (as one person noted) mastering the language. Writers write, period. The more you write, the better you are likely to become.

My wife pointed out as we discussed this that in the visual arts you always start out copying people. Jules Feiffer referred to this as "swipes" when he was doing comic books. Everyone would "swipe" good art from other artists, and indeed many comic strips today have a stable of artists who all draw carefully identical styles. Garfield is an example of this, and Jim Davis himself started out drawing someone else's comic until he struck out on his own. Every artist I know--and I know many--started out imitating other people until they developed their own style. What is fan fiction but prose "swipes?" If you get famous and good, you write "pastiches" or "hommages," but, hey, a swipe is a swipe!

Robert Heinlein's previously unpublished first novel, For Us, the Living was recently published. It's pretty lame, especially compared with Heinlein's average work, but it is also clearly based on the style of H. G. Wells, with a dash of Aldous Huxley. Large chunks of the concepts and occasionally other riffs found their way into other, better written works. It's worth remembering that the person who transformed and defined modern science fiction started out doing "swipes" from other people, and also worth remembering that parts of it were good enough to reuse!

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From:kamenkyote
Date:September 11th, 2004 08:14 pm (UTC)
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Hey, Steve! Wish you'd told me about the LJ! So. I read the first paragraphs here and wondered how you were going to prove that it was impossible to be an amateur writer. Seems that wasn't exactly your point! Still, I think "amateur writer" is just as valid a term as "amateur painter" (which I consider myself) as is "hobbyist writer." When I was learning to be a magician (a LONG time ago), I was told that the difference between an amateur and a pro was that the pro earned at least half his or her income from said occupation. That's seemed to be a decent divider between the terms for me. While it doesn't address issues such as conviction and drive, there are some indicators as to polish and quality.

I would also disagree that published novels based on existing ideas, be they shows, movies, radio plays or what have you would be considered "fan fiction" if only for the reason that they're sanctioned by the original creators. There are details and issues that have to remain consistant and are not easily changed or bandied about by the author if said author did not originally create the body of work on which the novel's based. One could also argue that being published and being paid for same excludes such a work from the "fan fiction" category. This isn't necessarily an indication of quality on either side, but it was my understanding that "fan fiction" was produced by and for fans without necessary regard to the creators. Correct me if I'm wrong here. :)

Anyway, howdy and howdy to the whole family! Neat idea for a livejournal!

-mike
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From:stevekelner
Date:September 11th, 2004 08:39 pm (UTC)

Amateur or not?

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Hey, Mike! I agree that "amateur writer" is a valid term--my point is that most people don't acknowledge it as so, and we should. There are a lot of things attached to the word "professional," including quality issues, being paid at all, etc. Your criteria of "half his or her income" would, sadly, exclude many if not most of the published writers I know...

I want to draw a different line than you did on fan fiction as well. If a writer is working in someone else's universe, particularly if they don't have to (which fits things like Poul Anderson writing a Man-Kzin War story), it's a kind of fan fiction--you're a fan of someone else's world and writing in it. Not that I disagree with your points in general, but I was trying to link fan fiction with published works and show they are not impossibly far apart!
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From:manna
Date:September 12th, 2004 06:44 pm (UTC)
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I found your LJ via my flist (friends list), and I just wanted to raise my hand as a proud amateur writer. I write original and fanfiction, from short stories to novel length, and I publish them on the web, with no desire to try to make a living out of it -- I have a career that I enjoy very much already.

Yes, it can be a little annoying when the first thing everyone asks is 'are you trying to get it published', but I just smile and say no, it's a hobby.
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From:stevekelner
Date:September 12th, 2004 06:53 pm (UTC)

Proud amateur writer

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Good for you! If more people felt like you I'd suspect we'd all be a lot happier no matter what we did. Some people abandon things because they feel overwhelmed by someone else's expectations rather than using their own, and as a result miss out on a lot of fun!
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From:alicambs
Date:September 13th, 2004 04:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Proud amateur writer

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I'm another proud amateur writer.*g*. I have no desire to write original fiction, or certainly not at present, as I'm having far too much fun in fandom. While I have always written for my job - usually reports, fan fiction is entirely for pleasure, yet because it is possible for my stories to to be read by anyone I work hard to get them 'just right'. By that I mean I consistently rewrite, get constructive criticism from betas and do extensive editing before 'publishing' on the web. I've noticed that the hard work I've put into improving and working on my creative writing has actually seen a reciprocal improvement in my overall writing ability. So, for me at least, writing fan fiction has been overwhelmingly a positive and enriching experience.
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 17th, 2004 05:23 am (UTC)
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I would be interested to read your thoughts on escapism as an element of fan fiction writing. Hobby, amateur past times, etc. usually have some element of that. And that element, as Ms. Manna pointed out in her example, may negate any desire to publish, etc.

Also, unless one is published and active in the community of conventions or publishes or something similar, professional writing often is a solitary profession, whereas fan fiction more often comprises one piece of a community. Whilst instant feedback may be a part of that, so is a more collaborative, discussion oriented atmosphere (perhaps a family of sorts). Which is all to say that I would also be interested to hear your thoughts on community.

Thanks, Steve.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 17th, 2004 07:22 pm (UTC)

Escapism and Community

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Two good points! Ms. Manna's point also relates to a fundamental difference between intrinsic (emotional) motivation and external (pay) motivation: external motivation squashes intrinsic motivation in many circumstances. It is possible to separate the two in your mind, but not always easy. To put it another way, getting paid means now you are obligated--it's not fun anymore.

Certainly escapism is a part of it; I know several writers who wrote to escape into their own world, including J.K. Rowling and a thriller writer I knew who was in an abusive marriage and wrote women-in-jeopardy novels where the threatening men suffered horrible (and appropriate) fates. Interestingly, this latter person finally got big enough to get enough money to leave her husband and take her child, and essentially lost the desire to write.

As for community--I learned the hard way (as reading some earlier replies will reveal!) earlier that the fanfiction community is quite impressive! I need to be clear about "feedback," which actually was not focused on improvement but on response. I have some reason to think that the same motive powers published writers as devoted fanfictioneers--the desire to have an impact on others. Thus, knowing that someone is responding is important. It takes a helluva lot longer to get that response from publishing in a conventional way, hence my comment on "instant feedback." But I think there is another motive involved as well, which is the Affiliative motive, the motive for intimacy, personal relationships, and belonging. Then the act of writing and reading is an act to belong to a community, and since fan-fiction by its very nature is based on a small in-group, it means it is belonging to a very distinct and well-defined community. Indeed, it could be a family, in that there is close sharing of common beliefs and values, often with an emotional component.

I need to address the "solitary profession" comment, which in brief is my finding that writers don't like to be solitary, but they can postpone the satisfaction of company for greater impact later.

Hope this makes sense; I should really put this on the main LJ and probably will ultimately, but I have an earlier piece to address first!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 17th, 2004 07:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Thanks for your replies, Steve. I think you will find that insight is not hard to come by, but that application can be tricky. In fact, I feel certain that the feedback you received has already offered more than a sketchy glimpse of that.

I know a fair number of published writers, best selling and otherwise, and I do find, more often than not, that they are more solitary, more socially fit to not fit, than many non-writers. Part of that is a requirement for a good writer. One needs enough distance, even from the daily, the mundane, to observe, parse and craft.

However, that is certainly not to imply that writers are born that way. It may well be a nurture issue.

But to your basic points, I certainly agree, particularly with the external versus other motivations. I have a couple of "purity of starving artist" type friends, but those aside, most writers, as with other artists I know, would like to earn a (hopefully decent to "good") living. For my part, a business career that pays possibly more than it should has certainly been a deterrent to bothering to write professionally. I've often joked with my writer friends that they should write some of my better plit ideas. More like pitching a movie idea. As a counterpoint, though, I know an author who recently published a best seller, in spite of his spouse being a wealthy professional and having no "external" motivation, other than a novel knocking about his brain for too long.

Thanks again, Steve.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 17th, 2004 07:45 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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I've been advising writers for over ten years now as well as being a management consultant for 14, so I am very familiar with the trickiness of application! I wouldn't have written the book had I not felt I had gathered enough to be useful, but there are no guarantees. People are too complex for that.

Please note that "social" is not the same as "wanting to have impact." You can be a loner who wants to have an impact on others collectively, and be socially completely unskilled. It may, in fact, be a reason why people write instead of just becoming a politician or schmoozing at parties! I also know many psychologists who are socially unskilled, which is why they (consciously or no) became psychologists--to figure people out intellectually rather than intuitively.

Incidentally, I'm not offering a random opinion here based on my own insight, as you seem to imply, but the result of years of research. 23 of the first 24 published writers I studied in depth (motivational assessment plus interview and discussion of writing methods) had amazingly consistent motive patterns, plus a pattern of Activity Inhibition (the ability to restrain or channel motivational energy/emotion) so high as to be unheard-of in any other profession. In other words, they wanted to influence, but were superb at channeling that desire into writing instead of going to meet people. There are exceptions, of course, but they are explainable.

A number of people on the LJ have given me, um, feedback on the purity of writing, saying that what they write for their community is somehow nobler or better than writing for money. Well, maybe that's true for them, but Shakespeare would probably disagree. Lots of great writers wrote wonderful artistic statements and made money. What that does is perpetuate the myth that good writers are unworldly people who don't need money--and therefore would only be spoiled by having it. I think this is pernicious, given the many starving writers I know. Someone (I forget who, I think Linda Barnes) said "money doesn't spoil writers, it frees them! It allows them to write."

My own well-paid career has certainly slowed down my writing--a fully engaging and fun job that is more than full-time does have a way of draining your energy...but speed isn't everything!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 18th, 2004 03:59 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Hi Steve,

I'm late to a meating, so just a brief response and more later.

First, social vs. impact - absolutely, that is not a difference I meant to draw. I wouldn't have even grouped those two in a mutually exclusive axiom, but then, you're the psychologist, so you know better than I do. :)

Feedback on your purity - Yes. It can be pernicious, and I have no particular attachment to the purity of art produced through starvation vs. that produced by a large advance. Again, nothing I was trying to imply.

I will respond more thoughtfully in a few hours. Thanks again, Steve.
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 18th, 2004 07:20 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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I'd like to focus in on one element of your comments, here, Steve, if that's alright.

The issue of expertise, data sampling and research is a fascinating one. Please don't imagine that I meant to imply that your credentials are dodgy or that you don't have experience and domain knowledge. I assume that making a living as a motivational psychologist, being paid to speak on the topic and having a book published as well, gives you strong, conservatively measured, credentials, so no attack was intended on that front. In the main, I'm agreeing with you, not arguing, just pulling out elements of interest and commenting as that is one of the main draws of LJ.

In my professional life, credibility, expertise and possession of the data to back up one's position are the most valuable commodities one trades in. Knowing how to tell people with large egos and often large bank accounts what to do is also an important skill. So I think I know where you are coming from on those issues, we just apply them to a different client base, as it were.

The interesting thing to me is data sampling and drawing conclusions. On the one hand, if someone said that approximately 95% of my sample universe was in agreement with my thesis, I'd say I was spot on. On the other hand, statistics are tricky blighters and 24 is an awfully small sample size. However, you're not studying the effects of Vitamin C on pregnant women, so one presumes that you don't need a 100K person research group! But drawing conclusions from a specific data set and applying them broadly is a dicey issue, one way or the other.

As to your last, if you're having fun, being engaged and making a satisfying wage, you are already ahead of (and this is pure speculation on my part!) 90% of the Western world. :)
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 18th, 2004 08:40 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Sorry if I seemed a bit testy--as a sometime scientist, I try to draw a line between my (admittedly strong) opinions and what I think of as factual! I'm curious as to what your own professional life is; it sounds as if we have points in common. Don't hesitate to jump in--that's what this blog is for!

I simplified my results for easy consumption, but since you know about data sampling, let me elaborate. I did say the first 24. In fact, I've also done a lot of post-hoc analysis of writers' self-descriptions, and I've continued to gather data off and on. What is not clear from my description was how amazingly strong the pattern was. I think I have this elsewhere on the LJ, but what I got was a mean of 88th percentile Influence motive, 22nd Achievement, 18th Affiliation, and a very low standard deviation for the Influence Motive. That's awfully high for a normed mean. Motives typically vary pretty evenly across the population to begin with, and the norming flattens them out relative to each other, so I can say with some confidence that the strength of the relationship is much higher than the sample size alone would suggest. The AI finding is even more striking: the average in a US population is 1.75, SD of 0.25, and I got an average of eighteen! I think my lowest score on AI in my group was 14. Again, that's so strong as to be almost inconceivable. I have never seen scores like that in twenty years of motive work, never seen anywhere near those scores except in published writers.

There are, as I noted, always exceptions. My intent isn't to say that "if you lack this motive pattern, you're doomed!" I have two points to make. First is that most people who write probably share this pattern, and since this motive is both negatively valued in the English-speaking world and nonconscious in the first place, people are unlikely to take best advantage of their own motives unless they are informed. Second is if you do not have this pattern, you might need to work a little differently from many other writers. I did have exceptions in my study, and continue to find individual variations, for which I have suggestions in the book. I think pretty much anyone can write if they set their minds to it--the trick is to set their minds!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 18th, 2004 09:26 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Those are indeed peculiar and interesting numbers. It makes sense, though, that a portion of the population that is already deviating from social norms and achieving far above those norms within their elected profession would have a certain pattern. Studdies involving professional athletes, for instance, are always at pains to acknowledge the genetic near impossibility of those being studied. In any groups that have achieved at the level we are discussing, there has already been a) a self selection process and b) an unusual drive and c) something (tangible or intangible) that "sets them apart" for lack of a better phrase, from the majority of their community or even other human beings more generally.

I very much appreciate the background on your data. That helps fill in the picture to a tremendous degree.

You also asked about my professional life. I invest, mainly in private companies. So I am a glutton for details, but in fact, I am usually forced to make decisions in the absence of anything bearing resemblance to a complete picture.

Motivation is a very tricky thing, and I applaud your efforts to help artists (especially as many of them, probably even those as driven and directed as those who have been published, are somewhat victemized by stereotypes) to get disciplined, focused and productive.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 18th, 2004 11:20 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Oho! So are you a VC of sorts? My daily (and sometimes nightly) life is being a global leader in the executive appraisal and development practice of Egon Zehnder International (www.zehnder.com). There are a few VC and Private Equity firms that have used us to evaluate the leadership of a potential acquisition, for example. Usually after, but more and more people are asking us as part of their due diligence. It's worth doing, for just the reasons you raise! If you want, we can discuss the business applications further off-list or on, for that matter. My next book in progress (very early stages yet) is about applying motivation more broadly to life, and this is one of the areas I'd like to discuss.

At any rate, you raise a very good point around the highly selective sample. I did deliberately go for "published writer," as I saw that as the target for many writers. However, I didn't get people at the far extreme of writing! I didn't get people like Stephen King, for example, the hyper-successful or even just hyper-productive writers. Mostly I have mid-list or even relatively newly published writers. It is also interesting to note that the pattern holds through every genre I studied (e.g., mystery, thriller, SF, nonfiction, romance, romantic thriller) even though the motives related to reading those genres vary.

Of course, again as noted, I don't assume this is the only possible motive pattern in the book, so there's room for all motives. One writer I interviewed was strongest in Achievement motive. Interestingly, she managed to publish two books--both collaborations. But she published!

I appreciate your applause; I've written as an avocation most of my life, and I feel this is an opportunity to help people who want to write but can't seem to get started. I helped my wife get started, and she's got eight books, 15 short stories, two awards, five nominations...that's pretty satisfying!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 18th, 2004 01:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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As far as anything you care to discuss off list, always feel free to e-mail me at tipgardner@gmail.com.

I do a small amount of venture investing. I tend to focus more on traditional private equity - turn arounds, growth or buying a family out in traditional industries such as manufacturing, services and distribution. I have also done some LBO work, but I don't like auctions or the attention that public deals command. Bad for business, I always feel, even if they are good for marketing. Private equity, like all businesses that live on putting capital to work, rapidly becomes an asset management business, focused more on fee growth and preservation than returns.

I have not generally utlized executive search professionals in due diligence, though that trend has been growing, particularly among venture investors since 1998. It's very interesting and probably quite an intelligent utlization of the skill set.

I wonder if many of my mates on LJ are attacking you? (That's meant as a spot of humour! You seem to take a lot of my comments as argumentative.) At any rate, I don't think that your sample is so selective as much as the phenomenon you've chosen on which to initially base your studies drew you to a naturally self-selecting group. It is, however, interesting to me that you do not seem to have studied any non-genre writers. I would be curious to know how, if at all, a Joyce, Amis, Franzen, Rushdie, etc. differ in their motivations from genre authors, who by definition almost have to have less lofty ambitions one hand and more on another. Sort of like going in for experimental theatre or music instead of West End musicals or Pop. Non-genre writers on the one hand can expect more literary/legacy recognition. On the other, unlike my music analogy, sales seems to follow genre more than art. Thrillers, etc. can often expect higher sales by the look of the stands at book stores and the like than "great literary works."

Accordingly one might expect literary writers to have a higher interest in impact or recognition and perhaps be lower on certain other scales.

Intersting about your wife. Perhaps I should hire you to take over my life and make me give up business for writing! Otherwise, tell your wife that any plot idea of mine, with full background and character notes can be hers as long as I keep, say, 40% of the money! ;)
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 18th, 2004 07:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Happy to discuss how EZI, at least, has been working with folks on due diligence if you are interested. Given our ability to predict performance in a given role as well as measuring potential, I think it is a significantly under-used approach that could add huge business value for a small but growing company. There is definitely a "break point" between an entrepreneur and an executive in competency terms, and actually in motive terms as well (that's well established).

Apart from the one previous message, I didn't think I was responding to you as argumentative. I think you're raising important points, worthy of an answer! They're interesting enough that I should move some of this into the main thread!

And indeed you are raising another interesting question. I don't actually think there is a difference on this level between genre and non-genre writers, for several reasons. First, genre and non-genre is an artificial distinction anyway (Poe invented detective fiction and wrote science fiction after all!), though a convenient shorthand for certain styles of prose and plot. Second requires some understanding of how (these) motives work. Being very basic emotional drivers, they can be manifested or satisfied in many different ways. As far as the pure motives are concerned, there is no difference between being a bestseller or being reviewed in the Times Review of Books or being the subject of learned scholarship--it's all impact. Making those distinctions is at a different level of the brain. The third reason is that actually I did study non-genre (what some folks on LJ are calling "litfic") writers. Sarah Smith, a friend of mine, actually writes SF, mysteries, and literary fiction. Her last two books were NY Times Notable Books, which is definitely a sign of approval from the New York Literary Establishment! (Her latest, Chasing Shakespeares is a highly literary story about discovering proof that Shakespeare is the Earl of Oxford, and how that affects a young scholar. Sarah was putting her Ph.D in English Lit to work!)

What you are describing are more what I would call values (technically, "self-attributed motives"), which I discuss elsewhere on the LJ. Certainly these are important--I can think of one author who wrote mysteries for years and then, as she put it, "left the trailer park" for literary fiction, in the process alienating all her old friends. Sadly, I think this happened because her own father, an academic, never took her other work seriously. So the influence motive is probably the same, but the values around what is appropriate writing work are different.

As for giving up business for writing, frankly, the money's much better in business!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 19th, 2004 07:52 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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No, not argumentitive, it just occured to me that perhaps LJers have been trying to put you on the defensive. No worries, mate, I'm not watching out for your right hook just yet! ;)

Mmm...I think that you are absolutely correct that the big head hunters have an assessment competency that would be well employed by companies, entrepreneurs and sponsors. I think the immediate concern is that sometimes the average head hunter is not perceived to have your technical expertise and/or training. They need more yous and fewer thems.

I think you are absolutely right about the distinctions. I was creating a value-based hierarchy in spite of myself. In fact, one of my fav art shows of the last thirty years was the High Low show at MoMA in NYC, though many consider it a ridiculous thing to have done at one of, if not the, most important modernism museums. At any one time, I read emerging novelists, mid-career lit types, Harry Potter, random YA novels, detective stories, thrillers with the slick varnish of best sellerdom and whatever else catches my passing fancy. And, in general, I enjoy them all.

Now to return to your point, I agree with you overall, but being over analytical and enjoying a bit of free time, I'll pick some layers here, just to make conversation, if that's alright?

I think the nuance is the thing with wanting to make impact of the sort that comes with course study and high literary acceptance. For one thing, the drive does not seem the same. Lit writers often seem to let novels stew longer, they seem resigned/interested in reaching a much smaller audience. Look at Franzen (I have personal experience on this, as his best mate is a good friend and I know him quite well): He pushed back on fame as hard as any "goth" or alternative rock star except perhaps Curt Cobain. He must be the only author to ever reject the sort of throne that Oprah offered! ;) But I use the extreme to make a point. The goal of making perfect art, changing language and shaping thought, though it may stem from similar or even the same motives, is different then wanting to spin a good yarn or make a lot of money or imitate one's heros (if those heros are JKR or S. King types rather than Chabon, Franzen, Delillo, etc.)

I think this gets back to value and hierarchy. It might be something of a Paglia-ism, but if one admits the reality of societal norms and prejudices, then one is undoubtedly impacted by them. That is to say, that society perceives differences between what Koontz and Rowling are doing with what Amis and Murakami are doing.

I like to draw a distinction when having this type of discussion that is absolutely value judgment laden: Art/Language versus story telling. JK Rowling, is, for instance a great writer because she is a great, creative story teller. She gathers tons of familiar ideas and puts them together in an original way. However, I am not ready to say that she is a good or "smart " art. Chabon is probably one of the best examples of someone who can do both. Kavalier & Clay is a great, plot driven book, it is also a smart, literary piece of art. Actually, on second thought, maybe Rushdie and some of the other magical realists are the right example: Sprawling yet taught, changing the way we view the world, the written word and our sense of self. At the same time, Murakami's Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a driving sci fi and detective novel all rolled into one piece of post modern art genius. I wear my biases openly on this one, but I suspect that many, including many writers, would agree.

Meanwhilst, I hope you've had a good day and that Boston isn't too rimmed with frost yet.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 19th, 2004 08:25 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Actually, I did get pushed pretty hard for suggesting that fanfic could be a precursor to publication instead of a goal in itself, but I'm pushing back--I'm studying the phenomenon!

I agree, incidentally, that most headhunters don't have this training--EZI is exceptional, in that (1) we train everyone on a rigorous technique developed at the University of Michigan anchored in the best methodologies, (2) everyone does both search and executive assessment (what we call "management appraisal") using it, and (3) a core group of thought leaders (including me) are, with the full support of our executive committee, working to raise the bar steadily. I don't believe you need to be a psychologist to do this, but it helps to have one who can explain why it is so good!

Back to art...sure, society makes a distinction now, but will it later? Most enduring artists are popular artists later recognized as fine artists. Shakespeare wrote for the masses. Dickens was paid by the word. Poe and Hemingway wrote for the newspapers. Heinlein commented once that any work that did not acknowledge the impact of technology and science on humanity is in fact out of the mainstream. That may be a little extreme, but it is worth examining the idea, given that the mainstream "novel of character" is approaching two hundred years old, and in many ways hasn't changed significantly since the invention of narrative.

The distinction I often see between "literary" and "popular" fiction makes a couple of assumptions. One is that fine art is inherently less accessible, which by implication means that only educated people really appreciate art. I don't believe this for a minute. There is no question that education can enhance your appreciation of art, but if art requires an audience, then someone who wins a large audience obviously has something going for him/her! This aligns, I think, with your comment about JK Rowling, which I agree with--though I think she's getting progressively smarter every book, and her insight into adolescents astounds me every time I reread her books, not to mention the artistic courage with which she makes her own lead character appropriately unlikeable in OotP.

The other assumption is that literary works are better written. However, this often becomes a circular argument--popular writers are writing down to their audience, which means (falsely) that they are worse. Genre writers are often relying on a large body of known assumptions, practices, conventions, etc., just as a painter must know three-point perspective (whether Picasso chose to use it or not).

Having said that, I am unabashedly elitist in one aspect: I think writing is a skill that must be learned. The great thing about a Chabon, as you say, is that he is a skilled writer in multiple genres. He wrote a terrific little comic book story about the Golden Age Mr. Terrific which was literary in the classic sense but also a good comic story, which has specific artistic constraints (it was in a special issue of the Justice Society of America). James Blish was one of the first SF critics to hold SF writers to "literary" standards, and he was a noted Joyce scholar as well as an SF writer. I'm with him on this--it's not the genre that matters, it's the writer. It is interesting to me that SF and mystery tropes are entering the mainstream, and there are reasons. SF establishes rigorous worlds in which a story can be portrayed to best advantage; mysteries establish rigorous plots in which a story can be portrayed to best advantage, and (to finish the set) romances establish rigorous characters in which a story, etc. The postmodern SF is fascinating to me, be it Chabon or Neal Stephenson. Haven't read Murakami yet, but he's on my list. Sounds as if Effinger's When Gravity Fails may have been in the territory first--and let's not forget Alfie Bester, who was writing modern fiction in SF in the 1950s...

I think we are agreeing violently here, but I'm enjoying the process. I've had a difficult week (brother-in-law burst a blood vessel in his brain, we think; sister-in-law going through family trouble; friend died during a convention he helped organize and we were at last weekend)--things are picking up. Not too much frost yet!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 19th, 2004 10:10 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Yes, we are, in reality, pretty much in agreement (never something I thought I would say to a Yank!) on all of these topics.

Of coure, the more copies of an artist's work around, the more likely they are to be considered an important artist later. Look at Marlowe and Shakespeare. In fact your example of Shakespeare is even more broadly correct than your version. Marlowe seems to have been generally accepted as the more artistically successful of the two in their own day, yet he was as widely revived and is not considered to be as imapctful today by many excepting academic circles.

BTW, for your Sci Fi list, perhaps you might start with Huxley or Tolstoy's nephew.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 20th, 2004 07:10 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Well, I like to think of myself as an American who plays well with others...

Your point is well taken, but Shakespeare's posthumous career went up and down a good deal, and ultimately I think the fact that he survived the ages is indicative. Of course, he also got lucky in having people promoting him. Bach might have been just one more obscure musician had he not been "discovered" by a collector--his children might have been more famous than him! It's also interesting reading contemporaries of Shakespeare, like John Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore, which blew my mind back in college, as well as Marlowe--to my mind, you can tell why Will passes the cut!

And on the SF front--I've read stories by Aldous and T. H. Huxley (who wrote an SF short story), but Tolstoy's nephew?
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 20th, 2004 07:34 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Yes, patronism, a separate subject well worthy of study (both the motivations therein and the phenomenon). Plus, there are any number of people with money that should be providing greater support to artists and art institutions, but as I say, another topic.

Hm...I wouldn't say that Marlowe or Ford have stood the test of time any less that Shakespeare, they just aren't read as much in high school and such and so are known to fewer Americans. But again, I take your point.

Mmmm...yes, I can't remember his name, but I believe he wrote one of the earliest, "modern" SF novels. I apologise, I don't have a great depth of knowledge of various genres' histories or writers. I tend to read genre fic when I get cast offs or see a catchy cover in an airport.
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 19th, 2004 10:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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I wanted to leave the personal stuff for its own response because it sounds as though you've been subjected to a terrible month or so. I'm very sorry to hear that. My brother died this summer and a very close friend's brother-in-law had a psychotic episode and threatened her sister and his children with a gun, so I, quite literally, know where you are at. Again, I'm very sorry.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 20th, 2004 07:14 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Thank you for your kind words. This all happened in the last week, believe it or not. The good news is that my brother-in-law may be okay, and ultimately my sister-in-law will be better for the events--eventually.

I am truly sorry to hear of your troubles as well. Please accept my sympathies for difficult times.
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 20th, 2004 07:35 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Sadly, we are agreeing to well on this topic as well. Best wishes and much sympathy to you and your family as well.
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