The Written Word vs. Writing

July 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Because the written word is such a versatile and convenient medium, lots of different activities manifest as writing. Politics is writing. Journalism is writing. Poetry is writing. Hate speech is writing. Erotica is writing, etc.

Among other things, the written word also manifests, from time to time, as an art form, and that’s the kind of writing this blog is about. But I think in discussions about writing — fiction writing, even, books — the vast and omnipresent variety of forms that writing takes bleed into one another, and I’ve seen rhetoric or style bleeding into political assessment (I’m looking at you, Obama swooners in the media), or political considerations bleeding into conversations about novels, or general rules about writing (“Keep it simple and use short sentences”) that are supposed to apply to all forms.

By contrast, look at something like music. Because music isn’t used to convey a political message, or a headline, or anything utilitarian, no one makes the mistake of holding it to a standard of easy consumption or class consciousness. Music is music, thankfully, and you can like what music you like, and people recognize there are different forms of music and profoundly different sensibilities in its creation. If music ever became useful for anything, it would probably signal the death of the art form.

Or what if all physicality were treated the same, and different forms of physicality were held to a concordance with others? Can you imagine someone telling a soccer player, “Your footwork is frivolous — it lacks the lumbering squat of a construction worker.”

And yet that’s exactly the nature of the advice given to writers of made-up stories with made-up people in made-up worlds with made-up laws of physics. Writing’s prominence in the social sphere, largely as a tool for pandering, means that now even the most frivolous and imaginative writers are expected to “know their audience” and “start with a bang” and “make it relatable”. That may be good advice for a stump speech or a front-page article or a potboiler, but think very carefully before you recommend to someone with the courage of their own imagination that they make their storytelling adhere more to utilitarian forms.

Here are a few example absurdities of when people forget about the great divide — the great chasm, the great difference, the great separate planes — between utilitarian and imaginative writing:

  • Poems are read at US presidential inaugurations. (This makes kitsch out of both poetry and the US presidency.)
  • The King’s Speech and Crash win Oscars for Best Picture.
  • In general, the discourse on books and fiction writing becomes mush-headed, vague, all-inclusive, and really insufferably smug, because it starts to presume a made-up story can be all things to all people. Here’s a sample from a recent NYT book review (boy, I harp on them a lot):

    That universal drive toward storytelling is one of the only ways we can attempt to contain our existence, to make narrative sense of our actions and beliefs. It also helps to have someone you’re telling your story to, whether it’s God or a dead parent or the girl you love.

Please don’t tell me how I make sense of my life, or who or what I go to with my most uncertain emotions, in a book review of all things. Let books be books. You don’t really understand literature unless you understand what’s not literature, now do you?

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