When writing isn’t writing?

I have never understood the appeal of post-modern abstract art – you know, the pile of ordure sitting in the middle of a whitewashed gallery, from which you’re meant to deduce some profound statement about the nature of society, and if you don’t ‘get’ it then you’re a stupid luddite.

MJWright2011To me this sort of thinking has a lot more to do with woofy in-crowds than anything intellectual.

That said, if it would turn a dollar I’m not averse to the notion of inhaling mouthfuls of watercolour and blowing it at canvas in some sort of existential demonstration of the way life and physics integrate.

But I question whether it would appeal to many. And that’s the point. If we carry the idea across to writing, we find much the same comparison. Every book has its audience, but would the wider public prefer to read the latest, intellectually pretentious darling of the literary set – or a new Harry Potter book?

You get the picture.

So why are we told that literature is ‘better’, or somehow ‘smarter’, than mass-market writing? To some extent I think it’s driven by a pretentious sense of exclusive superiority. I’ve been to publisher parties where people of this ilk have walked into the room pelvis-first, flicked the artfully worn scarf over one shoulder, and declared their status as a ‘wraiter’.

Engaging these people in conversation, if they can lower themselves to your level, is interesting because after a while it turns out that they haven’t written or published anything. They’re groupies, and they look down their noses at any writing that isn’t ‘literature’.

My stuff, for instance. Apparently I’m not a proper ‘wraiter’ by this standard – I put together hack-work for the proles. Quite. Apparently that also defines my intellectual capacity.

My take? I think writers need to engage with the widest possible audience, in ways that are interesting for the writers, and which will be interesting for their audience. Producing books that are the writing equivalent of a pile of ordure in the gallery, masquerading as ‘art’, isn’t the way to do it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

16 thoughts on “When writing isn’t writing?

  1. “Wraiter”? How, exactly, is THAT pronounced? ??

    I’ve pretty much given up trying to market short stories, especially after I was informed that although a short story I submitted had an “interesting conceit” it wasn’t good enough for them. OK. Just about every writer I know (real ones) has a stack of rejection slips that could supply toilet paper for a year. The short story market, what remains of it, and excepting genre markets like SF and mystery, has become far too “literary” for my taste. All style and ornament without a real story.

    Of course, that could just be the irritated, rejected writer speaking. 😉

    I think the modern fiction market suffers from being excessively profit-driven and having far too many MFAs in editorial positions who learned to write to their professor’s taste without developing on their own. The excessively-profit-driven part means everyone is looking for a sure thing (and your survival as an editor/agent depends on picking the next J.K. Rowling, every time) which means,mostly, that they’re going to take no chances and pick what’s always sold.

    As for MFAs, I’m a big fan of education as long as it doesn’t get in the way of learning.


    1. “Wraiter” – my take on the pretentious voice affectation of the sort of people who imagine themselves elite literati and their fawning sycophants. The character type adopts a pseudo-upper class English accent involving a vowel shift from ‘i’ to ‘a’. My wife has forbidden me to lampoon them when we meet one, partly because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. They exist, but I have yet to meet one that has actually written anything. It’s all wannabe pretension; a way of validating themselves within their community of choice. The fact that they are presenting this facade of pretension to a community that is a minority (literati) of a minority (writers) perhaps indicates a deep underlying insecurity in those doing it.

      Apropos publishing generally – I think the problem with publishing – perhaps the perennial problem – is that it’s always been down to the personal choice of the recipient. Sure, some material’s pushed out to the market which isn’t of the quality needed, and it’s duly rejected. But other work is just fine – and it’s rejected anyway. Look at J K Rowling’s saga before the first Potter book was sold. I’ve had material rejected by one publisher and accepted by another. Sometimes it’s personal taste. Sometimes it’s different judgements of the market. It’s more intense today because the change in the nature of the market has provoked decisions that reflect more obviously commercial considerations. I think that ’50 Shades of Writing Ineptitude’ would never have been published 10 years ago, come what may. Now? Taken seriously – because there’s a dollar in it, and publishers are quite genuinely at a loss, just at the moment, to know where the market is going. It’ll settle out, of course. The thing for us everyday writers is to make sure it settles out in our direction…


    2. I wouldn’t give up on the short story. Sometimes a title change is all you need. Try a variety of magazines, even one that you think might not be interested. I wrote an article over a year ago for a magazine which was printed, and that was the end of that; or so I thought. I am a novelist, not magazine writer; but it happened to be about an award a friend of mine received and I felt she deserved more attention that the newspaper space. Not long after that, I wrote another article for a different mag on our local rock club. They told me they wanted it, but never published it. A few months ago, the new publisher for that mag called me to let me know she wanted to print it. Hooray! After a title change and a couple edits to update it, it was in the May/June Issue. I even got paid for it!
      She has also given me several other articles she would like. That scares me a bit because I have to interview people. Talking to people has never been a problem for me, but knowing what questions to ask is more daunting.
      Some magazines like lots of pictures to go with their articles. You might check on that. Adding a few pics might make the difference.
      The way I’d pronounce “wraiter” is like ‘waiter’ with an ‘r’ and a snobbish nasal twang, including a little shoulder twist and maybe a little flick (or wave) of the neck scarf.


  2. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I can’t bear pretentious literature (or theatre or movies for that matter.) I’d much rather have popular appeal marked by sales than have a couple of grants and some critical approval by the literati and remain largely unread. As you say, produce interesting books for a wide audience, and let readers decide if you’re ‘art’!


    1. I agree. Indeed, I don’t even define acceptance by the ‘art’ community as a goal. I mean, who says that their definition of ‘good’ actually counts? A lot of it is to do with snobbish pseudo-intellectualism and finding self-validation – which is a lot easier in a small community than it is in a large one. My wife doesn’t let me mock them to their faces, though it’s distressingly easy for me to imitate the fake toffy-nose accent of their wannabe hangers-on. We met one once at a publisher party, the EXACT description I gave above. I still can’t figure out how the guy could walk with a backwards lean without falling over.


  3. Oh yes, I’ve met this type before. I’ve even seen that pelvic lean. I’ve seen it among writers, sculptors, painters, and musicians. The greater the affectation, the less the talent, I’ve noted. Serious artists of any ilk seem quite ordinary by comparison, since they are more concerned with honestly perfecting their craft rather than convincing everyone they’ve already done it. As it stands I’d rather discuss writing with a superior communicator that knows how to write comprehensibly for many rather than a pretentious fop that no one understands.


    1. So would I. Yes, it’s amazing how the archetype exists – and, clearly, on both sides of the Pacific! It’s also true here in the art world. My brother-in-law has been the Royal New Zealand Navy’s official artist for decades, and is a completely practical and totally unpretentious down-to-earth guy. One of my favourite paintings of his, which I have in the house, is a large-canvas oil he did of USS Los Angeles moored dockside in Pearl Harbor. My wife and I have periodically been to his exhibition openings. And, sure as eggs, there’ll always be one or more people who slaunch their way in with flicked scarf, which I always find slightly hilarious as it’s quite out of place.


      1. Most cool! Does he have a website? I’d love to see his work.

        Heaven forbid you encounter one of those pooftes and your wife isn’t around to hold you back. If she’s ever not there, I’d love to be present and see what happens. 🙂


              1. Wow! He’s got great skill with water. I love the HMS Endeavor one, and “Delivering the mail” with the Short Sunderland flying over is great. He’s got the classic nautical feel to his work.


  4. Matt, you crack me up. I could just see you at a party with these snobs. The best part of that type of party is when we lower life forms speak to them at or above their level on their topic of choice. Then when they feel you are worthy of the title wraiter, you break into a discourse on Harry Potter or LOTR. ;-).


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