Back in 2011 I wrote a photographic history of my home district, Hawke’s Bay – Historic Hawkes’ Bay and East Coast, which Bateman issued in case-bound edition with slip-jacket, a wonderful example of the art of book-making.
It’s still on sale and I recently found has been joined by a book from a local writer who has used functionally the same title, subject matter, concept, format, size and price. None of these things breach copyright, and it’s possible the guy came up with them independently, but his book is so conceptually close to mine I can’t help thinking I am being flattered in a deeply sincere way. The only difference is that he’s appended his name to the title of his version, which I take to be an assertion of ownership.
Curiously, though the author calls himself ‘an Historian’ and ‘author’, I believe he is qualified as an accountant. I’m not aware of any qualification he has in my field. It’s kind of iniquitous. I can’t just announce I’m a chartered accountant and set up in business. I don’t have that qualification. History is one of the few fields where people can assign themselves the label and, it seems, personal possession of the territory.
Hawke’s Bay history. The Masonic Hotel (1932) – early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to this guy, of course; plenty of people decide to ‘become’ what they call ‘an Historian’, often on their enthusiasm or interest for their local area. The conceit is, I think, based on the popular notion that history isn’t a skill of its own. Anybody can do history – it’s just collecting fun facts, isn’t it? How hard can it be? The general phenomenon was analysed a few years ago by psychologists Peter Dunning and Justin Kruger, as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It boils down to the fact that if you don’t know anything about a field of endeavour, you can fool yourself into thinking it’s easy, because you know so little you don’t know what there is to know. Often the people doing it are qualified in an unrelated area and imagine that expertise makes them expert in all areas.
The thing is, the same is also true of writing. A few years ago my wife went to a day course on kids’ books, hosted by New Zealand’s top childrens’ author, and found herself surrounded by silver-haired retirees who had decided to ‘become’ writers of kids books. These would-be authors were apparently bombarding their teacher with questions about the contracts they expected to be offered by eagerly waiting publishers. ‘No no,’ the author apparently said. ‘You have to learn how to write first.’
Too true. The problem, though, with Amazon welcoming all and sundry to publish, is that all and sundry promptly do, never realising they don’t have the building blocks. Unconscious incompetence. We’ve all done it, of course, but until recently publishers acted as gate keepers. Enthusiastic but inexperienced writers were rebuffed, went away, and learned writing – a ten-thousand hour, million-word task that takes a hopeful author from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence – and finally, nirvana – unconscious competence.
But now those gates have been ripped open and hurled down a nearby ravine, opening the way for what Chuck Wendig calls a ‘shit volcano’. This buries everybody in the noise, including the hopeful writers. And that’s a pity. You see, if they’ve got to the point where they’ve written a whole book – and then self-published – they want to write. And that should be nurtured. But, like history, writing is a learned skill, and learning to write isn’t an easy path. The more you know about it, the more you realise there is to know. As Hemingway said, we are all apprentices.
And for me, writing technique isn’t something that I feel I have to append my name to and assert is mine alone. It’s something to share. I’ve been in the business over thirty years – and I’m going to spread the skills.
Want to know more? Watch this space through 2015.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015