Writers’ Writers vs. Readers’ Writers

I used to think the phrase “so-and-so is a writer’s writer,” was just a way to indicate a writer that other writers would read and recommend. Hell, even after I became a writer myself, the same attitude prevailed.

It was only after my writing reached a certain level, and my consciousness of the art form became much less subliminal and much more specific that I began to realize why some writers are revered by their peers while others most emphatically are not.

Let’s take Dan Brown, for example. Writers will never, ever accept that there is any literary merit in his work. They describe him as a hack who writes awfully, an aberration that proves that, just because words are in a book, it doesn’t make it literature.

Though I don’t know Dan Brown personally, I imagine he is laughing all the way to the bank. You see, no one told the millions of readers of The Da Vinci Code that it sucked, and they kept right on reading.

In fact, I’ll admit to having enjoyed it enormously (especially the first half of it). I was on a plane and out of books and the only interesting English-language paperback they’d had in Madrid airport was this one. So I bought it and loved it.

Is it well-written in the sense that Brown focuses on the language and the currently fashionable tenets of literary expression. No effing way.

Is it good? Absolutely. It is a page-turner in the classical mold and, like it or not, these are the books that engage readers. No matter how many critically acclaimed auteurs sniff at it, readers are not stupid; they can tell when something is excellent… and they will ignore critics in droves to read it.

So who’s right.

Offhand, I’d say the readers, as they are the people that writers create for in the first place.

But it isn’t that simple. A more nuanced answer would be that both groups are right.

A book that keeps readers reading is good by the most important of all definitions: it gives pleasure, escape and entertainment to its target audience. That can’t be bad, and critics of everything from Harry Potter to Fifty Shades are wrong to forget it. Great storytelling has to be an important part of any great book, and when postmodern critics sit down and disparage anything with a plot that people enjoy, they are doing a disservice to literature (modern critics had the same issue, BTW, this isn’t an attack on postmodernism per se).

Having said that, it’s possible to read for more than just the basic pleasure of finding out what happens next. The plot can be advanced in elegant as well as simple ways… and the texture of the writing can bring pleasure to readers as well. In that sense, arguing for more literary text is perfectly valid.

So why “writers’ writer” and not just “sophisticated readers’ writer”?

I think it’s because of the way writers react when they see a spectacular chunk of prose. While a reader might feel pleasure at the aesthetics, a writer will admire (or be jealous of) the mechanics. Writers, when they manage to turn off their inner reader, can feel awe at another writer’s craftsmanship.

In my case, I see it in Wodehouse, of course. While he is beloved by millions for the sheer sake of his humor and lovable characters, any writer exposed to his prose will leave with a sense of awe and inadequacy that will take a while to shake. There is no writer in the English language whose sentences are as beautifully crafted as Wodehouse. Don’t remember it that way? Then I challenge you to pick up any one of his books and prove me wrong. You won’t.

There are other writers who use language wonderfully (Fitzgerald), or incorporate erudite concepts effortlessly (Eco).

So, yes. There is another level in writing, and these are the books that authors will gravitate to.

But don’t discount readers’ opinions. That a book is straightforward in no way makes it a bad book. You have my permission to ignore the critics who tell you otherwise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books (he hopes) are long on both storytelling and language. In an attempt to prove it, he cites his collection of literary fiction, a novel in short story form, entitled Love and Death. You can check it out here.

8 comments

  1. I haven’t written a lot of prose fiction, but when I do write prose fiction, I compose (as one reviewer put it) “the sort of writing that any lover of language can appreciate”. Whether or not those lovers of language are primarily writers or readers, I care not. I suppose writing prose “with the feel of classics from a time when language was as important as story’ (to again quote that same reviewer) makes me some sort of “writers’ writer”, although I truly have but few fans in the writing world. Even so, those few fans have seemed to enjoy my small selection of stories. As a matter of fact, one compared my works to those of Le Fanu and Dunsany, which puts me in great company indeed! If only I wasn’t pulled in so many different creative directions…

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    1. I think you likely would have thrived among The Inklings for example. Lovers of language and history would have been precisely your style – plus it was an age of passionate discussion where the argument could be robust without ending friendships, because that’s the way it was done.

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  2. Alas, I do think I was born in the wrong era, 90-100 yrs too late. Granted, living in the 21st century has enabled me to reach people with my art I might not have otherwise reached, but creatively-speaking, I still feel I would have felt more at home had I been a creative around 90-100 years ago.

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  3. Yep. I’m having a truly hard time finding good SFF from the last 20 years. There is some good stuff out there (Alastair Reynolds, James SA Corey) but to find it, you have to wade through a bunch of over-literate politically-motivated crap. The sense of wonder is notably absent in most of the modern stuff.

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    1. IMHO, that sense of wonder is essential to SFF. If a work lacks that sense, then it’s something different, something less than true full-fledged SFF. Literary angst with genre trappings, perhaps?

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