Literary pretense vs. the life of a working writer

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This weekend I’ve been chewing over issues of literature and the literary life as compared to the work and life of commercial writer. I’ve paid my bills for a decade as a writer, I didn’t do that by sniffing at potential clients — I’ve sacrificed most of my snobbery when it comes to the written word. I am firmly in the writing proletariat, and you can see that in my style. Conversational, accessible, maybe a little pedantic and hipstery, but always accessible.

The issue for me flares up when I peek into the world of literature and recoil a bit at the pretence. Language can be used for the powers of good or the powers of evil, and I get cringey and pissed off when I see people using words for the powers of evil. Evil meaning “intentionally making others feel stupid to make themselves feel smarter.”

Big words get used in painfully unnecessary ways, with pauses written into prose so the writer can back on their heels and say “See that? See what I did there?” I can’t decide whether I want to roll my eyes or shuffle away with embarrassment. This kind of literary snobbery give writers everywhere a bad name, making everyone think we’re all arrogant smartypants who use big words to confuse the intellectual plebeians.

I got into a discussion with another writer (a books editor for a local paper) about young adult fiction Friday. He argued that YA is “what people read when they don’t really want to read,” and that there are a lot of great writers slumming in YA these days. The moral seemed to be, “If you’re not challenged by what you’re reading, then you’re not really reading” and “if you’re not writing something challenging, you’re not really writing.” (To be fair, dude’s a books editor. He thinks about these things all day.)

Many of these issues came up for me when I attended a writing workshop a couple years ago. With the exception of the leader, I was the only working writer in the workshop. I was shocked when the discussion turned to negotiating your spouse being your writing patron – of course the workshop was mostly women, and some of them nodded grimly and made notes. “OK to ask husband to support me while I write.” I got all huffy and thought to myself about the times when I’d supported my husband with my writing – granted, I was writing marketing crap, but why moon over your dreams of being a writer when you could actually get out in the trenches and DO IT?

Sometimes literary programs make me get all huffy and pull-up-your bootstraps irrational, muttering, “You shouldn’t need some patron to support you while you write something beautiful. You should buck up and get work as a writing grunt!”

Yes, yes: I’m deeply biased by the path that I’ve chosen for myself. Just because I’m a whore who’s willing to sacrifice my literary integrity to pay my bills doesn’t mean everybody should make the same decision. But it’s the snobbery that gets me … I guess I just don’t have much sympathy for tragic creatives. The starving artist hunched over his 7th unpublished novel isn’t any more a writer than the whore biding their 9-to-5 hours cranking out copy about ear and nose hair trimmers. There’s a huge amount of romance around the former, while the second grunts along quietly paying their bills doing what they love.

Comments on Literary pretense vs. the life of a working writer

  1. ARG. I’ve loved young adult books since I was a young adult and I hate the YA haters. Just like any genre, there are a lot of crappy YA books out there, but the really good ones read to me like books that just happen to be about teenagers and kids (and sure, with sometimes less sophisticated vocab and wording – though not always). And if growing up and all that you go through with that isn’t a topic rife with literary possibilities, I don’t know what is.

    Totally agree on the arrogant use of big words. I could never get through a single David Foster Wallace book because of this – i just want to punch him in the face about three pages in. There’s a difference between using a big word because it more exactly describes what you mean than a more simplistic word and just picking the most obscure word possible just because you can. The latter is just total wankery.

  2. I hear you too, but I have to disagree a bit — just a little bit.

    There are different kinds and desires when it comes to writing. I think the biggest mistake many people make is that if you can write in one style (i.e. copywriting or journalism) then you have the desire and talent to do all forms of writing.

    To say that writing is writing is writing is doing a great disservice to writers. People who write fascinating non-fiction might suck at writing literary fiction. Would journalists make great copywriters? Probably not — they are vastly different styles of writing.

    I make my living as a copywriter and I pin my hopes on being a tragic creative writer of literary fiction — they are not the same kind of writing. They aren’t even on the same planet.

    So while telling the tragic creative with the unpublished novel to suck it up and get a writing job that pays the bills might make sense theoretically, that doesn’t mean he/she can actually do the kind of writing that makes the money.

  3. I read both for learning and for escapism. Currently one of my favorite series is YA. “Warriors”…14 books (plus spin-offs) written about feral cats, their warrior clans, and their entertaining adventures.

    To me, books should be a joy to read. It’s true that sometimes I don’t want to have to stumble over and digest every word, but I also want to feel pleasure cracking a book open and feeling like a entire world is about to unfold.

    I also recently read “Quicksilver” by Neal Stephenson and my god, I was embarrassed by how tedious I found it. I WANTED to like it, much like I really want to like Umberto Ecco. But I had Foucalt’s Pendulum sitting unread on my bookshelf for years – like, a decade – before I finally admitted to myself that the only reason I kept it was because it was a “smart” book.

    Also? Anything that gets adults and kids reading (not only reading, but LOVING to read) is great, in my opinion.

  4. Also, I think it helps to be really clear with yourself about who you’re writing for. Are you writing for yourself? The money? A particular readership? I think feelings get hurt when you change your mind midstream or try to have it all.

  5. Dude. Are you seriously suggesting that all difficult works of literature are “evil” because they make some people feel inadequate? Let’s burn Shakespeare and Henry James and Nabokov because the joy they take in language is intimidating to some people?

    Can’t we just have different books for different folks? Believe it or not, some people *enjoy* thinking, stretching, challenging themselves. Why is challenging yourself intellectually considered snobbery, but people think it’s noble to run a marathon or climb a mountain?

    • That was not at all what was said, perhaps you should read Mr. Haley’s comment below, he makes and excellent point.

  6. I know quite a few writers who believe in your philosophy. I think as long as you are writing, its a muscle. It may not be developing to run a marathon, but training for a 5K is useful as well. 5Ks are kind of the gateway drug for marathons.

    I am also not into the idea of asking my partner to “sponsor me”. what crap, unless I have a a book contract. Seriously…John Grisham wrote in the morning for years until his first book got published. oh sorry, that’s too middlebrow for everyone.

    I like all kinds of writing…Sometimes I get bored with plain old fiction that’s entertaining and need something juicier to sink my teeth into!

  7. Hmm,
    this is a good post. I love lit. but I also love pulp. By more than all that I deeply respect people who worked for it (whatever it is). I have a good friend who is an accomplished writer and thinker – who pays his bills by writing YA and text books. . He writes a book a month. A BOOK A MONTH. To pay the bills. He is one of the most intelligent, well read persons I know. He does not wear it as a badge, but has he earned it. When he can he writes book about his passion, theology.
    My point here is – I agree with you. It is not about hating the lit. It is about how it embarrassing to hold up only one type of artist to certain esteem at the cost of others…(others write to pay the bills). My spouse paints, not for money but for the love of it. I support her, but not in the context of “here is money..I humor you”. I support her unequivocally…if she chose to sell her work tomorrow, great. If not, great. If she wants to paint commercially, great. If it goes only as far as our own walls, so be it. The point is to honor that path, no matter where it has gone or where it leads. Big words or not.

  8. I’m with Jodi–there are different forms of writing and not all writers have the capacity to actually write for a living. If I had to choose between writing a news story about, say, whether rollerblades are cutting into bike sales (an actual story assignment when I was a stringer for my local paper) and filing insurance documents (also a job I’ve held) for money, I’ll take the latter hands down.

    It seems to depend on both the style of your work and whether your writing seems to be a bottomless well (write all day for money, write all night for yourself) or a limited resource (do something different during the day, so you’re fresh at the page at night).

  9. Regarding the “different books for different folks” comment: Ariel certainly isn’t suggesting a book burning, literally or figuratively – this is about calling out writers who abuse, not use, the English language to achieve a particular response in their readers. The three authors you reference (Shakespeare, James and Nabokov) fall in the latter category – they were interested in expressing themselves and describing a universe in terms of the best of their intellect and creativity. The results were works of such universal brilliance that (I would argue) they’re accessible to anyone with patience, and perhaps a good guide (teacher or mentor).

    The “evil” writers she’s discussing have not, meanwhile, held such lofty aspirations for anyone or anything but their own egos. They write from their minds when they should be employing the chorus of mind, heart, soul, body… they simply like hearing themselves talk, and you can hear it in everything they write. Sure, they might employ some of the same techniques that the “greats” use – but they amount to tricks, misdirection, deceit. They have very little to say, and disguise this fact with intellectual masturbation.

    While this sort of self-indulgence might be charming at times, it’s a disservice: it can discourage “lighter” readers from the prose they might actually enjoy (like Shakespeare and his lot), for fear that they’ll be talked down to there as well.

    This bit of self-indulgence brought to you by the letter “B”, and the number “7” 🙂

  10. wow, this post hits on so many things that get me ranting and raving. thanks for writing it, ariel. and if i may chime in momentarily…

    i cannot think of anything more vile than a writing workshop that encourages women to go on the dole of a domestic partner to fund their creative writing (ariel’s workshop experience isn’t the only one i’ve heard of). sure, that’s one way to fund your work, but what about being your own benefactor so you don’t feel like you owe your partner a progress report each week? (seems like a lot of pressure on the relationship, said the commitmentphobe…)

    as an alternative, there are grants, residencies, flexible day jobs, freelancing so you have more control of your schedule, etc. in fact, if you can survive as a freelance copywriter/editor/journalist (cough), then surely you’ve amassed much of the business sense and self-whoring savvy necessary to hawk your creative work too… because we all know writing the novel is only half the battle.

    sometimes i wish my dog would pony up some of the grocery money, or that the stretches of time i have to focus on a humor essay or creative nonfiction piece were longer. (oh yeah, because there’s no law that says copywriters/journalists can’t be creative writers too; many are.) but for the most part i’m damned proud to be a full-time freelance writer who’s the head of her household and has a car AND a mortgage. yeah.

    ok, that was seriously soapbox-y and probably even a bit strident. this is what election season does to me.

  11. technically, Ben, she didn’t name evil writers – shakey, big H, or vlad could be among the masturbators, for all we know (given how living-as-in-enjoying-oneself and writing were mutually exclusive in james’s case, it’s safe to count him among the masturbators either way).


    Totally agree on the arrogant use of big words. I could never get through a single David Foster Wallace book because of this – i just want to punch him in the face about three pages in. There’s a difference between using a big word because it more exactly describes what you mean than a more simplistic word and just picking the most obscure word possible just because you can. The latter is just total wankery.

    david foster wallace is an acquired taste, sure, but he’s one of the few writers who consistently makes me laugh aloud. he picks those mouthfuls for a reason, IMHO.

  12. Ok, but what if your partner – in this case my husband – makes enough money to support you both, not royally just you know, enough, so that you don’t NEED to rely on a day job.

    What about that?

    I didn’t use any big words, did I?


    I made it up.

  13. Great post! I’m a YA writer, published by Random House, and I’m gutting it out as a freelancer. It’s a tough road, but one that makes me ten times more committed to my writing.

    The thing that drives me nuts is when people ask me how I decide to that “stuff”. Like it’s different or less than other books. Give me a break. I’ve written three novels and it’s hard work. I can’t imagine it’s any less hard to write 1000 a day for adults or teenagers.

    And I freelance, often writing stories that are less than literary, but they keep the bills paid. I am mercenary about my writing. Wanting to get paid for every single word. And why not? Everyone else has professions that they get paid for. Why not me?

    Thank you for a great post!

  14. I like to read both highbrow and lowbrow fiction, to say nothing of non-fiction and other genres. I make my living as a writer, at least in part, because I am a lawyer. Let me say that legal writing is heads and shoulders different than fiction or non-fiction writing, and people often forget that there are different ways to “earn” your living as a writer than just writing books or articles.

    It doesn’t make me feel smart when I read something by, say, Nabakov or Kafka, nor does it make me feel ashamed or stupid when I read something by Stephen King. When I pick up a book, my ultimate goals are to both enjoy myself and educate myself.

  15. I’m a painter, not a writer, but I struggle with similar issues.
    I tend to think that making money from my work actually makes me a better artist–and not because the sales somehow prove I’m better. Instead, the vital fuel that is money encourages me to develop my craft and art in a way that no amount accolades could!

    That said, I think there’s a more interesting issue at play here. I believe that the value of art (writing, painting, all media) is in a work’s ability to cause a conversation and be a catalyst for change. It’s in its ability to incite revolution–big or small, global or personal. If that’s the case then, as an artist, I think it’s quite useful to work in a way that makes you “readable” by the widest audience–that makes you pop, pulp, folk, whatever you want to call it.
    If you’re not taxing your audience with your means (word choice, presentation of the work), you’re actually more able to challenge them with your message.
    Obviously, moderation is important in all things, but I’d argue that some amount of popular appeal actually give the artist an edge.

  16. Amen. As someone who spends her days (and gets paid to) refine the work of writers (some careerists, some hobbyists), I salute your “Down with Literary Snobbery” call. Using big words to distance oneself from the masses–or writing “literature” so obscure that no one can understand it–or refusing to use one’s skill for anything less than creative-tragic pursuits, well, to me it seems to defeat the purpose of writing, which, for most writers, is TO BE READ.

  17. Talking this generally about literary pretense merely because authors use big words strikes me as misguided (at least without examples of the authors you’re talking about). There’s nothing about using sophisticated language that is inherently pretentious, just like there’s nothing about using straightforward language that’s inherently simple-minded.

    Those big words (and here again examples of what you mean would be useful; whether a word is easily understood varies from reader to reader) exist in the English language for a reason, and they almost always have different meanings than their less-complicated counterparts. (FWIW, I agree with the commenter at 15 that DFW uses the language he uses very consciously, and it’s not mere wankery.)

    Bottom line: If a writer’s using big words just to use big words, (s)he’s a bad writer. Literary fiction has those too, of course, but merely using big words is not proof that the writer is a bad writer, or pretentious.

  18. Thanks to everyone for your awesome comments.

    I wrote this past as a rant and a polemic, and as such it’s full of painful generalizations, strong opinion, and a couple statements that even *I* don’t fully agree with. (Dude: I LOVE big words. It’s about the intent behind their use.)

    The goal of this post was discussion, and the goal was achieved! Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts on the subject.

  19. jeez, i hope i can make it through all the commentary here!

    it really all depends on what kind of writer you wanna be – if you want to pay your rent with it, if you simply enjoy the process of writing whether it be copy or how-to guides or whatnot, yep, get in the trenches and DO IT.

    i call myself a writer because i write obsessively and always have, ever since i could. i don’t do it for a living, and i don’t care to be fully in the trenches doing it either (travel writers don’t get paid much, but that is probably one of the only trenches besides music journalism i’d probably ever be willing to sink down into). i would, however, like to write a book or two someday, just to day i did it – don’t care if they’re published, but simultaneously, don’t want my name plastered all over some cash-gathering romance, suspense or YA, either.

    but again, it’s a choice. there are all sorts of writers and room for all of us.

  20. […] Moral of the story: Freelance publishing rates haven’t gone up in decades. And unfortunately print as we know it is rapidly becoming yesterday’s news. Writers who want to eat need to have at least a couple toes in the digital pool (and depending on how much money they need to make, perhaps a couple more in the copywriting sector). […]

  21. Hear hear. I haven’t read all the comments so perhaps this has been said – but it seems to me there is a huge market in selling the romance of writing to those who “would be, if only”. Not to say good things aren’t taught in those workshops, but it seems the majority of people who take them are caught up in the idea of being published and celebrated rather than the idea of writing for a living. For real. Every day. Whether you want to or not.

    Granted, not all writing is the same and perhaps not everyone could write for a corporate or government client, or a news client for that matter. But the mooning around about “wanting to write” gets to me after awhile as someone who has had many, “but I don’t want to write that,” moments.

    The thing that gets my goat the most? “Oh, you’re a writer? I plan to write after I retire.”

    Yeah? Well I plan to take up brain surgery after I retire. That doesn’t require any skill does it? Cause obviously you don’t think writing does either.

    Oh. I just got cranky. I should leave it at that.

  22. Great post Ariel, you made some interesting points. I enjoyed reading everyone’s comments too.

    When it all comes down to it’s all about a writer’s motives and that’s something only the person and God can truly know. Whatever the case we shouldn’t look down on one another because they chose a different road in the writing field. And like Eleanor Roosevelt said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” So it’s up to us to define our own worth.

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