I suspect I will have many people disagree with the concept of this post. I welcome the disagreement, or I should say, I welcome the dialogue. Sometimes all it takes is a question or a challenge to get our juices flowing and we find that we are more passionate about a subject than we even realize. I hope that is the case with the questions I pose today.
Lately I’ve been pondering the rules and qualities that define good writing. Or more to the point, what makes one book better than another. I am reading a LOT right now, much more than usual, as I prepare to cast a somewhat informed vote for the Whitney Awards. I have heard some wonder if there are certain criteria we should all consider in judging. I’ve heard responses both for and against the use of a uniform evaluation form. Unfortunately, as yet I have come up with few conclusions but many questions.
I would like to ask a series of questions and get responses from the readers.
1- Are there certain norms and rules that fiction writing should follow to be considered worthy of accolades and general acceptance? Are these norms and rules the same today as they were twenty or fifty, one hundred or two hundred years ago? Why or why not?
2- Why do we accept certain rules and norms? Do we do it because a teacher or mentor told us we should and we want to sound smart or are there hard and fast rules about what defines quality in writing?
3- Are there generally accepted rules we question but follow in an attempt to go with the flow in appeasing the gatekeepers?
4- Does the average reader care about following the rules of grammar, punctuation and point of view or are they in it for the story and characters?
5- What is most important to assessing the quality of a book: Story, technical skill or conveyance of emotion?
6- How do we obtain the best writing education? Continual reading to discover what we like and how to emulate it? Classes that teach classic technique or writing conferences where experts and peers share their wisdom? Practice?
7- Is writing merely popular art that changes to meet the expectations of the audience? Or does the audience change as it becomes accustomed to the changes in art?
8- Which artist produced higher quality work—Picasso or Monet? Faulkner or King?
9- Are the differences between these authors and artists only stylistic or do they adhere to some different rules?
10- Are there some rules that should NEVER be broken if a writer wants to be taken seriously?
Am I a writing anarchist for questioning the value and method of how we arrive at our writing rules and norms, or am I merely an ill informed schmutz? Be honest. I can take it.
Like many readers I know what I like when I read it. I also know what I don’t like. I recently started reading a book and WOW…it is really bad. But I wonder how much of my taste is based on the rules I’ve been taught and the norms of the culture in which I live, instead of an acceptance or disapproval based on pure truth, innate quality and superior writing? Do I value what I’ve been trained to value?
In considering Whitney finalists I will suggest only one conclusion. I will vote for the books I enjoy. I will vote for the stories and characters I love and the themes and style that make me feel something. I’m not smart enough to evaluate in any other way. Am I wrong?
Please choose a question to answer. Don’t worry about being right or wrong or looking foolish. I think I’ve already established I’m the biggest fool here so just tell me what you think. Hopefully we can learn together.
FYI- I have developed a simple worksheet I use when evaluating my Enjoyment Factor of a book I am judging. Check out my Enjoyment Factor Worksheet.