Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who are you Trying to Impress?

This is the first of a short series of posts concerning the question “Who are You Trying to Impress,” which I’m addressing primarily to writers, although I could see that it might be applicable to other fields of endeavor. I consider this a very important question for writers to consider, because it gets at the heart of why we do what we do.

As far as I can figure, writers write to impress one of four different audiences. These are:
1. Critics.
2. Peers (other writers).
3. Oneself.
4. Readers.

Although the choice you personally make is up to you, there are some points I’d like to make about these choices.

1. Critics, as a group, are notoriously fickle. Although some critics are fine writers themselves, many are more concerned about the theory of writing than the practice. This is not bad in and of itself, but to me many critics focus more on style than substance, and style constantly fluctuates. What’s “in” today is “out” tomorrow.

Writers who target their work at critics strive to stand out from the crowd, and this often translates into breaking “rules” for the sake of breaking them. Such writers try tactics such as leaving out quotation marks from around dialogue, or shoving the dialogue from multiple speakers into the same paragraph. They often use experimental prose, writing in future tense, for example, or all in multiple phrase sentences, or in sentence fragments. They seem, at least, to express the idea that truly fine writing must be difficult to understand.

There’s nothing specifically wrong in writing to impress the critics, but most regular readers find such strategies distracting and irritating. And, naturally, some authors do a far better job of pulling off both style and substance than do others. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t need to leave quotation marks out of his dialogue. It’s an affection, nothing more. But McCarthy still tells powerful stories about wonderful characters. Hubert Selby, Jr, the author of Requiem for a Dream, doesn’t need to cram the dialogue from multiple speakers into the same paragraph, but this could be forgiven if his characters weren’t so lame and his prose so dishwater dull.

If writers who chooses this path get lucky, they can win a lot of awards and occasionally even make huge amounts of money. If they gamble wrong they’ll likely be largely forgotten, although one thing that can save them is the movies. I firmly believe, for example, that the movie Requiem for a Dream rescued the much weaker book.

Next post, we’ll consider writing to impress peers, which I believe is more common than writing for the critics. Stay tuned.

P.S., some of you may have noted that I’ve changed my profile picture. Lana and I took some “in character” pics on Tuesday and I thought I might as well use one for the blog.


Erik Donald France said...

This is a good question: who is your (the writer's) audience?

And, what are you trying to achieve?

Good stuff -- and cool profile shot. I really need to update mine, as well -- it's only years out of date now.

Anonymous said...

I think rule breaking can be a good thing. If no-one breaks the rules then things get boring and stale. In the long run, literature can learn from rule breakers in the same way that rock music learned from punk.

But rule breaking is only really artistic when it is done *despite* the crtics rather than *for* them (which is exactly what you are addressing here).

Lets hope literature doesn't go the same way as critic pleasing art...

Carl Andre's "Equivalent VIII"

Tracy Emin's "My Bed"

- Jon

Anonymous said...

PS. I like your new photo - very Sergio Leone - now there's a man who broke the rules and changed things for the better

the walking man said...

I had to grin at Jon's two examples of "critic pleasing art"...Having worked more than a couple of this type of installation, I know that each piece of detritus and every brick is ordered and has to be placed just so to communicate with the viewer. While some may look at them as "hip and modern" I always looked at them as being lazy on the part of the one who assembled the work first then built a definition around it.

I look at writers who take the formulaic approach, repeating the same story over and over with simple name and scene changes, equally as lazy.

Critical acclaim is good but it shouldn't, in my mind, be the reason to persevere in this craft.

Miles McClagan said...

I don't think the way I write I've ever thought of who I'm trying to please...I think it's mostly myself...if I wrote to a style, I'd hate it. Great post though. It's made me didn't make me think about changing my icon. Foxy Lolo stays...

David Cranmer said...

The answer for me is oneself and I'm never happy which I guess is a good thing... The new photo is cool.

Greg said...

those 4 groups seem to pretty much cover it. Chuck Palahniuk ignores quotes when his narrators are speaking, but it adds to the story and draws the reader in. of course, i can see tons of writers trying to emulate that and botching it horribly.

Sam said...

Great new photo!

Impress? Hmmm. Entertain, I think, would suit me better. Impress my mom maybe but that's pretty hard, seeing as she's my toughest critic, lol.

writtenwyrdd said...

cool picture, Charles.

I like your point about writing to please critics. I am not sure whether I primarily write to impress an audience or myself. I have to impress me to pass it along, though, so I suppose it's me first, audience second.

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BernardL said...

I'd rather a reader become so absorbed in a story I wrote they can't look away. I think of it more as a connection with the reader rather than the intent to impress.

Sidney said...

Wow, it started out to be a way to impress girls, but that was actually years ago and kind of irrelevant now, long-married guy that I am. I tend to thing in terms of things I want to do before the Reaper catches up with me. I don't think he's close, but you know, you never know.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I will be interested to read your take on the other three.

As to critics - I don't believe I write for them, at all.

I rarely line up with any kind of critic. I am somewhat easily amused - not the the point of reality t.v. or anything - but I find critics nitpicky where they need not be. It's just entertainment, after all.

One reason I stopped doing "official" reviews of books was because I felt silly judging others while doing my own writing. Surely such things will come home to roost and I know my own writing is far from perfect.

I'd tend to trust friends' opinions long before a critic's. At least I know my friends tastes and I can filter their thoughts to know about what the "real story" is.

As more and more critics appear via the Internet, I start to feel like they are part of the "easier to tear down than to build" crowd. So, I'm not real interested in their opinions at this stage in my life.

laughingwolf said...

like dylan sez: it's for muh self n muh frienz muh stories are sung

so my answer is 3...

as for the pic: coolios :D

Lauren said...

I like the new pic!

Interesting question. I think that I write for the reader. I have this dream of riding on the el (chicago's elevated train) and looking over to my neighbor and seeing them immersed in reading my book. I am writing for that person.

I am also writing for the agents and publishers because they have to like it before it can get to the hands of the average Chicago commuter. :)

I look forward to reading your other posts on this topic!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I would say the readers but perhaos impress is the wrong word really. More entertain and delight, leave them in awe - yeah impress I suppose. Kudos from other writers is great too.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, that last picture was about 3 years old now, so it was time for a pic lift.

Jon, I've never liked rule breaking just for the sake of breaking it. There needs to be more of a reason, a reason that you can't express obeying the rules. I'm a big fan of Sergio's movies myself.

Mark, I thought the brick piece was just really boring. The bed piece was disgusting. I like your point about Laziness.

Miles, I'm assuming Foxy is better looking than you so I'm with you. ;)

David Cranmer, I also think that people can change who they write for over time. It doesn't always have to stay the same.

Sam, and yet, most of us want at least a little bit of praise, and that seems to suggest "impress" to me. It's worth discussing though.

Writtenwyrd, I like to believe I'm my toughest critic. I try to make that true.

Hapi, I'm not much for spamming.

Bernardl, I definitely want to talk about that element in my section on readers.

Sidney, I suppose the fact that you wrote horror novels would have been impressive to certain types of girls. Maybe the ones you didn't want to take home to momma?

Paul, I really cut back on book reviews years ago for much the same reason. I didn't feel comfortable judging other writers. I still don't do many, and they are 1) for books I really genuinely like, and 2) for writers who are dead and beyond being hurt by my opinions.

Laughingwolf, I also think there can be combinations of audiences. I write for myself and for readers certainly.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Oh and Charles - your new pic. That's got to be your Wild West Monday outfit.LOL

Charles Gramlich said...

Lauren, you must have posted at the same time I was writing my comments. I had a dream once of being on a plane and seeing someone reading a book by me. It had a title which I've never used.

Archavist, good point. I'll try to work that kind of thing into my discussion on the reader section. Definitely a wild west kind of pic.

ivan said...

Whom am I trying to impress?

Sister Gemma, my grammarian, I suppose.

Seems to work two ways.
The best possible expression of a feeling state--and then you strive to have it make sense to somebody else, the reader.
Sometimes you can jog their memories, associations.

You hope for that effect anyway, or you might just be doing a Portnoy's Complaint...Self-made man. :)

Lana Gramlich said...

You're so cool. Love those photos.

Chris Eldin said...

LOVE your new avatar!! Sorry I haven't been around, but now I am catching up and having fun!
Thank you also for the Book Roast shout-out a few posts below. That was really nice.

I write for children, so definitely the reader. I want to make them laugh.

Great post!

pattinase (abbott) said...

In my case, I am trying to impress the editor of whatever zine or publication I'm sending it to.

Miladysa said...

I love the new profile pic! Reminds me of ZZ Top - that's a good thing btw :D

Who am I trying to please? Honest answer? Just about everybody!

Middle Ditch said...

My biggest and best critic is David, my husband. Without him nothing would be as good as it is. In general I hate critics though.

Cool pic.

Steve Malley said...

Check out 'Extras'. Not only is Ricky Gervais funny as hell, he tells a fine story about an actor with just this dilemma: he wants to do serious work to impress the critics and his peers, but he also wants to make money and have legions of fans.

Trying to have a foot in both worlds, he falls flat on his face...

laughingwolf said...

true enough, charles :)

Shauna Roberts said...

Cool new picture, Charles. Love the cowboy look!

I think I write to please myself. (The concept of impressing myself seems a little strange.) I certainly do want my fiction to be commercial and connect with readers and sell a lot and make me money. But that's secondary to being my being satisfied with the construction and style.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, I think that impressing you might be an accomplishment.

Lana, if so, it's because you took them.

Chris Eldin, children are a different kind of audience, tough in their own way, but they can be very loyal.

Pattinase, spoken like a true professional. a point I hope to expound on.

Miladysa, I will wear the ZZ top banner with pride.

Middle Ditch, it's good to have at least one trusted reader before you send stuff out into the world.

Steve Malley, Great point. I don't think it's possible to be all things to all people.

Laughingwolf, yep.

Shauna, impress is not necessarily the right word, but I picked it because it tends to evoke a response, I think. I'll talk more about that.

Lisa said...

Cool picture! I'll jump on the bandwagon with my preference for "please" vice "impress" and in that case, I write primarily to please myself, but with an eye to eventually pleasing readers who like to read the kinds of things I do. Having said, that, you've helped me figure out how to finish a post I've been toying with about what I personally look for in a book and what I talk about when I blog about books. Another thought about your post is that I think you almost have to narrowly define who you think of as critics or reviewers. There is such a huge spectrum that runs from crazy serious academic literary criticism to the schmuck on Amazon who writes "it sukked" :)

Scott said...


Excellent points. Since I have only one piece of writing published thus far, maybe I'm not an expert on the subject, but I think the critics are the last on the list to impress. It's like music... the critics( in mainstream music mags, anyway) like to champion bands that will make them look cool and hip to be behind, not necessarily because they're good. Most bands that critics have praised as saviours of rock and roll are unimpressive to me( The White Stripes come to mind here). I suspect that book critics are similar, from what you describe here.
Being 'weird' or unusual for weirds' sake doesn't work. Gimmicks are OK, but you have to have the talent behind them to make it work.
Like your new pic...reminds me of the pic of you and I that Leo took at Howard Days a couple of years back.

Crushed said...

Critics, critics.

I'm not sure if writing for critics really frees you as a writer though. Because then you write for a pat on the head, rather than a cheer.

It's kind of like writing for the teacher.
And it will end up contrived.

Lana Gramlich said...

No, hon. I assure's the subject matter. Mrowr! ;)

Lisa said...

"Mrowr!" Now that's how you spell that! Thanks Lana! ...sorry Charles, I was struck at seeing that expression written down and totally recognizing it :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, I'm really referring here to the professional critics, those whose views can affect careers, such as those who review for major magazines or Newspapers, or those who review in academic forums.

Scott, yeah, there's always someone being hailed as the "next big thing" and they usually aren't. I think it happens more in music maybe, but there are some things like it in literature.

Crushed, I definitely think it will end up contrived, manufactured rather than organic. But I do believe some writers go that route.

Lana, you make me blush sweetums.

Lisa, Lana and I are professional Mrowrers of each other. lol.

Cloudia said...

"They seem, at least, to express the idea that truly fine writing must be difficult to understand."
YEAH! aloha-

SQT said...

...friggin' Blogger ate my comment. ((mutter))

As I was saying.

The reader, for sure. I mean, why write unless someone is going to read and enjoy it? Like you said, critics are fickle. But I think certain themes will always appeal to the reader-- the challenge is to find a way to connect.

Sarah Hina said...

There are books that critics love that I just can't grind my way through. It's not so much the style that affronts, as the determinedly depressing subject matter. Grim wins (the big awards).

I think it's pretty depressing to imagine authors writing for critical approval. But I've read some books where I've wondered. I often think sophomore efforts mess with writers' minds, particularly if they've enjoyed some adulation on their debut novels. They might try too hard.

Intriguing topic, Charles, and I love the new avatar!!! :)

Virginia Lady said...

Cool pic. I need to find one for my blog.

I don't think about 'impressing' anyone. I just have to write. I have to get the story out and follow it through to the end. It's more of a compulsion to write and tell the story than a desire to impress anyone, even me. I look forward to your next installment though. It's definitely food for thought.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, I've always been bothered by that attitude, that unless it's hard it must be bad.

SQT, and you'll never connect with everyone so the potential audience is well fragmented.

Sarah, I liked grim a lot more when I was a wee bairn. But now I like to see a little more hope and light. Still, for me the thing that can turn me off faster than anything else is pretentiousness.

Virginia lady, I think folks also go through stages in their writing life. At points I've felt absolutely compelled to write certain things. At other times it had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of me.

Mary Witzl said...

In literature as in art, you have to know the rules back and forwards in order to break them effectively. You're so right: wishy washy prose will sound just as wishy washy rendered in experimental writing. I don't care one way or other about quotation marks, but I damn well want to know who said what without having to second guess my way through a whole novel.

I go along with what Bernard said: my aim is to write stories that people find engrossing. But the awful truth is that I would love to impress everyone, if I could: readers, other writers, myself, critics, the whole lot. Which means I am almost certain to be disappointed somewhere along the line.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mary, that's why I used the word "impress." If we want even one reader then we want to impress that reader in some fashion. We want to touch them, communicate with them, draw them in.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

Love the new picture! This is a good question for all writers. I have to think on this one -- I think I used to try to create something marketable, but I gave that up given that I don't have that kind of mind.

Merisi said...

Looking forward to read the next post in this series!

j said...

As the only writing that I do that is actually READ is on my blog, I guess I write for my blog audience. It is nice, being able to express myself and not feel like there are any critics of my writing. It seems more social that literary.

I do however feel like my beliefs would be more likely to viewed critically than my writing. Because it is on a social level.

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, sometimes the markets come to writers.

Merisi, hope you enjoy.

Jennifer, some folks in the blogosphere are quick to criticize everything. FOrtunately I don't see too many of them visiting my blog.

Merisi said...

does a writer necessarily write to impress anybody? I have a hunch that those are the ones whose writing I do not enjoy reading. I have stopped reading two "famous" authors because I could not take their vain style anymore. Still, they earned fortunes with the books I never finished.

Travis Cody said...

Sometimes I think a critic praises a particular writing affectation as genius so his fellows won't find out that he really doesn't understand a word of what the writer has written, but everyone else thinks it's brilliant so he better go along too.

Mimi Lenox said...

Critics are fickle. Love the new pic!

Charles Gramlich said...

Merisi, I know the word sounds strong but I rather believe that writes do exactly that. Even the most approachable writer is trying to impress the reader, not in a vain way but in trying to get them to come back for more and tell others that he liked the book.

Travis, I've had "exactly" that feeling myself. I'm pretty sure it happens.

Mimi, yes, they are. And thanks.