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:
2. Peers (other writers).
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.