A Few Writing- Related Thoughts to End the Year

Offered for serious or not-so-serious debate:

(1) Nothing on the internet is as important as anything in the physical world.

(2) Every book has two lives: that heat-signature descent from thought to publication and reaction, like a meteor encountering atmosphere, and a second life after the dust has settled from the impact. A wise writer will remember this, take the long view, and not sink into despair if at first their book plinks to the ground with all the raging force of a penny dropped from a torn pocket.

(3) No book written on a computer is old enough to be judged a classic. (Corollary: No writer who claims s/he cannot write without a computer is to be trusted…)

(4) A short attention span is the reader’s disability, not the writer’s.

(5) Books are one potent antidote to modern fragmentation–if you have lost the ability to concentrate on a book, you have lost something more general.

(6) Every book writer, no matter what they’ve written, has probably given up something in their lives to write that book–thus, show respect for that commitment even if you must disparage the book.

(7) Fiction writers who review books are like sex columnists who have had all kinds of inventive and unusual sex–they are both corrupted and made innocent by the experience. (Publication not required for orgasm.)

(8) A habit is not a process. Just because you have always sacrificed a goat and three hamsters and thereafter completed a novel does not mean there is no better way.

(9) Writers are egoists, and this cannot be avoided because otherwise the wounds you pick up in this profession never heal, but divest yourself of all pretension regarding the work itself, including special pens, special times, special paper, and even special hats (unless this is all you are wearing, in which case put the hat to a more practical purpose when company barges in unexpectedly).

(10) Remember how to write books in longhand for the days when we no longer have electricity, or publishers.

39 comments on “A Few Writing- Related Thoughts to End the Year

  1. James Grebmops says:

    Hi Jeff. What I meant in the other post is: haven’t you read Nietzsche when you were 16?

    (4) A short attention span is the reader’s disability, not the writer’s.

    No, it is a gap between the author’s education/sensibilty and the reader’s. It is not an excuse for obfuscated and plain bad writing.

    (7) Reviewers who have not written a book are like sex columnists who have never had sex–they may be very good at their jobs but they will never be able to write about it at the level of skin on skin. (Publication not required for orgasm.)

    The whole field of criticism should cease to exist then. Not only for books, but for films, music and everything else – should be only judged by their peers. Aside from not making sense, it wouldn’t prevent the obligatory amount of pats-on-the-back between author friends, which is just shameful and happens much more than it should. Criticism should be there if not for the sole reason of preventing this to happen and regulate the production of art, to prevent it to becoming too indulgent and self-conscious. You have to remember that you are writing for READERS, and readers are not necessarily WRITERS. If anything, reviewers should be closer to READERS than writers. Or else you’re just writing a book for yourself and your group of merry little friends.

    Of course you don’t seem too interested in that, after all STEAMPUNK and NEW WEIRD, what are those anyway?

  2. Heidi says:

    Oh, but I really really like my magical thinking hat! You mean, you mean… it doesn’t help me to project visions into prose? Shoot. Guess I’ll have to go back to bad poetry.

    I think the best writing comes from those who write what would most enjoy reading, the book they’d want to recommend if it only existed, the book that enthralls and captures them.

  3. Having just published a Predator novel I am not sure I need a lecture on readers. But if you want to go there, I believe in not talking down to readers. Books should be entertaining–but that term has many meanings. I have also been thinking about fragmentation in the modern world, and that’s where the comment comes from. As for reviewers, talking about a book intelligently of course isn’t the exclusive domain of other writers, but my point is that having lived within the innards of a book gives a very particular perspective useful to analysis. It also hopefully means that reviewer understands process enough to not make certain erroneous points. And anyone, writer or not, can be a toady or suck up. But you take something tongue-in-cheek and you treat it seriously because you have been affronted by something I have done? Like gay marriage, James, the existence of NW and Steampunk damages your world not at all. So I am wondering if I ran over your dog or something. if so, my apologies.

  4. Heidi–that’s what I think.

  5. Btw, James, you’ll be happy to know my wise wife disagrees with (7), too, which tells me I really didn’t express myself correctly. tempted to tweak it but will restrain myself. let the brickbats fall…

  6. Heidi says:

    Civil discourse is more convincing than thrash-attacks. A good point can be obscured by a dismissive tone. I’ve never understood why some commenters show up just to be small.

    Illegitimi non carborundum.

  7. Well, I think some felt I was dismissive of Nietzsche. If I was, it was probably from fatigue. But I’ll re-evaluate once I get the other N books. I actually thought the comment about N being like that genius long-lost friend gone all feral was kind of a compliment to N, but oh well. Maybe the holidays make people crotchety…LOL!

    I’ve changed #7 to what’s in the post now, instead of “(7) Reviewers who have not written a book are like sex columnists who have never had sex–they may be very good at their jobs but they will never be able to write about it at the level of skin on skin. (Publication not required for orgasm.)” since I think both James and my wife are right about part of it.

    But, James, your blog…not cool, man. Not cool at all. I thought about deleting your comments after I saw that, but freedom of speech and all that.

  8. Heidi says:

    “Genius long-lost friend gone all feral” is a great description of N. That’s what makes him the most fun to read of all the philosophers.

  9. Heidi says:

    But of course that’s just the writing. I’ve read that in person N was very gentle and sensitive to the pain of others.

  10. Thanks. You know, I was also thinking about how the one-a-day reading affects this–and I think one important way is that the *tone* of what you’ve read before can make a totally different tone coming right after something staid be a bit of a shock to a system. Like, if I’d read Swift before reading N, then my reaction might’ve been different.

  11. James Grebmops says:

    But, James, your blog…not cool, man. Not cool at all. I thought about deleting your comments after I saw that, but freedom of speech and all that.

    What are you talking about, Jeff?

  12. James Grebmops says:

    Geez you must think I’m sort of nazi, but you shouldn’t take stuff from a fake blog seriously.

  13. jeff vandermeer says:

    LOL. then hopefully we’re both suffering a lack of sense of humor then. you still need to explain yourself, though. Big time.

  14. James Grebmops says:

    Jeff, remember #1: Nothing on the internet is as important as anything in the physical world.

  15. Eddie Duff says:

    Sorry to jump in..

    Jeff, remember #1: Nothing on the internet is as important as anything in the physical world.

    But it can be quite telling. How exactly is this a “fake” blog again?

  16. jeff vandermeer says:

    That’s open to debate. I am still waiting for the explanation before I call the cops… meanwhile–happy new year’s eve to everyone non-sinister.

  17. I’m pretty dismissive of Nietzche, after much careful scrutiny.

    He was malleable into whatever idea were convenient to his current needs, and he seemed more interested in blowing everyone else up around him instead of seeing what works in those around him.

  18. jeff vandermeer says:

    JM–thanks for that. The reason I am sensitive to the charge is simply the insane nature of this 60 in 60 endeavor–I realize I am currently existing in a heightened state of reality. on the other hand, I really value my lack of context on some of these books. I haven’t been told why a particular book is important as I would’ve in class.

  19. Just a wee comment on reviewers. I think it was Johnson who said something like “I don’t know about carpentry, but I can tell if someone has fit my door right.” So, I suppose it is the same for a book, or film or whatever. I think all opinions are valid. I do think however a good writer might be able to offer better constructive criticism, i.e. an unfinished manuscript or advice for future things etc.

    Anyhow, Happy New Year to you Jeff and to all others and may 2009 brink peace and prosperity.

  20. jeff vandermeer says:

    Same to you, Brendan. Later tonight, Evil Monkey gives us his New Year’s resolutions…

  21. Cat Sparks says:

    (3) No writer who claims s/he cannot write without a computer is to be trusted

    No hunter gatherer who claims they can feed his/her family without the use of a spear or digging stick can be trusted. Times change and tools change. Pen and paper is not intrinsically more honourable than any other system of recording thoughts.

  22. “…for the days when we no longer have electricity…” Ominous. I like that.

    Jeff, I’ve been writing in longhand a little more lately and it’s not too bad, but you CAN’T ask me to give up the goat sacrifices!

  23. jeff vandermeer says:

    as long as you eat the goat

  24. Oh, a couple of things about this Nietzsche discussion.

    For one thing, Jeff’s review actually made me want to read Nietzsche. I like the idea of a bombastic pronouncements that evoke hilarity.

    Secondly, at least two people have stated if one is going to read Nietzsche, there are better places to start than that Why I Am So Wise, so why is anyone surprised that Jeff didn’t give it “five stars”?

  25. “No writer who claims s/he cannot write without a computer is to be trusted…”

    Similarly, no writer who claims s/he cannot write without a fountain pen/pencil/Sharpie/Moleskine [etc etc] is to be trusted. See also “(8): A habit is not a process.” All these things are devices for setting words down in an enduring and transmittable medium, and that is all. Anything else is fetishism.

  26. I meant to say, “I like the idea of a genius making bombastic pronouncement that evoke hilarity.”
    (referring to Neitzsche)

  27. Mark Bukovec says:

    #1 reminds me of this:

    The greatest poverty is not to live
    In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
    Is too difficult to tell from despair.

    –Wallace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal”

    Time for me to go back to watching football.

  28. jeff vandermeer says:

    Ha! I figured the computer one would get some attention. Seriously though, I often ban laptops from our workshops and younger writers who have never written longhand, some of them, find out that by slowing them down it helps their writing. But the basic other idea is just that no book less than 25-30 years old should be called a classic because we don’t have enough perspective.

    Of course, this isn’t the Cult of the Longhand–some writers never get anything out of it. But the other point is–if you haven’t tried it, you should. Any time you mix things up to get out of a rut is a good thing–and unquestioning acceptance of technological advances is just as foolish as clinging to the old ways.

  29. Larry says:

    Is it bad of me wondering how Dr. Ruth would review a book now? Both forms of #7 are intriguing, as I certainly agree that sometimes experts are experts for a reason. I know I don’t trust journalists (for the most part) to write a great analytical piece on how Eberhard Jäckel’s Hitler’s Weltanschauung works and how it is flawed as a theoretical piece, so why not pay attention to what writers-as-reviewers have to say (provided of course that they don’t have axes to grind or asses to kiss)?

    As for #10…stories used to be told before they were written. Why not imagine writers today trying to be jongleurs/troubadours traveling the countryside singing/chanting of war, destruction, and fungicide? If it works, it works, no?

  30. jeff vandermeer says:

    Larry–I do think you get a unique perspective from writers who review but I honestly think the current #7 is more correct since it acknowledges a writer’s blindspot. But I do think if every book reviewer who isn’t a fiction writer tried for a month to write a novel it would give them insight that would change their reviewing approach. I am sure some have, though, even if unpublished.

  31. Larry says:

    I have tried fiction writing before, completing what amounted to being a novelette (just over 10K words) before coming to the realization that I am a much better essayist than I would be a novelist. That writing experience 6-7 years ago also taught me how much I enjoy doing research/analyzing weak points in arguments (including my own!) than I did in constructing a story. I wonder how it would go in general for non-fiction writers reviewing fictional works and vice versa. I suspect it would be an interesting experience for both.

  32. Cheryl says:

    FWIW, I preferred the original version of 7. Reviewers who are not writers can have all sorts of useful views about the quality of a work, and they may in many cases speak more effectively to the reader than a writer would, but there will still be things that they don’t understand as well as they should if they don’t understand how the job is done.

    Look at it this way, it is not essential for a sports commentator to be an ex-player and coach, and sometimes this is a good thing because, for example, people who are too familiar with the game can get very boring when debating the minutiae of rules. But if the commentator doesn’t understand the basic strategies of the game, and can’t explain why coaches are adopting particular tactics, then the value of the commentary is diminished. So a good reviewer needs to have a basic understanding of how a writer works, and arguably the best way to get that understanding is through experience.

    And if people want to point fingers and say, “well you must be a bad reviewer then,” all I can do is hold may hand up and say that I’m trying to learn. Which I think is better than sticking my nose in the air and saying that I don’t have to. Like Larry, I think I am a much better essayist than fiction writer, but I want to know how both jobs are done.

  33. jeff vandermeer says:

    Cheryl–well, they’re both here. I am not constant in how I feel about either, but also frankly have neither time nor energy to field blowback. I think my explanation in the comments and your comment sums it up well. (I do think people need to remember how many online discussion/arguments I have been involved in over the years. No longer really willing to expend the effort all the time because I rarely get the sense of much support or there being much point–it all gets swept away by next week’s posts. It’s tiring, even on something little like this.)

  34. Cheryl says:

    Jeff: Understood, and I feel pretty much the same way about blog wars. Much sound and fury, signifying very little.

  35. Whether or not they’ve written a book, any reviewer who likes my books is a genius.

  36. Xelgaex says:

    I’ve written long hand and on the computer. The main difference for me is that I tend to overestimate how long a piece is when I’ve written it pen and paper style. Which is a little disappointing when I then type it out. Knowing this, if I ever need to keep it short I’ll probably go Luddite for that piece. On the other hand, when I just need to get it down and focus on words per day, I’m typing. YMMV.

  37. Samuel Tinianow says:

    #1: I disagree. Both are equally meaningless.

    #8: Definitely. You only really need the goat, the hamsters are just silly.

    #10: Way ahead of you. :-)

  38. Samuel: Wow, that’s very “the world is illusion” of you. On the level of thought and idea, I agree! Both are meaningless.


  39. Wow, this is my first comment here in months; I have been a temporary, silent lurker.

    I just wanted to chime in and say I loved this blog post. I enjoyed how unapologetic and honest it reads. It evokes contemplation, regardless if you agree with every point-of-opinion exclusively.

    Society needs more unabashed, tactful commentary. Thank you Jeff.

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