Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

No longer so, Orson?

Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender's Game, has a nice series of articles on writing based on correspondence and questions from writing classes he has occasionally taught. The newest is now over ten years old, and the advice on publishing is thus out of date, but any blog-readers who are interested in writing will still find helpful the thoughts of a successful author (and, they say, an even better teacher of writing).

One of his older posts gives me pause, however. In an essay on "rhetoric and style" from 1998, Card attacks the idea, too common (in his judgment, anyway) in creative writing programs, that an author needs to develop a distinctive, individual style. That an author will have his own style is, Card says, an inevitability, but there is no point in belaboring it; rather, the author should seek to tell the story he needs to tell. By focusing on the story itself, not on the language in which it is being told, the author will arrive at real clarity, and good style, too.

Anyone who has read overwrought, self-consciously "literary" writing will know exactly what Card means, and most will probably agree with his judgment (I certainly do). However, I wonder if Card isn't overlooking something, or rather, whether the rise of self-publishing hasn't changed the advice one might want to give.

Only ten years ago, a literary agent could mock self-publishing as a self-evidently bad idea. Now the same man tells his authors to publish part of their portfolio independently. What changed? Among other things, the invention of CreateSpace and Amazon Kindle Direct, which allowed self-publishing to cease being an expensive hobby of the self-important and become--at least for some authors--an actually remunerative enterprise.

Back in 1998, when Card wrote the article, all that lay in the future; hence, in 2000, a fascinating piece of speculation on the future of digital publishing. When Card was writing, he could take for granted his readers' basic competence at writing: they would be people who were interested in writing as an art, knew how to write decently well, and just needed good advice to improve their stories. If the self-selection of a writing class didn't guarantee that (and putting the pieces on the internet must have expanded his audience, even then), the need to have editors and (often) agents would have.

Now, it isn't so. Most self-published books probably aren't any better than they were ten or twenty years ago, but the bar to publishing them is a lot lower. You needn't spend a cent of outlay, if you don't want to; if you do want to register copyright, get a decent pre-made cover (and a few are halfways decent), and send yourself a proof copy, you might be out a hundred dollars or so, or six to seven hundred if you want a better cover. Not much, all told. You can even publish your work for free, if you like, on any number of websites--something that was already true when Card was writing the articles (he mentions it in the 2000 piece), but has become vastly more common.

The result is an enormous proliferation not just of under-edited work (not hard to find even from reputable publishers), but of positively illiterate writing, the sort of thing that has pervasively incorrect spelling, grammar, or punctuation, fails to maintain a coherent story-line, or is just plain bad. I doubt, faced with that, that one would want to dismiss Strunk and White's Elements of Style as the bane of good fiction style, or tell the would-be author simply to write his story. You have to know how to write, before you can write well, and a lot of authors don't seem to.

In a previous post, I mentioned the ancient division of style into three registers, all of which the orator would have been expected to learn. This is a very different thing from shaping an individual, idiosyncratic style, though of course orators had them (the emperor Augustus', by the report of the biographer Suetonius, would have been much to Card's liking). Card seems to be on the same track: it is rhetoric rather than style he told his students to work on; style, however, is part of rhetoric, at least for the ancients.
I wonder, therefore, whether one should now give the aspiring writer rather different advice, more consonant with the ancient approach: don't just write the story; make sure you know how to express the story you want to write, and, if you don't, work at it until you have some control over the language and can express yourself in a fashion appropriate to your subject. Strunk and White are annoying, and one hopes the writer will soon grow beyond them, but they at least give some ground-rules within which to work--something that many of the writers whose work I've read need more than anything else. Writing stories and scenes of varying lengths and content and setting might help even more; certainly my own control over my language, and the clarity of the product, have improved over time. Any way around it, one needs to be certain that technical weakness, and not just literary affectation, does not get in the way of the story being told.

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