Attacking King & brown for Fun & Fury

On an amateurish forum called Absolute Write, a poster takes issue with my contention that every writer should be aiming high rather than emulating the trash produced by Stephen King and Dan Brown, and likens my effort to produce “literature” to a tone-deaf niece who is trying to sing like Kelly Clarkson. This reference alone to Clarkson should warn me about fighting with wannabe writers in the Yankee hinterlands. Here is my response:

Isn't every writer a tone-deaf singer?
You bet your butt I'd tell my tone-deaf niece that she could be the next Kelly Clarkson.

If I am condescending to King and Brown, they deserve it for littering trash on the American arts landscape. And I'll admit to tasting sour grapes when I see these two slummers held up as anything other than bestselling hacks, hardly above Louis L'Amour or Danielle Steele. But I'm perfectly cool with the fact that they exist and that there are bad readers who keep them rolling in cash. I've got bigger fish to fry. I'm just amazed at how mediocre people are willing to be when it comes to literature. If you're knitting a sweater, you're not going to do the best you can, and make each sweater better than the one you knit before? And in continuing to knit sweaters, it doesn't occur to you to knit the best sweater ever knit?

I think it's fantastic that people love writing or want to be writers. I encourage everyone to tell stories, even Oliver Stone! And I don't think every writer should think she or he is competing with Shakespeare, or to think her or his book will turn the world upside down, but to stay snugly within your abilities out of sheer laziness or compulsive procrastination will lead unfailingly to lousy writing. And what's the point?

I worked for McGraw-Hill for several years in their newsletter center, and once in a blue moon an editor would storm out and go to the woods to a cabin and "sit down to write." About what? Not yet having stood up to live? No, nothing like that; they aimed for trashy bestsellers and slunk back into the shop after six months with derivative garbage on 350 pieces of paper. Those wannabe "writers" taught me a lot, mostly to pour all of oneself into a task impossibly huge to capture. Ambition can always be edited down into something publishable, but mediocre pap can't be made sublime. And writing one failed un-publishable masterpiece after another makes you a better writer. Damn better than a scribbler plodding his well-worn path to 15,000 copies sold and tenure at the community college.

I hate golf. But let's say I go out and play a hole. Par is 5. Do I aim for 5? Give me a break. What would Tiger Woods tell me to do? I go for a hole in one, and I shank my shot into the trees. Am I better golfer for the experience? Shouldn't I make the safe shots and score an 8, and then a 7, and then maybe on my fifth novel hit par? No, I'll blaze away each time to do better on that hole than possible and to the other hackers I might look like a fool. But if Tiger is watching, I know he's thinking, "Damn, that guy really wants to play golf!"

Golf. I've sunk low. But I'm driven to the analogy because passion is a part of the process which means a hell of a lot more to the end product than craft, which any small-town reporter or avid reader can learn. For a writer to spend months or years doggedly putting together chapters with color-coded locations and characters just to get that first book out of the way or to know they can do it . . . Come on. 80,000 words on more or less a continuous topic is no big deal. A gasbag like William Buckley could pop that out every month, but what for? Buckley's as sick a literary joke as Stone, who is, indeed, a writer in Hollywood. Set yourself on fire and go down in flames! Write, scorched, beyond the limits of your capacity and you'll burn yourself new standards and new capabilities. But that means aiming beyond the senseless drivel of Stephen King and Dan Brown, and not daring to hold such crap in any exalt, no matter what coin their lame tricks turn.

The entire thread of my jousting at King & Brown at Absolute Write can be read by clicking here. AW is an amazing place to check out: thousands of writers posting questions like “How do I find an agent?” or “How do I start a screenplay?” Unbelievable!