Once upon a time, when I was working on my high school’s literary magazine (shout-out for Markings!), one of the editors said something that I thought was supremely stupid. It always stuck with me, however, because it ended up really making me think about what elevates writing to the level of art. To paraphrase – as I obviously don’t remember his exact wording all these years later – he said that for a piece of writing to be good, a writer need only get his point of view across clearly. A writer need only say something to be an artist. My response (in my head, because I was not as outspoken at 17 as I am now, but I was just as sarcastic) was, well then, I guess I am a great writer if I write the word SHIT on a piece of paper, right? It says something, and says it clearly. Sure, stylistically it is nothing, completely worthless even. But according to that editor’s definition, wow, what great, successful writing!
As I have matured, I can now articulate why that statement bothered me so much, as both a writer and a reader, without resorting to swearing. It’s simply this: style is everything. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need different versions of the same story. There would be no point in Jane Smiley writing A Thousand Acres because Shakespeare already told that tale in “King Lear.” Or, to choose a less obvious pairing, we wouldn’t need any star-crossed love stories after “Romeo and Juliet” because the star-crossed lover thing would be over and done with, finished, unnecessary after its first telling. People (well, writing teachers anyway) say that there are only a handful of plots in the world and they just keep getting retold, ad nauseum. What makes them different, and what makes us view some of these stories as better than others, is the style with which they are told.
This is why, if you are a writer or a careful reader, the placement of words and even punctuation matters so much to you. This is why you never send anything into the world without rereading and rewriting multiple times, moving sentences and paragraphs into one slot or another, testing things out to be sure they are needed, to be sure they fit. This is why you cringe in embarrassment at even a single typo (or maybe this one is just me, a copy editor at heart). This is why it’s downright insulting to hear someone claim that getting across a POV is the most important thing of all when you’ve spent hours, days, weeks, months – you get the picture – picking the best words in the best order to tell your story. This is why writers cry plagiarism not when another writer steals someone’s general plot line but when actual sentences and paragraphs are taken.
What I find interesting these days, in the age where it seems everyone publishes online, is how many people appear to agree with that high school editor. There is a lot of good writing out there, to be sure. But there is also a lot of bad writing, and a lot of writing that clearly was not carefully reviewed by anyone, even on websites that are supposedly professional. I’m not here to name names, but there are a couple of online magazines that I’ve stopped reading because the quality of the content and editing have been so slapdash that I’ve counted multiple mistakes in the same thousand-word story. I know that, as someone whose profession it is to watch for this stuff, I’m extra picky. But really, if you can’t be bothered to put out the highest quality content possible when you’re being paid to do so, why should I bother reading your site? It’s the Internet, God knows there is plenty of other stuff out there to read. (And please note, I’m not talking about personal blogs here, which even picky old me doesn’t expect to have the same level of perfection as a site that has a dedicated editor or two who, you would hope, is actually editing.)
This is also why I think that, despite all the hand-wringing in the publishing industry about things going digital and the loss of books, we are always going to have and need the printed word. There is still a cache to seeing and holding your work in print that just doesn’t exist when you publish online; it isn’t as tangible. I know that in some areas that is changing, but in general it is still assumed that things are more fully and carefully vetted before they go to press, partly because it is much, much harder to change or undo them afterwards. But online, you go in and click Edit, and you can change your article, your blog post, your Tweet, whatever, if you really need to. Yes, I know, the mistakes aren’t completely erased and could be dug up again by someone with the know-how. But still, it doesn’t compare to the cost of destroying stock after a print run.
To get back to my original point about what constitutes art, I’ll admit there has to be some leeway in there to encompass different people’s different ideas of what’s good. But there also have to be some common standards. There is definitely writing that is, empirically, better than other writing, and if we as writers aren’t reaching for that golden prize and that perfection, what’s the point? Why bother to show when you could just tell and finish your novel quickly, without agonizing over words and developing a drinking problem?
These are the eternal questions that plague me these days as I try to sneak in some writing time here and there. I have many stories that sit at varying stages of readiness. Some of them are at the good-enough stage. But I’m just not willing to send them anywhere that way. I need more than my clear POV and some decent sentences before I throw my stories into the world to sink or swim. I read some T.C. Boyle, some Alice Munro, some Lorrie Moore, and I go back to my work again. I don’t want to just write SHIT on a piece of paper and call it a day. I’m reaching for art.