Writing – Does It Have To Be Art?

A guilty pleasure is usually a term reserved for something bad that you cant can’t help enjoying: junk food, reality T.V., B horror movies, Youtube unboxings (maybe that one is just me), or books like Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Harry Potter. Before you stab me with the business end of a broomstick for including Harry Potter with books like those, just hear me out. For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to tackle why you should stop looking at books as guilty pleasures in this post.

Even if you never plan to write a single word of fiction in your entire life, “guilty pleasure” is a label worth taking a closer look at. Calling a book a guilty pleasure is tantamount to saying that something is so bad that it makes you feel guilty to be seen enjoying, yet it’s so captivating that you’re willing to risk social ridicule. So let me get this straight. . . It’s so bad that it is embarrassing. But it’s so good that you can’t stay away from it?

What’s So Bad About Guilty Pleasures?

Most of you are probably thinking, “Well it’s not that it’s bad. It’s just so low-brow that it’s embarrassing to be entertained by it.” And this is the real central nugget. It’s not that a guilty pleasure is poorly done (though if you inspect Twilight, it apparently has glaring errors even on the first page) but that it doesn’t make us feel intellectual enough. At first, this seems like a valid concern. But upon closer inspection, it falls apart.

Entertainment Versus Art

The problem comes from the idea of entertainment versus art. And this is where authors really need to pay attention. I should preface this with a warning: my view on this is pretty controversial and most people who consider themselves writers will probably disagree with me. Go ahead. Anyway, I think the classics are dated and should be removed from the pedestals they are placed on.

When tennis was in its youth, players were taught to point their racquets directly away from the ball on the backswing, and straight toward their opponent at the end of the follow-through. As the sport evolved and the equipment improved, players began finding success with more dynamic swings. Today, players are taught instead to do what’s called a unit turn, where the body essentially coils and uncoils. The swing went from an entirely linear process to a circular process.

What’s my point? When the game of tennis evolved, there was less and less to learn from watching the old players. And if a new player wants to learn how to swing, he or she will model their swing from the current pros. But when it comes to writing, we have the idea that the “original greats” had it right and that we can never hope to match their mastery of the English language.

Frankly, that’s a bunch of bull.

Classic Literature Is Overrated

Fiction mirrors life, and our life and language now are vastly different from the life and language of classic authors. Of course our language should differ. Of course we should simplify our ideas. Of course we should write about emerging technology and social issues. The idea that there was a “golden age” of writing is perpetuated by school systems that tout classics as if they are infallible. Are they still good books? Sure. But should we discount any recent literature as valuable just because it’s not dusty enough?

Though I don’t mention it often in my posts, I teach English honors to high school seniors. And I know first hand how much teacher’s hands are tied when it comes to selecting textbooks. At my school, for example, I have a set list of books that I am allowed to choose from, all of which are at least 100 years old. This results in several problems:

  1. Students think their essays should be as wordy and inefficient as the books we put on pedestals. And why shouldn’t think they so? But there is absolutely no place in the workforce or even the literary world for wordy writing that mirrors the classics.
  2. Young people have it beaten into their subconscious early that books are dated, hard to understand, and a lot of work to read.
  3. The vast majority of young people will never read a classic again. Instead, if they eventually discover a love for reading, they will think of anything that’s not a classic as a “guilty pleasure”.

Aha! Maybe you were wondering where I was going with my tangent. But I feel it’s an important one. Our classification of anything that is compelling and easy to “digest” as a guilty pleasure all points back to the unjustified worship of classic literature.

So when you are working on your fiction, ask yourself if your goal is really to create something that is compelling and easy to digest (which will be labeled a guilty pleasure by society) or something that is thick, goes down hard, and is possibly rewarding, but only with a lot of work (which will not be appreciated by society until long after you’re dead).

And if you disagree with me about the false value placed on classics, tell me why in the comments! I’d be interested to hear other opinions.