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.


3 thoughts to “Writing – Does It Have To Be Art?”

  1. I’ve always felt the same way about the literary vs. genre distinction. In my creative writing courses, my professors would often emphasize how we would “not be working with genre writing.” MFA programs, too, frown upon so-called genre writing. The superiority complex that literary writers display is what spurs bitterness an defensiveness from genre writers, in my opinion. Literary fiction is in fact a genre itself, filled with its own tired cliches and mediocre storytelling. I recently attempted to read “Cutting the Stone,” which is definitely a more literary novel, but it was written in such a way that every sentence and image had inflated importance (but since it has a 4.27 on Goodreads, I’m willing to give it another go). Also, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is genre fiction in every sense of the word, and although the premise and structure were groundbreaking at the time, the writing is annoyingly melodramatic by modern standards.

    Still, I do think classic literature holds immense value in that those works contain seminal stories that have paved the way for present-day literature. In addition, time period and culture strongly influence the characters, conflicts, and themes of any writing. Literature captures history in a way that textbooks cannot. “Pride and Prejudice” is no better than most modern romance novels, but we value it because it preserves the problems of class distinctions and courtship in the 19th century. I do agree, though, that the required reading for high school students should be more relevant to their daily lives. That doesn’t mean they should read “dumbed down” writing. Instead, assignments should be framed in ways that connect books to their personal experiences and allow them to analyze society and their own beliefs in a more critical fashion. Ultimately, I feel that English should be taught in conjunction with social psychology, but that’s just me.

    1. Great points. You’re right in that literary fiction does have its own tired cliches as well. I think the problem is that readers and writers of literary fiction can sometimes give the impression that they are working in the upper echelon. In reality, I don’t think there’s any merit into labeling styles of writing as better than other styles. It just drives people into reading things they don’t enjoy and ultimately away from reading and writing as a hobby. It introduces guilt into something that should be pleasurable.

      As far as the value of classic literature goes, I agree that it serves historical value. I think my main argument is that the near-worship some teachers and professors heap on these books confuses students (and some of the teachers and professors) to the point that they think antiquated styles of prose and writing are desirable. They then try to emulate it and wonder why no one wants to read their work.

      That would be interesting if English and social psych were treated as a single course. Ironically, I teach 4 “mods” of English 4 Honors and 2 “mods” of Psychology/Sociology.

      1. I was thinking about this conversation again earlier today. I do experience a lot of guilt for my dislike of classic literature, mostly because I feel stupid for not appreciating or understanding highly praised work. In addition, I have definitely made the mistake of trying to emulate antiquated writing styles and have witnessed other writers fall into the same trap. Not long ago, I believed that poetry was meant to be vague word salad, because that’s what most poetry sounded like to me. But if I actually learned how to properly interpret poetry, I think my attempts would be less embarrassing. In that same vein, maybe part of the problem is that novice writers employ certain styles without understanding why it worked in the original source or the effect it has on the reader.

        On the other hand, we do tend to overanalyze older published works and make excuses for any possible weaknesses. Knowing that a work is considered “one of the best short stories of all time” or that it was written by “one of the greatest American writers in history” deeply biases our valuation of the writing. If we stripped away the author and the accolades, we would view the work very differently. If someone in a writing workshop employs the same tactics as a famous writer, their work may be torn apart. It’s quite hypocritical.

        For example, Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I have read that story countless times and written essays about it, yet I despise it more with each re-reading. The writing is dry, the characters unrealistic, and the themes weak, but so many of my professors were in love with it. Oy vey.

        Anyway, I was wondering what books you would include on your ideal reading list for students. What would you have them read, if there were no restrictions?

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