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  1. Mr. Rugs

    Mr. Rugs Member

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    Academic Critique vs Best Sellers

    Discussion in 'The Art of Critique' started by Mr. Rugs, Dec 28, 2016.

    I've been reading up on advice to write my first novel, and have seen an odd disconnect between critique in academic circles, and general appeal.

    Now, I know with a lot of things there is the case of "Critically acclaimed, but flopped at the box office", and vice versa, but what I've been seeing are conflicting points of view in writing method.

    For example, I read one academic, a long-time writing professor at some high end college, and he says that you need to spend several pages describing paint drying to make your book interesting.
    Another professor takes examples of cliches, says they are irredeemable, then condemns several all time best selling books for using them. He then goes on to suggest (to his writing students), instead of writing about a madman, or a hero, to write about a part time painter who struggles to keep the lights on.

    To me, this seems boring. You'd think if people were so interesting in reading about some Joe's everyday life, the professors' books about renting an apartment and having a dayjob would be flying off the shelves... But they're not.

    On the other hand, advice from actual best selling authors usually is along the lines of, "keep your writing simple, and just write."
    Things like adverbs, overabundance of description, and dull/unimportant plot and details are all to be avoided.

    Whenever I read a classic book or story, it's always full of the things the academics say are bad, and whenever I read an academic's book, it's so mottled with fluff it's incoherent.

    So my question is-
    Is there some hidden wisdom I'm missing here, or are these professors just talking out their asses because they're paid for the draft? Should I change my writing to suit what the academics say is 'good', or should I continue to take the advice of the authors?
     
  2. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I believe the hidden wisdom you are missing is context and you are surely painting with a brush that is wider than the sky.

    If you are writing your fist novel, your first task is to learn how to write.
     
  3. Mr. Rugs

    Mr. Rugs Member

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    That's part of why I'm a bit salty. I went through the whole "learn to write" thing in high school and college. I learned to color in the lines really well for what the academics want in all of the honors English and writing courses, but now I'm finding that shoveling description onto mundane storylines like I was taught is not how you tell a gripping story.
    Am I shoveling wrong? Or is there something else to it? The second is what I'm leaning towards right now, but I wanted to see if anyone here had experience with the question before I started changing things.
     
  4. SadStories

    SadStories Active Member

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    Generally if you want to please people who make a living on their opinions and reading books, you want to be overlooked, difficult and/or weird so they feel special and valuable for still appreciating you. Incorporating high art references, ideas etc. is also a good idea as it makes them feel smart for spotting it and like you are one of them.

    If you want to please the masses you want to be accessible, down-to-earth and provide a lot of stimulation per minute as they are an impatient bunch.

    Personally I try to strike a balance, like Bob Dylan or the two first Godfather movies. What can be better than being both critically lauded and popular?

    I think like Checkers or whatever though, it's very cheap to realize you want to do this, but you might spend your whole life trying to and still not manage to master it.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2016
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  5. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, I'd say that shoveling description is never a good idea. If you were taught it as shoveling, you were taught badly.

    But that's a side note. My general view is that in every realm--fiction, music, food, fashion, perfume, theater, movies, whatever--there is a spectrum that starts at the obviously pleasing and goes from there...well, it's not really a spectrum, I suppose. It's more like a fire hose; it fans out in an infinity of directions.

    In food, sweet is obviously pleasing, as is salty, as is animal fat. Twinkies. Doritos. Pork rinds. Or if you're into the home cooking realm, buttery salty fried potatoes, fried chicken, homemade chocolate chip cookies.

    But if a person is intensely interested in a topic for a long time, the obviously pleasing can start to feel, well, obvious. Boring. The person wants new experiences, or specific nuances taken to an intense level. They enjoy acquiring acquired tastes--the bitter, the acidic, the hot, the strange.

    There's a Michelin-starred restaurant (actually, there are two; the chef of the second one trained at the first one) that serves a soft-boiled egg in the shell, the interior of the shell layered with maple and other things that I can't recall. The first bite puts you on a balance point that teeters between revulsion and intense enjoyment. I love that experience. But if I weren't so into food, I might shrug and find a diner.

    In this analogy, academic tastes in fiction are like the taste for that egg, or for bitter olives. Popular fiction is Doritos or hash browns. That doesn't mean that the olives are better than the hash browns. They're just different, and they feed a different craving. The obviously pleasing will please a larger number of people, and is therefore a characteristic of popular fiction. The less obviously pleasing appeals to academics and others who are so intensely focused on literature that they're getting bored with obviously-pleasing.

    Sometimes a work, or a dish, or a play, or a perfume, will appeal to everybody. But most works tend to appeal to one side or the other.
     
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  6. SadStories

    SadStories Active Member

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    I think you are putting high-cultured art into a unfairly positive light here. A lot of the time the differences are highly superficial and a question of packaging. For example I think a philosophy professor I used to have classes with is very typical of this. He stated in a class that he doesn't enjoy literature anymore, probably because he is now too analytical about it, even though he can tell what is good. On the other hand he's famously obsessed with detective novels and gets really passionate talking about them, eyes shining in a way they don't even do when he talks philosophy. Yet "officially" he thinks the cultured books he doesn't enjoy, despite being so well-read and well-studied, are better. You also have tons of experiments like people very sophisticated in the relevant subject matters blind-testing music played by a virtuoso violinist versus music by a normal one, or tasting food from a famous chef versus just an average one. In so many cases it will turn out they in fact prefer the same as the masses.

    I won't even agree that high-cultured art is somehow more open-minded. If anything, it's academics who resist naming something a masterpiece for the longest time and their choices over the centuries are at best made rather haphazardly. What does Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita have in common, other than being historical curiosities in each their own way? No, rather than to suggest "high-cultural" art consumers are more sophisticated, I think it makes more sense to see them as a different social group with somewhat opposing selection criteria for quality. As both being loved by the masses and by the cultural establishment or whatever you would call them has its perks, I think it is most beneficial for most writers to try to find ways to simultaneously cross the rhetorical defensive barriers of both groups.^^
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2016
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  7. DueNorth

    DueNorth Active Member

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    I like what others are saying, and tend to agree. I have sometimes read the pick for National Book Award for fiction and enjoyed the writing, but not the story. A "mundane storyline" as you put it, will not engage a reader no matter how beautifully it is written. However, I will stop reading a poorly written book after the first several pages--I LOVE creative use of words. I have recently read, and highly recommend a book on writing (written by one of those academic types, btw, who is also published and his collection of short stories--that I have read--are far from mundane and highly and wonderfully descriptive) called "Thrill Me" by Benjamin Percy. It is, in my opinion, a great book about this very subject--essentially not overdoing the writing while crafting a compelling (thrilling) story.
     
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  8. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Just wondering--which "you" are you referring to?
     
  9. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    Not sure "academic critique" is the right word for the OP to have used. It sounds like this is the good old debate between literary and genre fiction, highbrow vs. lowbrow. Or are you talking about literary theory? Maybe I'm confused.

    It also sounds like the OP isn't getting much out of his writing class. That's too bad.
     
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  10. Mr. Rugs

    Mr. Rugs Member

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    It probably is the wrong word, but it was the best I could think of to describe it.

    As for the writing classes, the professors, as well as many of the students, go on and on about how books like Twilight, the Hunger Games, Fifty Shades, ext... are all sorry excuses for writing. I agree, there's no flourish to them, but if a book with no highbrow finesse can be such a page turner for so many people, that leads me to believe that techniques utilized in those books, even thought they are counter to what the professors say, are what makes them interesting to read for a general audience. (The difference between general and specific audiences may be what I'm missing as well.)

    ...Unless that was meant as an insult.
     
  11. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    Here's a compliment...

    ...is an excellent turn of phrase/way of saying/visual expression.

    I don't know, I find when I try to squeeze anything I write myself to fit a particular persuasion I end up in the headlights—paralysed. Attempting to draft (especially) in any form that's a few paces from my comfort zone and the enjoyment's sapped from the pursuit. No to being purple, comma splicing, telling, feeling the burden of proof, being a gender offender, keeping my darlings on life support. Each one of those a brake. I guess the same could be said for going for a literary or plain style.

    I think @GingerCoffee doles out the best pearl here; my understanding of it is to use your first novel to find yourself. And by that your voice, your niche.


    fwiw any book with flourishes and finesse, to me, is a page turner. Different strokes.
     
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  12. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    The thing is most people going to college and studying writing and literature aren't expecting to read or discuss books like the ones you mention. I would have been horrified if I ever saw those titles on a reading list for any of my courses. That being said, some universities have started to offer genre writing and literature courses. Maybe that's more of what you're looking for.
     
  13. Mr. Rugs

    Mr. Rugs Member

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    I understand, but the fact that the professors say by proxy, "Oh, those writers who made wildly popular books, and all of their readers, they're just wrong. The problem is they don't know what they REALLY want to read." seems pretentious to the point of being sickening.

    Even Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Homer, and a lot of the other classic giants get the "they did it wrong" downward glare from the professors.
     
  14. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    It sounds like your problem is with a specific professor. I studied literary fiction and never thought any of my professors were pretentious. I don't read much outside of what would be considered literary. It's what I like. It's what I went to school to study. I don't think I'm pretentious. People like what they like. And most universities do focus on literary fiction, which I find important. But like I said, some schools offer genre or popular fiction courses. You should take one of those classes if you want to discuss the value or importance of those works. However, you don't have to do so at the cost of dissing literary fiction or those who see more value in that than some of today's popular titles.
     
  15. Selbbin

    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Art and entertainment are two different things, but they can be part of the same work. Some works are just art, some are just entertaining, and some are both. Academics generally favor art, which means they would generally dismiss pure entertainment as it doesn't contain what they find interesting academically.

    The same goes for movies, sculpture, photography, painting etc.
     
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  16. Selbbin

    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    The key, honestly, is to write whatever it is you want to read. That goes for both the art and the entertainment. Anyone trying to tick boxes is doomed to fail. Rowling didn't write Potter planning to be a Billionaire. She wrote it because she loved the story and just hoped to get published. Fifty Shades was originally fan fic given away for free. Success is random at best.
     
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  17. Mr. Rugs

    Mr. Rugs Member

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    That's exactly what I think. That's what the authors say, too.

    The problem is the 'experts' say to do the exact opposite.

    P.S. Thanks for all the feedback. I think I have a better idea of what I'm going to stick with for my writing.
     

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