There are people who spent 16 years in school, an additional two years in an MFA, and three thousand hours reading slush for a literary journal who will tell you with a straight face nobody taught them to write.
I was taught. I write better than I did in second grade, and a teacher or thirty probably has something to do with that. In tenth grade, Mr. Wheeler singled me out as the one student in the class who he wouldn’t abide shitty writing from. He returned my creative writing assignments so covered in red marks the page looked bloody. I learned. Two years ago I didn’t have a firm grasp of the comma.
So: why are writers so full of shit on this?
The curse of knowledge
Writing is fucking hard. By the time you’ve seen any success, you’ve spent decades from childhood onward practicing. People in general are extremely bad at remembering the remedial skills that lay the foundation for more advanced skills.
The best teachers for shitty writers aren’t advanced writers, it’s other shitty writers plugging away and sharing the breakthroughs they have along the way. Peer teaching is still teaching.
This one is pretty obvious. If I am a genius, sprung from nowhere, it means that all the work I do to build upon my foundation of genius puts me head and shoulders over all the lesser humans who didn’t come out of the womb with an opinion on Ulysses.
It’s a fun thing to believe about yourself. It’s even more fun if you can get people to buy it.
Nobody likes hearing how the trick is done
People will not only indulge successful writers in this obvious bullshit, they love the bullshit. The genius, the chosen one who ascended to their rightful place is humanity’s favorite story.
We especially love this story about men. We love Thomas Edison, and we hate hearing about the thousand engineers he oversaw to do all of the actual work. We love the male writing genius, but we hate hearing about his teachers, his typists, the women who did all his cooking and cleaning so he had time, the prose he cribbed from his wife’s diary. That’s boring. It doesn’t tell us what we want to hear about ourselves and the world.
We love buying things, but we hate feeling sold to
This bullshit is most obvious when you talk the business of selling a book. You will hear writers, the face of a marketing push costing in the tens of thousands of dollars and which (I promise you) had immense logistical and strategic consideration, tell you that success took them by surprise. People just found and loved their book. People in publishing, unique among almost any business I know of, people will hide their business acumen and lie about having a plan at all to protect their credibility. Their taste is their brand.
Logistics is boring
And this is all because you, dear reader, hate hearing about it. Logistics is boring. But Genius Ascends to His Rightful Place Because He Is So Very Talented is a story the public eats right up.
In this way, artistic success is a magic trick. Everyone likes to marvel at it and ask questions, but only other practitioners are enthralled with its tedious mechanics. Writers will not tell you about the deal they made with this podcaster to buy a bulk order of 500 books so they can come on and talk about how they “just found their audience, tee hee.”
If you know how the trick is done, dear reader, that would dismantle the myth of the (white, straight, heterosexual, able-bodied) male genius. We can’t have that.
The criteria are squishy as hell
Leaving aside egotistical concerns, the criteria for writing that is good enough to publish is Did you make about a dozen people in the correct publishing job positions think this is good enough to publish?
Publishing is not a quantitative, research-driven industry. Peculiar among other businesses, acquiring editors will not pick up a book they don’t personally like even if it will sell. There are whole untapped marginalized audiences simply because publishing is awfully white, and the norms of the industry mean nobody has any clue for how to acquire and sell something they personally would not buy.
This is weird. I’m not sure there’s another industry that treats products like this. I have no solution, but I’m comfortable calling it a problem.
The criteria is an arms race
That’s not to say there are NO criteria. It is to say the criteria is shaped by the momentary whims of very white, reasonably well-to-do people who are extremely plugged into by-the-minute trends. They pay attention to what is being published right now, what is being acquired right now, and what is being written right now. The criteria are like a Twitter feed, with trends, with memes, with conversations most of us as writers don’t have access to just because we can’t devote fifty hours a week to those trends. And those who do have access are too busy staying on top of the trends to summarize something so ephemeral that the information is out of date by the time they put it into words.
So, by the time we see a book published and want to respond to it with our own work, we are three years behind on the very fast moving conversation. This goes for plots, this goes for stylistic quirks. Cormack McCarthy’s style is merely shitty grammar by the time you had a chance to ape it.
It’s an arms race. It’s the same way rich people named their kids Tiffany for six months in the late 1960s and ditched it the second the middle class got ahold of the name. A handful of the literary world’s cool kids will over some dinner to archly declare adverbs to be luxurious, everyone there will agree and we’ll see adverbs everywhere for six months two years later as the books come out. By the time we edit our manuscript to pepper in some –ly-s in, you will be as out of style as that shoulder pad romper (for men!) you were too chicken to put on last summer.
How to combat this?
Get access to the conversation as close to its source as possible. Read a lot, but more importantly, make writing friends at as many levels as you possibly can. Insert yourself in the conversation. Make yourself a pleasant nuisance, ask questions, and after a few months venture a few opinions of your own. Maybe write a novel in response to some bullshit you heard about storytelling and just know you could do better.
If you can’t get access to that conversation or think it wangs chung, make some friends, start your own. Do excellent work. Throw elbows until publishing has to let you in just to stay competitive.
All of this to say, that effortless genius who just stumbled upon success is doing an awful lot of hard work to make it look effortless. Don’t sign yourself up for that particular burden and use the energy you save to eat his lunch.