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"Explaining" your writing to other people

Updated on June 3, 2013
The Threat-Hamster Papers, the first of my favorite series of my books
The Threat-Hamster Papers, the first of my favorite series of my books | Source

I'm always fascinated by the reaction to my work, whether it's my books, my articles, or other types of writing. The books in particular are an interesting exercise in logic and perspectives – for other people. When I write, I try to break new ground. I see no value to myself or to anybody else in rehashing what I see to be antiquated literary forms and ideas.

What's the point in yet another storyline which runs "boy meets girl, becomes cliché festival" or "girl meets boy, becomes washing machine" after which both of them mysteriously decide to go and have affairs? Who cares?

A lot of people, notably publishers, have exactly the opposite idea. Apparently, the world can't get enough of stunningly tired romances, formula sex, and descriptions of furniture and if you can tell the difference between them, congratulations. The result is that when I try to "explain" my books, it's not exactly easy.

One of the things that appalls me about the "writing culture" is the apparently mystical level of importance attached to putting words together. As far as I can tell, there are more experts on writing than there are actual writers and every single one of these people is an absolute goldmine of quotes from yesteryear. Nothing is too arcane to be a writing methodology or considered best practice by someone living in a tree house in Manhattan. Even more importantly, nothing is too banal to be the subject of the book. However tedious, you can expect to find it on your friendly neighbourhood bookstore’s shelves while it goes broke.

What the hell does this have to do with literature? How do readers benefit? Why should people spend good money to read something that they have actually read thousands of times before with a few name changes and if you're lucky some scene changes?

When I try to "explain" my books, I am well and truly behind the eight ball in terms of explaining basic ideas. The Threat-Hamster books in particular, which use immortals as characters and eternity and infinity as their setting, somehow don't quite seem to fit the Mills and Boon stereotypes. Stories about Flagellated Flapjacks and How Not To Be Omniscient are a little bit out of the category database. A story about how to catch an escaped symphony may or may not register with the poor soul to whom I'm attempting to explain my writing style.

There is another problem – My books are always related to some form of satire. I try to write the most improbable plot lines, and I really can’t resist sending up some types of writing, particularly the more pompous science-fiction styles. Exactly how anybody is expected to follow this logic I don't know, but it certainly makes "explaining" a lot tougher.

To make things much worse, I'm not prepared to waste an entire book on one idea. It does look like waste of space to me, but I'm not sure how many readers are actually benefited by reading 400 words on the basis of one very simple concept. That's a result of reading a lot of philosophy, and then reading the almost incestuous and convoluted doublethink that goes with philosophy. If you've ever read any of the unbelievable quantities of verbiage on the subject of post-modernism or existentialism, it can cause allergic reactions and is almost so dictatorial as to refuse readers any right to do anything of their own. To my way of thinking that's not literature, it's a form of assault.

Then there's the small issue of characters in books. According to modern writing theory, characters are effectively verbs. They "progress the story" and a lot of other things, but apparently they aren't supposed to be interesting or to have any depth. My characters more or less have to evolve. They can't remain static, because both their environments and the logic of their situations never remains the same. My characters may not even know why they are where they are, at any given point in any book. They barely even understand themselves, and just about everything is a sort of learning experience in some form or other.

All I can say is thank God I don't write soap operas. The idea of a purely static and predictable mechanical character is a total anathema to me. I don't think the banal is even worth mentioning in a book, let alone being the sole topic of the story.

So – Can I explain my writing to anybody? Not really. I can write something like this, and try to put my writing into some sort of perspective, however cynical, but is that explaining anything at all?

There is one other question – Does writing need to be explained? Isn't it a sort of insult to the intelligence of the reader to assume that the writing must be made understandable? Don't readers have the right to get what they want to get out of a book, rather than be told what they're supposed to think about it, especially by the writer?

Imagine a literary culture dictated by writers, all "explaining" what their books are about like some sort of rote dogma to infants. It'd be horrendous. I think there’s a very good argument for writers never explaining their books at all to anyone.


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