Blast From The Past: The Problem of Being Too Good

I’m mostly managing to keep up writing at least a little each day, even if the little is a sentence. It’s fanfic, it’s got problems (mostly right now a complete lack of ‘place’) but it’s there. It exists.

Other than that, well, something to write about today absolutely refused to happen, so here’s a blast from the past that is still relevant (I’ve edited out the bits that aren’t, and of course while I’m still and always up to my eyeballs in The Day Job, the rest of what I’m up to my eyeballs in has changed. These days it’s mostly either the job or the Bugger-cat’s treatment).

The Problem of Being Too Good

Having been up to my eyeballs in Sad Puppies things, and The Day Job (particularly The Code of Cthulhu), I pretty much missed my chance to comment on Sarah’s post about Literature (as opposed to literature which is quite a different beastie). Buried in that post is the comment: “It annoys me when I can see the writer sweat.”

Now here’s the thing. I was raised in a musical household. It was a given that I’d be learning to play something (it wound up being trombone, and I was at one point bordering on good enough for professional work. If I’d had a half-decent singing voice, I could have taken that to professional level) and joining whatever local bands, orchestras, or whatever happened to be around and at more or less my ability level.

One of the things I learned was that in pretty much any creative endeavor the really good ones don’t look like they’re making any effort. They’re so good they make it look easy. They make it feel easy, and they appear to effortlessly produce the effect they’re aiming for, be it a gem of a musical performance or a story that’s a perfect or near perfect example of its art – and it’s so apparently effortless and clear that those of lesser understanding can too easily fail to see the work the author or musician or artist has carefully concealed behind the appearance of easy. That is why seeing the writer sweat is annoying.

Of course, this leads to those of lesser understanding (many of whom think they’re the bees knees and – to paraphrase Douglas Adams – the every other assorted insectile erogenous zone in existence) thinking that a book (or performance or whatever) that looks effortless actually is effortless and therefore is easy. Simply put, they mistake sweat and visible exertion for skill.

In the field of literary endeavor, this often translates to such things as deriding Terry Pratchett’s prose as “basic”. After all, he doesn’t go in for verbal special effects… Instead, Pratchett’s prose fades into the background as the vehicle bearing his plot and characters and everything else in the perfect manner for the tale he’s telling. Had he indulged in his love of words (which mostly found its expression in the footnotes) in the body of his prose, his books would have been poorer for it.

Dave Freer’s prose suffers in a similar way: Dave layers so much meaning into something that looks simple and easy to follow that people who think they know Literature dismiss his work as plain and low-brow (and miss the devastating satires, the gentle affection, and all the other little goodies Dave buries in his works).

I will confess: I’ve tried to read some of the Literature set’s darlings. The third or fourth paragraph that didn’t parse to anything meaningful was enough to convince me I didn’t want to waste my time on that. Even Stephen Donaldson, for all his sins with his thesaurus (and they are legion), usually managed to say something as opposed to using the sounds of words as a kind of perverse aural art work.

Sarah in her literary mode is virtue personified beside that. So is John C Wright. Intricate, artful prose with enough polysyllabic words to sink a ship can work, provided said words fit the story and say something of value to the reader – who is, always, the ultimate judge.


  1. Wait – there are Puppy related things going on? I thought we let it go after the Embiggening?

      1. Yup, exactly. These days it’s not so much puppy things I’m buried by as cat cancer treatment things. And of course the day job because that tends to be all consuming at the best of times.

  2. Some writers, such as Wodehouse, can use a large vocabulary and still be effortlessly enjoyable, not Literary.

    And I think since whole Literary thing is a recent toxic product of our screw up universities. AFAIK, past writers such as Austin, Dickens, etc wanted to be widely read, not just by the “right” people.

    This Literary disease is probably why RL Stevenson is looked down upon – too much action! Prose is too lean!

    But on the flip side, tastes do change, and a minimal style is not etched in stone as the only way to write – Dickens’ style is pretty much the opposite of RLS, and he was widely read in his time (I’d say he wrote long, descriptive scenes without breaking a sweat). (I admit to being more on the RLS side, but I do like Dickens; it’s kind of like music – Bach is often a little ornate for modern taste, but I’ve been learning to enjoy his music)

    1. Well, yes. Individual taste does have a lot to do with what people like, and modern tastes tend to be much more in favor of leaner, more action-based prose rather than the more leisurely unfolding of events through description.

      I’m not going to go into the question of modern musical taste because my preferences in music are so eclectic it’s easier to list what I prefer not to listen to than what I like (jazz, swing, rap, anything atonal about covers the list of what I avoid. The list of music I like covers damn near everything else).

      1. My rule of thumb is: does it have a melody and harmonies? If so, I’ll at least give it a try. Otherwise, nopity nope nope.

  3. Stephen Donaldson, for all his sins with his thesaurus (and they are legion)

    Whew. I thought it was just me! I believe I have him to thank for “cerulean.” I still don’t know if it is a hard or soft c. I’ve never heard the word.

    1. Me either, actually. I presume it’s a soft c for a number of reasons, but I don’t actually *know*. And I’ve made some astonishing pronunciation oopses over the years because of knowing the word, understanding how to use it, and never once having heard the thing spoken.

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