Has anyone yet written a how-to-write book for how-to-write books? If it hasn’t happened yet, we’re probably closing in on that moment in literary history. Lots of people — myself included —enjoy being hypnotized by the soothing rhythm and encouraging cadence of how-to-write guides. After a certain point, all the tips and tricks and affirming quotations blend together into a whirl of positivity, but a good writing guide stands out: Stephen King’s On Writing is one, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. But there are so many terrible writing guides by writers with unrecognizable names; at some point, someone is going to compose a guide to writing writing guides, and that book will probably sell surprisingly well.
I bring this up because last night’s Word Works lecture by Benjamin Percy at Hugo House had all the familiar cooing cadence of how-to-write books, but Percy did not manage to deliver one original thought in his entire 45-minute talk. All he offered were writing-guide clichés, polished and lined up for presentation. Perhaps a good writing guide for writing guides would have warned him away from the perils of using stale language to discuss the writer’s craft.
Ostensibly on the topic of “blending genre,” Percy's talk instead focused on the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, mostly by relying on tired examples of both. To hear Percy tell it, literary fiction involves tea and staring out windows, and genre involves high-octane, propulsive writing. Though he invoked any number of great and nuanced writers in his talk — Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, George Saunders — Percy continually relied on broad generalizations to discuss the point of literary fiction and genre fiction, and the differences between them. Generalizations can be useful tools when you're making an argument, but Percy zoomed so far out from the point that it was impossible to argue with him. When he categorized all the books in bookstores as books that "suck" and books that "don't suck," it became clear that this was not going to be a nuanced discussion.
So what makes great genre writing? Percy began by talking about his childhood experiences with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie and the Stephen King novel The Dark Tower. He was disappointed by the movie, but became obsessed with the book. Why is that? The movie, he concluded, had no heart. The book, though, had heart. Bad genre fiction ignores characterization, he said, and bad literary fiction ignores plot. Fantastic elements in fiction should be stones that are tossed into a pond, and the effects of those fantastic elements are the ripples. There’s nothing new or particularly insightful in these observations, and this is about as deep as the talk went.
Some other writing-guide clichés that Percy pulled out: “we need the everyday to balance out the astonishing,” good writing “makes the extraordinary ordinary,” and he referred to good characters taking over a story despite a writers’ best intentions. You might argue that the clichés in Percy’s speech were acceptable because he was telling truths about writing. Okay. Lots of writers speak in awed tones about those moments in which characters seemingly came to life and took over a narrative, and plenty of sci-fi writers talk about the importance of inserting reality into a fantastical story. Lots of writing instructors refer to actions in stories as stones tossed in ponds.
But one of a writer’s most sacred duties is vigilance against cliché. Clichés demonstrate laziness, and if you encounter clusters of them in a piece of writing, you should begin to doubt the quality of thought that went into the piece. When a writer discussing the craft of writing relies on cliché to make his argument, his audience should treat everything he advises with great suspicion. Despite the content of his speech, Percy came across as an earnest, likable person. But the gruel he doled out from behind the podium last night would best serve as a guide for how not to talk about writing.