October 23rd 2009
Our Books, Warts and All
As I have mentioned in a previous SFNovelists post, I am working this year with a Master’s student in creative writing. Last term we worked on writing and editing; this term I’m having him read several books that I consider classics of fantasy and science fiction. (No, I’m not going to give you titles, and you’ll see why in a moment.)
The books I assigned were, with one exception, favorites of mine that I thought he should read as a way of examining the craft of successful authors. The one exception was a book of his choosing by a well-known and critically acclaimed author. We’re two books into the term, and I have to admit that as I go back and re-read these favorites of mine, I’m surprised by what I’m finding.
These are flawed novels. At times they have serious point of view issues. Occasionally their characters behave in ways they clearly shouldn’t. The books are, in places, overwritten. At other points they wander and get lost in little narrative cul-de-sacs. In short, they are far from perfect, and though I chose them originally thinking that they would be examples of how to conceive and write a novel, I now realize that I may need to take a somewhat different tack in the discussions I’ll be having with my student. But only somewhat.
Because despite their imperfections, both books remain examples of how to tell a story. In fact, maybe I should drop the “despite their imperfections” part.
I recently spent a little time tooling around on Amazon looking at some reviews of my books. (Yes, this is a related point; bear with me.) I know: Looking at Amazon reviews of one’s own books is never a good idea. And predictably, I couldn’t help but focus on the negative reviews, though they were outnumbered by those that were complimentary.
I found myself growing annoyed, not with the criticisms themselves, but rather with the expectations implied in them. There is no such thing as a perfect book. Yes, there are great books. There are books that on first reading seem so transcendently excellent that they strike us as utterly flawless. But part of what makes art and song and literature so compelling is that these are inherently human endeavors. They express our desires, our passions, our fears and jealousies and insecurities. They also reflect our fallibility.
To be honest, I don’t want to be told that I’ve written a perfect book. Because as soon as I finish that book, I intend to write another, and I don’t ever want to believe that the next book I begin won’t be better than the last one. There’s nothing wrong with the quest for perfection; I embrace that. But I know better than to expect myself actually to achieve it.
And that is part of the lesson of these books I’m re-reading, the lesson I will impart to my student. We who write often refer to our WIPs — our works-in-progress. I would argue that our careers themselves are WIPs. I want to write and publish books. I want to sell them to publishers and have lots of people buy them off the shelves of bookstores, or out of the online catalogs for the latest e-readers. But I also want to grow as an artist. Unlike the accountants in a publishing house, I want to judge my work not on the basis of my most recent book, but instead on the arc of my collected work.
The books that my student and I have read are wonderful. They are thrilling and moving and, though written differently from each other, they are both wonderful examples of how to construct a narrative. Their flaws don’t diminish them. On the contrary, the fact that they continue to shine despite their shortcomings, and after so many readings, speaks to their excellence. On reflection, I realize that this is what I want my student to take away from this course. Like all young writers, he tends to beat himself up when made aware of the problems in his own work. I want him to see that a book or story doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, or even great. I want him to think about the elements of each book that make it powerful and memorable in spite of its flaws.
Because, as a writer, that’s how I would like readers to think about my novels.
David B. Coe
David B. Coe is the author of eleven fantasy novels, including the books of the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands. He has also written the novelization for the Ridley Scott production of ROBIN HOOD, starring Russell Crowe, that is due out in May 2010. In 1999 he received the Crawford Fantasy Award, given annually by the IAFA to the best new author in fantasy. He has a Ph.D. in United States environmental history and lives on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee with his wife and daughters. Visit site.
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