Now that Rebecca Rosenblum has correctly pegged me as an Internet crank,* I’m almost afraid to post any further grumpy remarks regarding writing advice.
I don’t want to be ranting on and on or anything. But the most interesting bits of writing advice, and the most interesting ideas, are often the specious ones, because it’s in reacting against them that you start to really think, and perhaps reach some new insight.
It occurred to me (a phrase that I’m not supposed to use) that the one piece of writing advice I never see is perhaps the most valuable: challenge everything.
Reacting against ideas should become a habit of mind. Good art shakes things up, or so I’m told. It would seem, then, that good fiction can’t spring from accepting received wisdom or from drifting with the zeitgeist’s current. If all you intend to do is repeat the ideas of others, why write?
Besides, what’s the point of a conversation in which everyone agrees?
This brings me to my grumpy rant of the day — my last gasp on this topic of writing advice. I’m going to pick on something that didn’t bug me when I first read it, but really started to bug me when people started agreeing with it: Stacy May Fowles, at the Afterword.
Don’t dismiss pop culture as beneath you. Watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model can be just as useful in studying human strife and conflict as reading Tolstoy. Especially now that André Leon Talley is a judge.
I wouldn’t say that pop culture is beneath anyone, but I can’t help think that people who love this idea just happen to love America’s Next Top Model, because it’s actually a pretty bad idea when you take it apart.
If you want to learn about chimpanzees, I suppose you could read National Geographic or watch Every Which Way but Loose. And this would be just fine if you just wanted to be able to talk about chimpanzees at dinner parties, should the topic ever arise — and who knows? One day, it might.
But if you wanted to write a paper on chimpanzees, you’d go and track them down and study them in their natural habitat, because behavioral ecology frowns on papers sourced from Clint Eastwood movies.
Similarly, the best way to understand human strife and conflict is not by watching conflicts manufactured to sell advertising to eyeballs glued to the television — which is like learning about human pair bonding by watching pornography — nor even by reading Tolstoy. It’s to study the human animal in its natural habitat: street, workplace, home. You go where the people are.
In short, you don’t need an excuse to watch America’s Next Top Model — but you do need an excuse for making that excuse.
(It occurs to me — with apologies to Russell Smith for the second occurrence of that phrase — that I’m going to have to read Reality Hunger.)
*I’m just kidding, Rebecca.