Friday, August 12, 2016

If You Could Successfully Mimic a Great Writer You Dislike, Would You?

My answer is already no, before you think I’m actually asking. But this is not a rhetorical question. Many of my friends and peers have told me to write like someone else in hopes of obtaining their success, and I’m curious as to the diversity of reactions authors give. How many writers would abandon their voice if they could write better with someone else's?

Even if I love someone, it doesn’t mean I want to write like them. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, but he prefers urban and contemporary fantasy—supernatural that takes place in the real world, magic that almost could exist—and I much rather read about secondary-worlds and alternative universes, completely new cultures and laws of physics. I wouldn’t change anything about his writing as a reader—I am enamored with him as a reader—but if they were my manuscripts I’d written, there would definitely be different directions I’d want to go in, just because that’s who I am. Because my work represents me. It's not about only about affecting people, it's about affecting them in certain ways.

I get told to do things like George R.R. Martin a lot. While I am impressed with his writing and enjoy his books, his choices are so drastically against what I want to be writing I can only feel belittled when someone suggests his way is the best. And regardless of what I do, I don’t want anyone else to write like him either; in some ways his choices are successful because few others were doing the same. Personally, I’m starting to get sick of things where everyone dies, where trauma follows drama, where no one is ever happy. It’s great on occasion, but not every time. Not every fantasy book needs to be A Game of Thrones, and I don’t see the benefit of trying to homogenize them. I read Martin to read Martin, Gaiman for Gaiman, Rowling for Rowling, Rothfuss for Rothfuss.

In one case, I was told to write a prologue like George R.R. Martin, but found the criticisms given to mine could easily be said for A Game of Thrones’ as well. I felt like the critic was pushing the book’s reputation without thinking about what Martin had really been doing, without thinking what I was doing. He just assumed Martin was a better writer than me and by mimicking his choices, I’d improve. It doesn’t work like that.

The other day, I was working on a query letter and sent it to a friend of mine. He discussed the in-skimability of it, (is too a word) and gave some good reasons why it wasn’t as catching as it could be. It had been demoralizing considering I had written over ten completely different queries and kept returning to the third, but I saw his point and decided to make another version. As I worked and reworked the first sentence my eyes started to bleed and I couldn’t understand what I had written.

I sent another friend a text, asking, “Does this make any fucking sense to you?”

“Um… no.”

Back to the drawing board.

But she didn’t leave it at that. My friend, who I had long worked with creatively, who very well knew my feelings about, “Just write like…” criticism, told me, “Why don’t you try writing like Hemingway?”

Hmmm… Why don’t I just try writing like a writer that every college student has tried and failed to write like since the 1960s? I’ll get right on it.

Why don’t I just try to write like a writer who I’ve expressed a distaste for since you first started obsessing over him?

Why don’t I just try to write like a writer notorious for exposing great emotion through extensive description of inane objects and dialogue in the real world when I am trying to excite people by a single sentence summation of a completely fabricated world?

Hemingway is not the first writer I’d ask to help me pitch a science-fiction novel. I have to wonder if you had any other more specific authors in your arsenal. When telling me to write like someone else, how many other writers do you know about?

I respect him, I wouldn’t change what he’s done, but I’m not a fan. Fact is, even if I could emulate his style to a wondrous success, I wouldn’t. Not just because I want my own unique voice, but because I wouldn’t enjoy reading my own writing, I wouldn’t be satisfied with it, I wouldn’t like it period.

As much as fame and acceptance in the literary community would be nice—although, Hemingway has his share of critics—restricting myself to being simplistic because it’s impressive is just as much selling-out as begrudgingly writing a romance novel when you really want to be doing poetry.

Admittedly, I felt a little betrayed. I had asked her opinion because I respected it, she gave me the answer I needed, but then proceed to admonish me for the choices I made. I don’t know how she expected me to react to her statement; I had talked to her extensively about my main distaste for Hemingway has to do with the teary-eyed gushing of his fans, the insistence that his way is the only way. Despite that no one can mimic him without looking like that’s exactly what they’re doing, despite that he is the only one who has managed to write like him and get away with it (which suggests to me Hemingway’s success is the sum of his parts and cannot be emulated in pieces), I get told constantly that I should write like him. People ignore what I’m doing to spout off easy writing rules. They give me simplistic and often poor solutions for problems they haven’t thought through.

Why write like a writer you don’t enjoy reading? How could you do it well? It could also, possibly, propagate a shallow lie. Not necessarily in Hemingway’s case, but when a population starts to think a certain way, people who disagree need to voice their opinion to better encourage the truth. You’re more inclined to understand why the art works for some and not others, and if it’s a case of people just agreeing to fit in, the truth is more likely to come out after someone voices their disagreement.

People love studies about making an elephant’s painting a centerfold in an art exhibit, hearing all the fancy-pants critics pass adoring praises on the creator’s genius—the intention of the stroke, the conceptual meaning. The art world is rife with bullshit, and I think it’s the responsibility of every artist to take his own tastes seriously. Participating in something we don’t actively enjoy diminishes the opinions those who do like it, and wonks with our B.S. detectors.

I asked a while back if you could have the acclaim, the financing, the artistic freedom, and fan-base of E.L. James or Stephenie Meyer, but despised and trivialized at the same time, would you? Most answers obsessed over how those specific writers deserved it because they just were terrible, but the real question for me was if I could affect someone strongly in the intended way while alienating others, would that be preferable?

What kinds of writers do I really want to be like?

I know that Hemingway is not the kind of writing I want to be doing. Truth is, I’d love to be able to capture an emotion in an everyday moment like he does; I think he is a skilled and masterful author who does shocking things and makes it seem easy. But wanting his ability doesn’t mean I would use it in the same way. I am not a manly man. I’ve never been to war. I didn’t live post-war 1950s, didn't experience same cultures, the same problems, the same existential crises. I don’t have a larger-than-life persona. I’m not adventurous. Not a fan of the outdoors. I didn’t have a start in journalism. I have a vastly different view of the world, different interests, different desires, opinions, and personality. I am different than him, so it makes sense I wouldn't write like him.

It’s not to say we can’t learn from authors of all genres, or that I can’t apply any of Hemingway’s style to my own. But it is asking that when talking to writers, be careful of telling them to “just write like BLANK.” It’s insulting to the greats, for one, implying that it’s easy. It’s disingenuous to the individual, for another, telling them their own personality is a mistake and unappealing. There is room for diversity in literature… a lot of room. So when critiquing, there’s no reason to limit it to “Well, so-and-so doesn’t do it that way, so you can’t.” We need better reasons than shouldn’t. Personal reflection, reaction to the actual text before you, and being open-minded to what can be leads to more organic, more unique choices than to just try and copy someone else.

I love money. Fame would be nice, in moderation. Freedom brought by a good reputation would be excellent. But I write for a lot of reasons, and one of them is to express me, in my way, to my own satisfaction, and achieving success by being someone else doesn't interest me.

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