Literary criticism from The Simpsons

I was watching an old episode of The Simpsons the other day which had a scene set at a literary festival. As authors stood disregarded by their piles of books there was one long queue in the whole place.

John_Updike_with_Bushes_newAt the head of it was Krusty the Clown touting copies of his latest biography. He pulled back a curtain to reveal his ghost-writer – the late John Updike, esteemed literary novelist, a man acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in living memory. Krusty roundly abused Updike as a cheap hack and Updike humbly took it – happy to be earning a living churning out celebrity dross.

It was funny, perhaps a little cruel. Like all good satire it had a sliver of ice in its heart.

It made me think about the way that our culture actively discourages people from writing at all, and particularly from writing good quality books. If you want fame, success, significant financial rewards then, first of all, you are better off not writing books of any kind and, if you must write, then you are better to write what sells which is celeb biogs, mechanically written romance novels, self-help books, genre pot-boilers and the rest.

Heaven knows, there is a place for all of these, and if people want to read them then well, I’m just glad they are reading something in this age when not reading books at all seems to have become the default setting. And I also think that there are writers producing all of the above types of book who do so professionally and well and produce great reads.

But writing surely should also be an art form where the aim isn’t just to make money but to produce good work. Work which resonates and adds something to the cultural debate and has a chance of lasting. That’s the part I fear we are losing in the modern age.

I have said before that one of the big surprises for me since my book was published is how many writers there are out there. How the explosion in self-publishing has lead to a huge surge in the number of people producing books. The ought to be a good thing, and in many ways of course it is.

But I think we should be concerned about the quality of a lot of what is being created and, in some cases (not all) about the mind-set that has gone into creating it. So often I hear writers boasting about how many words they have been able to churn out that day on their ‘WIP’ (the jargon shorthand some have started using for work in progress). Or how many books they have managed to produce already in their series of genre novels. The assumption seems to be that more is better, that quicker is better. There is never once a mention of quality, never a word about the joy of writing well.

The whole thing has the feel of a mass production line – a literary McDonalds, a fast-food for the soul. Is this really what we want to be as authors?

What I believe is this – if our dream is to write then that’s fantastic but please, let’s do ourselves, the reader, the world, a favour and set our sights as high as they will possibly go. There are so many bad books around and more coming every day. Why add to that pile? Society makes it difficult enough for writers without us adding to the problem.

Be the best writer you can be – that’s all anyone can ask of you, all you can ask of yourself.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.


12 thoughts on “Literary criticism from The Simpsons

  1. Pingback: Literary criticism from The Simpsons

  2. Impassioned, Chris, and I agree, but as you say, at least people are reading – probably more than ever. And if we look at the other side, I agree too there are many, many books that are badly written, but it’s great that so many people are feeling inspired to write these days. It reminds me a bit of the music of the 60s and 70s. Many of the musicians we now consider legends began without even really knowing how to play their instruments, but they had the passion, and so they kept at it and got really good. Perhaps today’s inept writers will be the future’s literary giants…well, there’s always hope 🙂

    • I agree, I’m all for people writing Val – and, as I said, I think that is positive in so many ways. Maybe the change is that in the past people’s poor early efforts during their learning curve were hidden from view in their bottom drawer because no publisher would touch them. Now sadly some people put these on sale themselves rather than wait until they have got good enough to write something worth the reader’s time and money.

      • Yes, that’s the problem isn’t it? It’s a pity there’s no quality control at all. The Internet has opened up fantastic opportunities, but it’s indiscriminate, so the reader has to waste money finding out something is worthless.

  3. Couldn’t agree more with so much of this! The explosion in easy self-publishing has caused so many of the ‘I know I have a novel inside me’ people to drag it out and expose it to the light of day. And what a load of rubbish so many are! (And I’m inclusing many of the celeb ones here). This causes a literary Primark effect, where people believe that as books are so cheap, writers have it easy,let’s face it, THEY could write a book… and they shouldn’t therefore have to pay to read them.
    I read a scary article in the paper that said the ”’literary” novel is dying, as people don’t want to have to work at a book. Nonono….. I have found that all the less than good reviews I’ve got ( always on are clearly from readers who don’t know their ”classics” and so can’t reference the plotlines or characters.

    • I suppose you can’t have the democratising effects of self-publishing without it also opening the floodgates to rubbish. Overall I still think it’s a great thing, but it does mean writers have to take responsibility for the quality of their own work, and some just don’t seem to be willing or able to do this.

  4. Great post, Chris. I particularly agree with the “I’ve churned out 1000 words on my WIP today” remark. This also ties in with my concern about SP and Indie authors feeling the need to blurt out every single intimate detail of their lives online. It seems that today’s writer must be a brandname first and a writer second. As a result, the quality of a lot of it is not very good.
    What is even more worrying is that the reduction in quality is not even limited to the self-publishing crowd.
    Case in point: I was recently reading an anthology, published in the traditional sense of the word, and was shocked to find that the editor had not even bothered to check the individual stories for punctuation errors, but had left it up to the writers. The first piece was excellent, but then I get to the second contribution and it is terribly written; has not been edited for spelling and grammar mistakes, and isn’t even complete! Now if it had been a try-out anthology that only set me back 99p and was produced by an indie editor or e-zine, I could have been a bit more forgiving, perhaps (there’s still no excuse for not editing!). However, this was traditionally published and cost me the price of a normal paperback (it was the Kindle edition).

    Long story short, I have seen a reduction in the quality of produced works in general over the last 20 years.

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