The Outfit – A Collective of Chicago Crime Writers is an informative and entertaining blog co-written by seven crime fiction writers. Each has a unique perspective and writing style. The posts come in an essentially random progression as each writer latches onto a topic of interest. The end result is an potpourri of everything from fiction to writing analysis to home improvement tips.
Earlier this week, Kevin Guilfoile wrote this thought-provoking piece on how all writing is subject to interpretation. The post itself invites interpretation, and the odds are excellent what I took away from it is not what Guilfoile intended. Still, he touched on a couple of pet peeves that limbered up my fingers for the keyboard.
During Guilfoile’s recent publicity tour, an interviewer started riffing on the intricate and detailed Biblical references in his book. Guilfoile was impressed with her perspicacity and insight, not to mention her knowledge of arcane Biblical references. (Arcane to me; they might be common knowledge to someone of less heretical bent.) He admitted that she was absolutely right, with one caveat: he hadn’t been thinking of any of that when he wrote it.
This episode points out an old gripe of mine that kept me from reading fiction for twenty years. I still bear scars from a seventh-grade English class, where I was tasked with finding the “theme” of a Sherlock Holmes story. “Why did Doyle write this story?” the teacher asked. “What is he trying to say?” I gave her the standard twelve-year-old’s tripe along the lines of “crime doesn’t pay.” Subsequent (and shallow) scholarship taught me what I should have written: Doyle wrote the story for money. At some deep, possibly subconscious level, he was saying he needed – or wanted – more money than he had. Sherlock was a purely commercial enterprise to Doyle; he didn’t like his greatest creation much. While all good commercial fiction has depth to it, implying too much profundity does a disservice to both writer and audience. Sometimes a cigar is just a smoke.
Guilfoile later discusses a review of a book by an unnamed author. The critic (thankfully, also unnamed) unleashes this burst of literary opulence as part of his praise:
To read this book with anything like comprehension, a person has to be, like its polymath author, both intellectual and hip, a person mature and profoundly well read and yet something of a true marginal, a word-nerd with the patience of Job. In my charitable estimate that would describe about five out of 500 people that I know.
Guilfoile himself likes the book, and its author, so don’t be too put off by the critic’s snobbery. The example does bring us to the second of my vexations: the idea that great literature can only be appreciated by at best one percent of the reading population. (I’m no Stephen Hawking, but five divided by 500 is one percent.) Since I’m sure the critic only knows people already in the upper strata of intellectual accomplishment, we’re talking maybe the top one percent of that one percent.
How does that make it great? It can be argued for literature to be great, its message should resonate with more than a handful of people out of a full Airbus, or it becomes somewhat of a masturbatory exercise for intellectuals to trade snarky comments to each other about how dumb everyone else is. Writing to be understood by a small, self-defining group is more likely to make a good textbook than great literature.
This phenomenon is not confined to writing. I have a Masters degree in music, and it used to put me off when people unaware of my education would comment on a piece of music I didn’t care for in such a manner as to imply I just wasn’t elevated enough to get it. Now I think it’s funny, their way of self-perpetuating a sense of being better than someone else, or being smarter, or hipper. It ignores a simple fact: anyone can write a book that no one understands. Writing doesn’t become art because you have to think to read it, but because you’ll think about it.
Thanks to Mr. Guilfoile for writing something that passed that test. I don’t know if these are the thoughts he had in mind, and I hope he doesn’t think I missed the boat altogether. But, as his post so eloquently states, that’s the chance he takes when he lets others read his stuff.