One Man’s Trash…
When I was growing up, everybody tried to tell me what to read.
My parents wanted to me read “normal” books, not “trashy” books with Frank Frazetta covers featuring scantily-clad maidens, sword-wielding barbarians, or hideous monsters. My teachers wanted me to read Modern Literature — and they made sure I was exposed to as much as possible — although my favorites were Hamlet and Beowulf.
In college my instructors pushed Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver toward me and I read them, but only because I was required to. None of this depressing and introspective realism caught my fancy. I was made for more fantastic stuff. Oh, I read. Voraciously. From the time I was old enough to hold a book I read non-stop. It began with The Hobbit in third grade, and before I finished middle school I had finished The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I read what I loved, not what people THOUGHT I should read. I read fantasy. (With liberal doses of horror and sci-fi.)
I read Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter, Weird Tales magazine, and later Tanith Lee, Robert Silverberg, William Gibson, and Lord Dunsany. I read fantasy fiction with a dark edge, sword-and-sorcery, horror, and sci-fi. I even read my share of Stephen King, David Eddings, Piers Anthony, and John Norman. I didn’t give a damn what people thought I SHOULD be reading. Still don’t. I didn’t care that most of my literary heroes were from the pulp fiction era, and that their work was largely dismissed as “trash” when they were producing it. I read their works three or four generations after the fact, and I loved it.
Today I enjoy discovering new authors who take those pulp-inspired roots and do something entirely new with them–who breathe fresh life into classic concepts. I’ve found such writers in A.A. Attansio, R. Scott Bakker, and Guy Gavriel Kay, to name a few. If somebody recommends a book or an author to me, I’ll check it out. But it doesn’t take me all that long to figure out if it’s for me. If I like it, great! I’ll spread the word about that author and his/her work. I love to shout about the things I really dig. But if I don’t care for it, that simply means that a particular piece of fiction didn’t meet my personal taste. No harm done.
Because that’s all that really matters, when it comes to fiction. Personal taste.
It’s the reason why books get published, it’s the reason why short stories get accepted, and it’s the reason why fans flock to the stores to buy the latest edition of their favorite author’s work. Some authors have artistic sensibilities that match the expectations and taste of a large segment of the public. So they often end up with best-sellers and huge fan-bases. However, most writers aren’t so lucky. Most artists in general aren’t so lucky. Most writers (let’s stick to the topic of fiction) don’t write best-sellers, don’t get million-dollar deals, and don’t quit their day jobs. Most writers simply write what their heart tells them to write, and if people dig it — great!
Writers have to follow their instincts. They have to please themselves first and foremost. As an artist all you can really do is create a piece of work that meets your own expectations of what is good, worthy, and lasting. To do anything else would be to betray yourself in the quest for “success” or “popularity,” and those who chase such phantoms have very little chance of catching them, and even less chance of creating something unique.
To be a happy reader, you have to read what draws you in, what thrills and excites you, what moves you and keeps you up past your bedtime because you just can’t wait to see what happens in the next chapter. To be a happy writer, you have to write what you believe in, what fascinates you, what MATTERS to you, and you have to say something new about it.
In the end, Fellow Writer, the only person you have to please is yourself. If you can do that–keeping in mind that writers are usually their own harshest critics–then your writing will please others. Since a writer is only capable of creating work that meets his/her own creative sensibilities, it stands to reason that those sensibilities define his/her work.
What if that internal set of standards, that “personal taste” of the writer, is very different from the prevailing taste that defines mass market success? What if a writer’s taste doesn’t match that of the public? Well, it usually doesn’t. That’s my whole point.
A writer offers something from his/her inner being, from the core of his existence, and he puts it out there–on display like a flank steak in a butcher’s window. If that piece of personal work taps into “public taste”–if it starts a landslide of interest and acclaim–if it draws in readers by the thousands and sells more copies than anyone ever imagined…
If that happens, then the writer has tapped into something far beyond his or her ability to control. Call it the Zeitgeist, the Archetypal Consciousness. Hell, call it Blind Luck if you want. Or Destiny if it makes you feel better. This is how we get our super-sensations, our Stephen Kings, our J.K. Rowlings, our George R.R. Martins. These writers were following their own personal visions — as all writers must — creating works that met their personal standards and satisfied their personal taste. What happened next wasn’t part of the original plan. Their creation was a spark that lit a wildfire.
Fiction is an art form. All art is, by its very nature, subjective.
One man’s “trash” is another man’s “treasure.”
Never let anybody tell you what you SHOULD be reading. Never let anybody tell you what you SHOULD be writing. Follow your heart. Listen to your muse. Tap the keg of your soul. It’s what writers do, and it’s what readers will do when they are free to do so.
When I wrote Seven Princes, the first volume in the Books of the Shaper trilogy, that’s exactly what I did. I wrote the novel on blind faith. I had no agent at the time. No publishing contract. No guarantee or even a hint that it would be published. No idea there would be any sequels. I only wanted to write the epic fantasy novel that would meet or exceed every standard I held for the genre. Or come as close as I could to doing so. I set out to write the best damn book that I could write, and that’s exactly what I did.
Two or three determined years later, I acquired an agent. A year after that I signed a three-book deal with Orbit. Seven Kings came next, and once again I followed my heart–my only guide except for a basic outline I had submitted to the publisher — and flexed my writing muscles in a few different ways. The result was an even better book than the first.
Now volume three, Seven Sorcerers, is finally in bookstores. The Books of the Shaper trilogy is complete. My only real goal for the series was to top myself each and every time. I can say without reservation that — three times in a row — I did exactly what I set out to do. Sorcerers has everything that Princes and Kings had, and more. More sorcery; more blood; more emotion; more depth of character; more high-stakes conflicts; more of everything that I’ve always wanted in an epic fantasy.
It feels great to have the entire trilogy out there, so people can finally read it as One Big Adventure with no delays between books. If I had never read all that glorious “trash” when I was a kid, I might never have written these books. They’re my greatest accomplishments, my children born of ink and paper, each one of them born out of love, struggle, dreams, and desire. I know they’re not going to please everybody, but what child ever does? It’s enough that those who dig the series are very passionate about it.
Call it what you will, “trash” or “treasure”, the Books of the Shaper trilogy comes from the heart. Each book represents the artistic sensibilities of a person who could never be told what to read — or what to write. I love my Tolkien, my Howard, my Lovecraft, my Smith, my Dunsany, my Lee. I love fantasy. I’ll go back to the pulp roots of the genre I adore time and time again. I’ll sing its praises from the rooftops. Just don’t tell me it’s not “real literature.”
All due respect to Ernest Hemingway, Robert E. Howard could’ve kicked his ass.
Seven Sorcerers is available now everywhere.
Win a free copy of the entire Books of the Shaper trilogy, signed by me!
“When I was growing up, everybody tried to tell me what to read.”
I actually never had this problem, despite reading things that many people would call trash. In my family reading was such a rare thing for anyone to do voluntarily that they were thrilled I did it.
But as I got older I did become aware of how what I read was viewed by those who considered themselves “intellectual”. It led to a reverse snobbery on my part, I never picked up literary works.
Eventually I got over that. I remember the first time I tried reading Charles Dickens. I thought to myself, this isn’t half bad. Then I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it.
I still read “trash” first and foremost, but I dip into other things once in a while too.
Indeed. Good writing is good writing, and a good book is a good book. I love Shakespeare and I love Robert E. Howard. Not so ironic when you consider that Howard himself was heavily influenced by The Bard, especially in his KULL tales. I love Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE, but I’d rather read Lovecraft’s “Strange High House in the Mist”. I appreciate Hemingway’s no-nonsense style free of pesky adverbs and adjectives, but I prefer Clark Ashton Smith’s verbose, lyrical, prose any day of the week. There’s room for all of it, and it still all boils down to personal taste.
“There’s room for all of it…” Amen to that! I’ve never understood the narrow-mindedness I occasionally encountered while pursuing my MA in English Lit/Lang. If you embrace one genre or style you must reject another? That’s like saying I can’t appreciate Thai curry because I like meatloaf. Or that because I like The Ramones I can’t like Willie Nelson. My mind, and my tastes, are far broader than that.
Personally I don’t find Raymond Carver depressing. The opposite, actually.
King and Eddings grouped with Piers Anthony and John Norman? Ouch. I think they deserve better.
The place of speculative fiction in academia is always interesting to me. I was able to take classes in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Dystopian Literature, but at the same time I had a creative writing professor who said flat out on the first day that he ‘didn’t read’ science fiction.
Golgo: I grouped King, Eddings, Anthony, and Norman together not based on quality of writing (see my overall thesis), but on the fact that they all wrote amazingly popular books–they were authors that sold a LOT of books. Far more than the Weird Tales alumni of yore whose work I was drawn to as a lad. So I did dabble in reading what was “popular”, but I always returned to my weird/pulp roots.
Those first couple of paragraphs illustrate to me a big reason why so many people refuse to get in the habit of reading. So many teachers and parents try to tell young people what they should be reading instead of letting them discover enjoyable books for themselves that they start equating books with work and tedium. How popular would movies and tv be if school children only were exposed to “acceptable” works? “No you can’t watch Star Trek. You can’t watch Die Hard. That’s trash. You’ll watch Battleship Potemkin and The Good Earth and write two 5 page essays on your interpretation of them, and then you’ll be graded on whether your readings are correct or not. Ah, young people…why do they never appreciate cinema?”
Well said, John. Don’t let ’em tell you what to read. Personally I dig Hemingway and Carver in addition to a passel of the other writers you mention. What of it? There ain’t no formula. And don’t let the neo-puritans of the stripe constantly opining on science-fiction and fantasy sites dictate what material has merit and what should be shunned for failure to preach the prevailing pieties. Stick to your guns; read what you like.
Well, Ken, these days it’s more about WRITING what I want. I stopped feeling guilty about reading genre fiction many decades ago–well before I started producing it. 🙂
[…] Third, a piece on “Trash vs. Treasure” for Black Gate: ONE MAN’S TRASH… […]
Very sympathetic to your general point: let a thousand flowers bloom! Why think just one, or just a couple, kinds of flowers are the only sweet smelling fauna?
However, let me push back on a couple of points. One, admitting that people have personal tastes does not necessitate that art is completely subjective (though it’s not clear to me you argue for this stronger point). Don’t we want to say that there are just some bad, or at least not so great, books out there? I know it’s very popular to claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But history shows that some stories and ideas tend to stick. Doesn’t this show that art has at least some objective content? Just a philosophical quibble.
Second, contrary to your overall point, I think there’s something to be said for reading a book (at least every now and then) that’s just not your cup of tea. I think we can learn things from all kinds of experiences, including ones that aren’t so enjoyable. I’ll never re-read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. But I’m glad I read it once. And there are are some good bits of characterization in there even if the plot is almost non-existent. Sometimes it pays to play in other things–it pays when you come back to your own thing.
Great post! Keep up the great work!
To your points:
1) I agree that there are certain standards of awfulness that cannot be denied. However….however! No matter how terrible a book/movie/artwork is, you can bet there’s SOMEONE out there who absolutely LOVES it. The rule of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies across the board. Some people not only don’t CARE what’s objectively “bad”, they dont’ have the ability to distinguish “good from bad”–and even those terms are subjective. People like what they like–so whenever you see a piece of art that’s offensively bad, just remember that somebody out there loves it.
2) Hey, you don’t have to tell me the value of reading books that don’t initially appeal to you: I’m an English teacher! I’m constantly “selling” kids on the books they need to read in my class–some of whom don’t like to read ANYTHING. But I can reach them when I establish connections between their own lives and the books we read. Relevancy is the key to engagement, and engagement is the key to learning. And as I mentioned in my post, I read the stuff I didn’t like–if I didn’t read it, I wouldn’t know that it wasn’t for me! But I’ll never go back to the Raymond Carver well (no disrespect)–his fiction just didn’t work for me. I have friends who adore the work of Charles Bukowski, for example, but his work depresses the hell out of me and strikes me as rather pointless wallowing in self-pity. That said, I know there are people who hate the works that I think are absolutely brilliant. The whole point of my post is that READERS decide what is good based on their own personal tastes and experiences, and WRITERS decide what is good based on the exact same thing. We don’t have to agree with everybody, nor is that even possible.
Experiencing a piece of art is ENTIRELY subjective. The objective “quality” of that piece of art is irrelevant–the experience of that piece of art is still subjective.
One man’s trash = another man’s treasure.
This is a big issue, but a question: Why think that the objective quality of a piece of art is irrelevant?
I am saying it is irrelevant to those who enjoy or even love that piece of art. Yes, some people do consider objective worth, but there are just as many if not more people who do not–they like what they like and they may not even care why. I still maintain that all human experience–especially the consumption of art — is subjective. We each live in our own reality and view the world thru our own unique perceptions. Thus the phrase “There’s no accounting for taste.” To each his own. Your heaven may be my hell and vice versa. Your trash may be my treasure, or the other way around. Art itself has no meaning other than that which we assign to it. In the end EVERYTHING is subjective. Including personal experience of art.
“History shows that some stories and ideas tend to stick. Doesn’t this show that art has at least some objective content?”
In terms of ‘objective content,’ we can say that, for example, a certain work is written in the first person or is a certain number of words in length, but I don’t think value judgments about works of art can ever be objective.
What the lasting impact of a certain work does show, however, is consensus, which is worth something, to some people at least, but it’s not the same as objective quality.
I agree with much of what you’re saying. But I think you go too far.
People like what they like and may even reject considering any possible objective content in a piece of literature. Agreed.
Everyone is trapped in their own unique experience of reality, the so-called egocentric predicament. Agreed.
“Art has no meaning other than that which we assign to it. In the end EVERYTHING is subjective. Including personal experience of art.” This I find confusing given that you seem to affirm that there is some objective content in literature.
You said in an earlier comment: “I agree that there are certain standards of awfulness that cannot be denied.” But if EVERYTHING is subjective, that comment makes no sense. There are no standards.
All I think you mean (and I agree with the following) is that everyone likes what they like regardless of any possible objective content. That seems obviously true and need not commit one to some sort of pure relativist picture about literature, or art in general.
Of course, in the end, you may want to contend that EVERYTHING is relative. But why go that far?
“I don’t think value judgments about works of art can ever be objective.”
A common sentiment. But I’m not sure why one should believe it.
“What the lasting impact of a certain work does show, however, is consensus, which is worth something, to some people at least, but it’s not the same as objective quality.”
Again, a common position. But again, I don’t see why one should go that far.
My guess is this is because we don’t want to say that someone’s artistic likes or dislikes are possibly incorrect in some sense, which seems sensible. But I don’t see why we cannot hold that there may be objective standards of art (whatever those may be) and also hold that some people dislike good art and some people like bad art.
What’s so bad about that position? I know it’s not popular, but it doesn’t seem wrong either.
An example, I love to sit down and occasionally watch my worn out DVD of Maximum Overdrive, the Stephen King directed horror movie about possessed semi-trucks. It’s a horrible movie. But I love it! I think it’s artistically bad in just about every way. And it doesn’t seem to me that I have to justify my value judgment by claiming that I’ve assigned “good” to this movie.
Moreover, my suggestion that lasting works of art may be a sign of some objective content makes sense of this. It would be mere and mass coincidence if so many people just happened to find the same value in something.
It’s hard to write briefly on this subject. I’m not trying to pick a fight. It just seems to me that this “all artistic value judgements are relative” goes too far. I think it’s wrong in some way.
Well said, Golgo!
James, I think you simply disagree with my basic thesis, and that’s okay.
And yes, I do believe that EVERYTHING is relative. But I don’t want to fuel a neverending back-and-forth argument, so let’s just agree to disagree since we both see this in our own (subjective) terms. 🙂
Fair enough. And yes, if you truly take that to be your thesis, I definitely do disagree.
However, I still don’t see how you can hold that AND say “there are certain standards of awfulness that cannot be denied.”
>However, I still don’t see how you can hold that AND say “there are certain standards of awfulness that cannot be denied.”
But James, don’t you see? THAT’S MY SUBJECTIVE OPINION!!!! The things that I think are “undeniably awful” I guarantee you other people think they are just plain terrific. Here’s an example: Childhood beauty pageants–I think they are disgraceful, dangerous, and disgusting; but there are thousands of people who build their lives around those things and think it’s a beautiful thing to have those kids dancing around with fake teeth and horrible little costumes competing for some vapid “crown.” To me, they are objectively horrible–but I’m wise enough to know that NOTHING is objective–and that my view doesn’t cancel out someone else’s view who loves it–like the “pageant mom” who has a passion for it.
Everything is relative. Even time.
I think I see quite well. But, again, you’re saying more than you can OR you’re using words in ways different from their usual meaning.
To say “I see X as objective” and then say “But that’s just my subjective opinion,” is to seriously denude what “objective” means in the first claim. For example, if I say “Y is true” and then say “But of course there’s no such thing as truth,” then my first claim is really nonsense. I haven’t really said anything.
So, if “everything is relative” means merely “everybody sees everything from their own perspective” this is obviously true.
But if you mean by “everything is relative” that “there’s no such thing as objectivity” then you’ve gone too far for the second claim makes the first claim nonsense.
When it comes to ART, I’m not sure there is such a thing as objectivity. Hence the thesis of this article.
[…] It’s too late to enter the contest now, but it’s not too late to discover Fultz’s unique heroic fiction, which Barnes & Noble calls “flawless epic fantasy.” You can try some of John’s exciting stories right here at Black Gate, including “When the Glimmer Faire Came to the City of the Lonely Eye,” which appeared as part of the Black Gate Online Fiction line, or the three stories that appeared in our print version: “Oblivion Is the Sweetest Wine”(BG 12); “Return of the Quill” (BG 13); and “The Vintages of Dream” (BG 15). And you can read more about John’s philosophy of fantasy in his recent article, “One Man’s Trash…” […]