Art for art’s sake; English for god’s sake

Chris James
Chris James

Should fiction writing be art, entertainment, both, or neither of those things?

Let’s take a quick look at a few other branches of the arts to compare the basic requirements. A painter cannot create art unless she knows how to mix the colours on her palette. A photographer cannot create art unless he understands the relationship between aperture and shutter speed. A potter cannot create art unless she understands the malleability of the clay and the speed the wheel needs to turn. All of these requirements are basics, before any issue of imagination, creativity, skill or talent can be considered.

Writers have just one basic, raw material: the English language.

After nearly four years of looking at self-published books, I’m still amazed at the titles out there where the authors have not learned how to use the raw material. I’ve seen one independently published book with a typographical error in the actual title. When I contacted the author to point this out, they replied in such a way which confirmed they did not know how to use the apostrophe.

Many more books betray similar problems. Often the blurb contains clichéd tautologies and circumlocutions which are painful on the eye, and the first few pages usually follow a pattern of verbosity, typographical errors and non-standard usages of English. The story inside may be excellent, with an original plot and believable characters; but without the storyteller having first learned to use the raw material, the colours are weak, the subject out of focus, and the vase uneven.

Like the painter, photographer and potter, the writer cannot hope to create art without first learning how to use the raw material. I believe the root of the problem lies in the vast differences between spoken and written English. All of us make our meaning plain when we speak English, because we can rely on tone, emphasis, and familiarity with the listener (either personal or cultural). However, written English in a global marketplace loses all of that. If I write: “Thanks a lot!” do I mean: “Thank you very much!” or, “Screw you!”? When I say it, my listener will be in no doubt what I mean; but when I write it, the meaning is not so clear.

Many authors seem to believe it is enough to write how they speak, as though their book is no more than a transcribed conversation of a story they told their friend over a drink. Such writing cannot hope to draw in and entertain a disinterested reader, let alone qualify as some kind of art. Moreover, basic English grammar mistakes which such writing will inevitably include cause a fundamental breakdown of trust between author and audience. If the reader has to go back over a sentence to make sure the mistake is the author’s and not theirs, what does this say about the rest of the author’s English ability? Quite rightly, the reader must then expect further errors in the text, on which they are more likely to concentrate over the actual story.

Some readers may not notice mistakes, some readers may be more forgiving than others, and some readers will see every single error jump off the page and slap them in the face. Authors (especially Indie), however, try to hide behind the excuse that, as they are producing ‘art’, they can break accepted English norms. This excuse is both misguided and disingenuous. A missing apostrophe is not art, it is a mistake; a pronoun in the wrong case is not art, it is a mistake; a homophone misspelling (there for their, etc) is not art, it is a mistake. And so on.

I began writing fiction ten years ago, and to prepare I bought a dozen books on the English language and, er, how to write fiction. Even though (or perhaps because) I was already a qualified English teacher, I suspected fiction writing may have its own, specific English requirements. Ten years and 320,000 published words later, the more I think I know, the more I realise there is still to learn. To come across published work which makes almost every basic grammar mistake, and breaks many commonly accepted standards of fiction writing, is remarkable. But when the author concerned then claims that what they have written is ‘art’, it becomes a lost cause.

I like to assume that every writer wants to produce their best work. We all look for the erudite turn of phrase, the clever metaphor, the unexpected simile. We should all be trying to make the writing read as smoothly as possibly, as though, to the reader, the writer isn’t even there. But even then, the writer will not know exactly what turns each reader on. Thus, even with a good knowledge of English, authors still have to work hard trying to find a magical combination of character, plot, dialogue and exposition to elevate their story to a special place. But that can’t happen without a good command of the raw material.

I don’t know who said it, but it’s still true: To successfully break the rules, you first have to learn them.

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

33 thoughts on “Art for art’s sake; English for god’s sake”

  1. I hear what you’re saying, Chris. I don’t know how many newbies I’ve run across who have claimed artistic license for what were clearly mistakes. Sorry, guys — first you need to demonstrate that you know the rules. Only then can you get away with breaking them.

    1. Thanks, Lynne. It really is just common sense to learn the basics before going public.

  2. Amen, Chris. As I always say, the words we write are meant to lead the reader smoothly through the story, and if the reader has to stop and scratch his head and re-read a sentence to figure out what we’re saying, we’re not doing a very good job of it. Anyone who uses the excuse of “making art” to throw thumbtacks in the roadway of their story is deluding themselves. Too many of those kind of speedbumps and the readers will turn off at the next exit and find another road to take them on their journey.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. The thing is, we’re all readers too. Our favourite books are where the author got everything just right – and that’s what we should try to do as well

  3. Beautifully done! I’m one of those people who has her face slapped by errors on the page. Another thing that is bothersome (a subject for another column) is the overuse of words that are very popular at this point in time. I do wish writers would realize that “awesome” and “amazing”, along with a handful of other terms, will not be in vogue in twenty years’ time. Overused, these words are going to turn off the next generation of readers because of their constant usage.

    1. Thank you, K.R. That’s the double-edged sword of the cliche: good for communicating a meaning simply, but when everyone does it, it loses meaning quickly.

  4. I really enjoyed this article, Chris, but I’m going to respond from a slightly different tack. Is it possible that we are the last generation actually /taught/ to know and use the rules of English?

    I have nephews and nieces, all in their late 20’s and early 30’s. All of them are bright, articulate young people with university educations. But. When it comes to writing English, most don’t do a very good job of it – at least by my standards. Amongst their peers however, they’re doing very well.

    Are the standards dropping?

    1. That’s a question of perspective, I think. As we get older, we should become more precise in explaining ourselves. To decide whether standards are dropping objectively is tricky because we don’t stay in the same place…

  5. I always say learn the rules so that when you break them you do so with awareness and intent. I’m still learning the rules after ten years, too. It never stops, or shouldn’t.

    1. I’m reminded of my favourite author quote: at the end of his life, Wells was reported to have said: “Some day, I shall write a REAL book.” I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a fine quote to keep in mind.

  6. Very good points. Many indie authors were not English majors and are fuzzy on the rules. This is where a good editor comes in. Not only will a competent editor bring your work up to snuff, but will teach you some of what you need to know for future work. If a project is worth doing, it’s worth doing as well as it can be done, so expert assistance is beneficial, even if it increases your cost. Consider it an investment.

    1. You don’t have to be an English major. Most highly successful authors aren’t. I’d say your best profession to be a best seller is to be a doctor or lawyer., actually.

    2. I’ll add a disclaimer here which wasn’t included in the article: I left school aged 16 having passed no exams. I retrained as an English teacher at 31 and have been working with the language full-time since then (16 years). Overall, I’d say a good academic education when young likely could help, but there’s nothing to stop an author self-studying.

  7. Honey, thank you for this post. I don’t know if I said it first about those rules, but I do know I’ve said it, again and again. And with all due respect, to aspiring indies, it isn’t about being an English major and it isn’t about the sense that if you decide to go indie, it means, from a professional standpoint, “You’re not the boss of me!” It’s just about the willingness to learn your craft and make your book the best it can be. I can certainly teach craft, but I can’t teach talent, and I can’t help anyone who thinks they know it all..Minor rant of veteran editor…over and out,,,,.

  8. Bravo, Sir James, Bravo. 🙂

    I’ve read very few indie books that didn’t have a reasonable story as its foundation. Many it feels like the author is at least a passably good storyteller. Lack of skill with their raw materials is almost always where a book that doesn’t measure up falls apart.

    1. Thank you, Al; the problem, of course, it that the author needs to be aware of this, and needs to keep an open mind of how they might improve their English ability.

  9. Well…. many writers use other languages, of course. But I continue to wonder why people spend so much time slagging other indie writers. You don’t see inferior athletes on TV, you don’t see profiles on failed businessmen… but for some reason writers don’t mind continually talking about how sh*tty other writers are. And I just don’t think it’s a good idea. People keep saying they’re worried about indie “stigma”. (I’m not, but you still hear it a lot.) And then keep publishing things about how all those indie writers suck.
    I just don’t understand it. And think it’s a WAY bad idea.

    1. Sorry… I don’t mean to wet-blanket somebody else’s post. But I feel very strongly about this: that dissing other writers, especially indie writers as a category, comes back to bite you in the ass.
      Few would confuse me with a sweetness and positive vibes pollyanna, but I really think indie writers should give some serious thought to the idea that being negative about spreading negativism like this. You don’t make yourself look better by dumping on others–just drag down the whole pile of crabs.
      There is plenty to be positive about, more all the time. Read this link and consider accentuating the positive.

  10. I agree entirely with the intent of the post but will acknowledge that my own grammar and punctuation are inconsistent therefore I am probably more tolerant than most of imperfections in others. That said, it amused me to find several errors of punctuation among some of the righteous comments.

    1. One thing I’ve noticed, Paul, is how often those who spend a lot of time and energy denigrating the works of other writers have books out there full of mistakes and malformed style. I think your tolerance is a good policy.

    2. Thanks for dropping by, Paul. I also try to be an “understanding” reader, but I think the key difference is the filthy lucre: if an author is asking for money from a stranger, they must deliver a certain basic quality of product. With the artistic comparisons I made, the buyer can judge that at once, but with a book it may not become clear until after payment.

      1. Since I’m not really a writer or at least not an author by any reasonable definition I’m looking at this as a reader. I agree with what Chris just said, that charging for a product changes the equation. Or at least it does for me. I’m not expecting a blog post and certainly not blog comments to meet the same standards as I’d expect in a book an author is looking to me and other readers to pay for.

        But Lin’s comments have me really confused. Isn’t IU largely about helping indie authors and those who are working towards becoming authors? Shouldn’t part of that be pointing out potential problems that others have had to help guide the newbie and possibly point the already publishing author to areas where they might improve?

        I don’t see this post as “slagging other indie writers” except for those writers to which it applies. Even then, I’m not sure slagging is the term I’d use. Maybe coaching. I think IU ignoring this as an issue with some indie books would make us remiss in fulfilling our mission, at least as I see it. (Although I don’t perceive the percentages with the issues Chris discussed as being the majority of indie books and some spokespersons for trad-pubs do, it is a non-trivial percentage.)

        Then the most recent comment, that those who “spend a lot of time and energy denigrating the works of others” have “have books out there full of mistakes and malformed style” sounds like doing exactly what was objected to in the first comments. Slagging a group of authors. Other than the attitude, at least as I perceived it of the messages being different (Chris’ to help, Lin, WTH knows, but not to help that I can see), I’m not seeing the difference.

        1. I probably shouldn’t say more on this. But maybe it’s an important enough distinction. I’m not sure what coaching and help is being offered anywhere, but there is a big difference between saying “That writer sucks” and “Indie writers don’t know what they’re doing”. All those books out there that suck, so many writers not doing what they’re doing…
          I think saying that not publishing a lot of negative commentary on indie writers is a good idea is worth it, and worth thinking about. And I think the idea that those who paint their fellow writers as generally competent tend to be those who aren’t that good at it themselves has a lot to do with that. You don’t see the best-sellers and Pulitzer winners putting other writers down, do you? What we see all the time is wannabes decrying the state of non-gatekept writing. And I think it’s a bad idea to do so, especially is worried about “stigma”. That’s my coaching… the advice to refrain from putting down other independent writers as a group. As I has said over and over, it doesn’t help anything to concentrate on other writers’ shortcomings or try to best them as competitors. What helps is concentrating on one’s own work. We’ve seen a lot of attempts to draw lines and circles of exclusion and superior/inferior on the indie writing population and I’m suggesting that people consider not doing that.

          1. Lin,
            My philosophy is that anyone can write and EVERYONE can write better. I think the times have changed, and what people used to have to learn before picking up a pen we now may learn on the fly. That means mistakes will be made. I don’t think Chris is saying indies are inferior, but that we are responsible ourselves for getting through that learning curve and making the commitment to improve our craft. A pep talk helps some folks, a little tough love helps others. 🙂

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