Monday, March 06, 2006

Fruitless search for excellence

The last good book I read was William Gibson's Pattern Recognition; or re-read it, rather, as I was sufficiently impressed with the first chapter to custom-order the hardback at great expense.

There are things to criticize about the book, objectively - foremost the fact that it's a rehash of an old Gibson idea, the specialist woman hired by a rich man to find the source of mysterious works - but then I do not find much usefulness in applying objective measurement to art.

The book is centered around the precursor to viral marketing (which, to the best of my recollection, was not big in 2001 when Pattern Recognition was written, and has reliably failed to become as major a force in advertising as many, including Gibson, hoped). The protagonist is sent on her journey by one Hubertus Bigend, whose one redeeming quality is that he is completely unaware of how funny his name is, and who sees fit to explain why he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery. He is not, you see, searching for the next big thing, he is not after more money; he is after excellence.

I can relate. As a professional, creating something approaching art, I am astounded by the amount of crap produced by my colleagues (whether journalists, translators, or on occasion technical writers). As a consumer, I am no less flabbergasted by the deficit of good literature.

If you go into a bookshop today - and there are some fairly comprehensive in Tallinn, though not as gravitational as Waterstone's - you will see rack upon rack of two things: formulaic thrillers and tedious novels. Both of these can be made very well, in fact one of the films I really enjoyed in recent times was Wonderboys with Michael Douglas and Robert Downey, Jr; it is a movie about writers and their novels, and yet it is spectacular.

But look at a bookshelf and you will see nothing outstanding. I would not be so bold as to demand originality; I am, after all, a linguist, at least vaguely familiar with postmodernism despite my disdain for it, and I know that there are no more original plots to be had. If you can't be entirely original, then at least be fresh. (This applies to all art forms, in fact all creations where something besides pure function is relevant.)

There are, in my mind, two components to a writer's production: idea and craft. The reason why I have not written a book is that I do not have the patience, nor the experience, nor the skill to actually write out an entire story; but ideas, I have. And certainly there are writers out there whose main talent is the writing, who can compensate for the lack of plot or original details with their sheer skill.

And then there are people who go to book school and learn how to write standard fiction. So that's what they do. Write standard crime fiction. Or write standard relationship fiction.

I used to know a man who only ever read non-fiction. He refused to read anything else on principle. I didn't understand it then, but I'm beginning to now. I go to the bookstore today and I hope for the new Bill Bryson, who is hilarious and never has the problem of not being able to invent a funny story. Or I get the Ewan McGregor bike book. Or I get something that won a prize from the Guardian, and it did turn out to be a marvelous novel, but easy reading it was not.

All I want is pulp fiction that doesn't make me cringe. Is that so much to ask?

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