Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue

01/14/2013

Writing, Like Art, Is Very Subjective


Writing, like art, is subjective

Writing, like art, is subjective

Well of course it is — since writing is art — in this writers opinion.

I’m writing on this subject tonight because of a comment a friend and colleague wrote in response to a post (excerpt provided below) I posted on my Writers Welcome Blog yesterday:

“I guess I’m the eternal idealist because I feel the content (quality of, likability, timeliness, entertainment value, etc.) should drive the cost of books, in whatever format, and not just the manufacturing and distribution costs (or lack of) — which so many are using to justify why e-books should be cheaper than their  printed counterparts.” — John Austin

He responded and said something to the effect that I was referring to content being driven by subjective values like “likeability” “entertainment value” and he didn’t see how that was remotely possible because different people like and/or are entertained by different things.

I thought that the following very entertaining piece by Keli Goff in HuffPost would be of interest to him and many others as it delves more deeply into this subjective (?) subject:

Does Lena Dunham Prove Writers Are as Toxic as Investment Bankers?

Despite the romanticized images portrayed in film, television, and of course books, being a writer actually means spending most of your time doing one of six things: writing, thinking about what you want to write, thinking about what you actually have to write to make money, chasing payment for what you have written, agonizing over the fact that another writer is possibly being paid more than you are for his writing and, obsessing over whether that writer is more, or less, talented and deserving of said payment than you are.

This means that thanks to her multi-million dollar book advance, not to mention her hit television show Girls, (which just began its second season), Lena Dunham has driven plenty of writers to a level of resentment bordering on mania that makes Salieri, the mediocre composer driven to an insane asylum by the not-at-all mediocre talents of Mozart in the film Amadeus, look sane by comparison.

Even though writers and artists are generally thought of as the emotional and temperamental opposites of those who inhibit hyper competitive fields like professional sports, law or investment banking (which is so competitive studies have deemed it physically unhealthy), the truth is plenty of artists are even more competitive. After all, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a tennis player ranked number 10 in the world complain in interviews about how incredibly overrated that Roger Federer is. Of all of the lawyers I’ve met, I can’t think of one who’s talked my ear off about how insane it is that another attorney with celebrity clients is pulling in a ridiculously unfair hourly rate. Yet these kinds of conversations consume writers. I’ve had them with writer friends. They’ve had them with other friends. We’ve all had them with our agents, husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, or parents. And many have had even more of those conversations in the last year, and a lot of that has to do with the success of Lena Dunham.

A google search of “I hate Lena Dunham” now produces more than a million results, (summarized here) which is quite a lot for someone who entered the public consciousness less than a year ago. The question is why? I asked a mental health expert. Dr. Jeff Gardere, said in his experience professional jealousy among writers, and other people in the arts and entertainment can be more common than in other professions, because the same traits, and ego, that attract people to fields in which their work will be the center of attention are the same traits that drive someone to intense competitiveness that can manifest as professional jealousy. (Ouch. But, hey, this writer did ask.)

Now before the eye rolling and angry comments from my writer colleagues begin, I want to be clear: not every person who is a critic of Lena Dunham is jealous. But the level of vitriol she has inspired in some corners signals that there is more to the story than some simply not agreeing her talents are up there with Tolstoy — and Dunham is not the only writer to inspire such reaction.

When literary wunderkind Jonah Lehrer’s career imploded the undertone of glee with which some in the media seemed to be celebrating was palpable. For some it wasn’t just celebrating, but a sense of relief, like a baseball player learning that his teammate who was breaking records, while he was stuck hitting singles, had actually been using steroids. (At the height of the Lehrer scandal writer Jonathan Shainin tweeted: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice knows that he’s actually in the schadenfreude business.”)

Danielle Belton, a former print journalist who launched a successful career as a blogger before transitioning to television as head writer for the BET talk show Don’t Sleep, with T.J. Holmes said of professional jealousy among writers, “A lot of this stems from what measures a ‘good’ writer is really rather abstract… Writing isn’t like sports. It’s very subjective, like art.” Belton went on to note that because the definition of what constitutes great writing (and other art) is essentially indefinable, writers will always resent certain writers who receive more critical acclaim or financial success because no matter what others may say, that writer might consider his or her peer less talented than he is. To her point, even his competitors who loathe him (I’m looking at you Isiah Thomas) can’t say Michael Jordan had no talent. His professional record beating them speaks for itself. But there is some writer out there who is convinced Ernest Hemingway was a hack and Mark Twain was an amateur.

As a black woman who has written about diversity in the media and entertainment, I am certainly sensitive to legitimate criticism of Dunham’s work, particularly the lack of cast diversity in the first season of Girls. (Something Dunham herself appears to have discovered a newfound sensitivity about as well since she is attempting to remedy that this season.) But the most vocal criticism of Dunham has boiled down to this: Dunham is from a privileged background (she is) and the cast is comprised of other people from privileged backgrounds (they are.)

The thinking goes: privilege is the only reason she got a show in the first place. Oh and by the way her book advance is too big.

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2 Comments »

  1. Excellent writing today. Thank you so much for sharing it. I
    really enjoyed reading it very much. Have a wonderful day!

    Enjoy writing? Join Us Today -

    Writing Jobs – Writers Wanted

    Comment by Writing Jobs — 01/15/2013 @ 1:09 am | Reply

  2. Don’t get it. Have never “got it”. Hopefully will never get it.

    Another writer’s success does not diminish me. If anything, it demonstrates to me that “YES! That sort of success is still possible today!” It’s a reassurance. It’s positive reinforcement. Hey, if Person X can get millions of dollars for her writing, surely I can find a way to make the fraction of that I need for a comfortable living, right? ;)

    Some other writer doing well does not hurt me. Or you. Or any other writer. We’re all in competition for readers, sure. But we’re not directly competing in one on one matches. This isn’t tennis. Her millions are not being drained out of my bank account, or my potential earnings. Her success as a writer means nothing except that lots and lots and lots of people are still willing to pay money for books.

    Can’t feel bad about that one at all. ;)

    Comment by Kevin O. McLaughlin — 01/16/2013 @ 12:54 pm | Reply


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