Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bransford on The Question Writers Should Never Ask While Reading

Literary agent extraordinaire Nathan Bransford discusses on his blog the one question writers should never ask while reading. Excerpts:
The thing that makes me craziest is when people dismiss any book, especially bestsellers, using the words "trash," "terrible," or "suck" and its variants without further comment, or worse, when people say something along the lines of "well most published books suck anyway." My teeth are chattering at the thought. CH-CH-CH-CHAATTEERRIINNGGG...

And quod erat demonstrandum pro quo tempura I don't actually know Latin, the one question that aspiring writers should never ask themselves when reading a book is, "Do I like this?" ...

The real question aspiring writers should ask is not whether they liked a book, but whether they think the author accomplished what they set out to accomplish. ... If the author set out to write a cracking thriller did they write a cracking thriller? If they wanted to create beautiful prose and make us think deeper about ourselves, how well did they do that?

Once you start looking at an author's intent, you'll start to see where they succeeded and didn't succeed at what they were trying to accomplish. And you'll also start seeing that what most megabestsellers have in common is that the authors were phenomenal at delivering the thing(s) they set out to accomplish and at giving readers the experiences they wanted to give them. You'll start absorbing the positive attributes of books you might not even like all that much.
Read the whole thing. Here Bransford applies one of my favorite aphorisms, namely that intent is ultimately the thing. We can approach books in any number of ways, but until we understand what the author wanted to accomplish we’re missing the main point from the get-go.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
jakebouma)

11 comments:

Scattercat said...

I agree wholeheartedly, but that doesn't make the Twilight books suck any less. ;-)

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s a valid point up to a point. What the author intended is only a part of the equation. Did he achieve what he intended? He may believe he has but a reader brings his own variables along with him. My third novel is riddled with references to Samuel Beckett but if my reader has never read Beckett then the book will have to stand on fall on just the story.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

I just wish that Twilight had featured actual vampires rather than sparkly, lovelorn critters dubbed with the same name.

Loren Eaton said...

Jim,

Agreed. An author can't dash off something poorly written and say, "Well, the reader just has to understand my intent." They aren't mind readers; we have to do a good job communicating our intent, too.

Ben-M said...

I probably feel more strongly about it with respect to critiquers - a critique that says "I see what you were trying to do here but..." is always more helpful than "It's not my sort of story...".

This sheds another light on what Nathan's saying - not that consumers shouldn't ask the question, but that writers shouldn't. A critiquer is reading partly to help a writer, a writer is reading to better understand writing, and a consumer is reading to entertain themselves.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

I really liked that post of Nathan's. I've thought about it many times since he put it up awhile ago. I thin kit's important to understand intent. I agree with Scattercat, though...it doesn't make certain things suck any less. I won't name any specific books here. :)

Loren Eaton said...

Ben,

I think you nailed it there: Readers and writers are approaching a work with different things in mind. There's nothing wrong with looking for enjoyment in a work, but we who writer should be looking for something more.

Loren Eaton said...

Michelle,

Bransford would probably agree that there are a number of successful titles that are, er, less than excellent. He'd probably say the best thing to do is take what you can from them as a writer and leave the rest behind.

Scattercat said...

Or do something involving them and a behind, anyway.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I agree with Ben--the most salient point is that writers realize that there are many goals of writing, some of which they may not share.

That said, I also think a better question is non-authorial: what does this book actually accomplish? And what does this book fail to accomplish? (And always, is there a relationship between the two. A thriller, for instance, often can't accomplish the same things as a slice-of-life realist story because their goals are often mutually exclusive.)

Star Wars Episode I may accomplish Lucas's intent as well as Episode IV. It does not, however, accomplish the thing that makes it successful. Similarly, someone who attempts to make a Robin Hood movie but instead makes a slightly silly but deeply moving historical drama may have failed at his intent (to capture some aesthetic/historical essence of the Robin Hood myth) but hasn't necessarily failed at making an effective and worthwhile movie. It just succeeds at doing different things (historical drama, rich characterizations, and excellent atmosphere.)

Loren Eaton said...

Darn it, CR, I've got like next-to-no time left on this public library computer I'm using, and here I find this substantial comment.

[cracks knuckles for speed typing]

In short, I think you have a good point. Authoral intent isn't the only thing to look for. We also should be able to evaluate a work, and we can do that in any number of ways. I just think we need to start with understanding before we move on to evaluation. For example, I think the reader response folks have it wrong from the get-go when they insist that readers construct meaning in much the same way stargazers construct constellations. I'd argue that we discover it like someone digging for jewels.

Twenty-two seconds left and I'm off!