There’s No Writer Better Than You

There’s no objective ranking of writers, despite that it subjectively feels as if there is. I’ve probably had three conversations in the last nine months or so about this. I have strong feelings about it, to the point that I’ve probably come across way too strong. But it’s true.

We all like what we like, of course, and don’t like what we don’t, and sometimes we even have reasons for that. I often pick on Neal Stephenson, not that he would give a shit, because I really don’t enjoy his writing and the people who do REALLY do, and I enjoy poking them. He lumbers. There’s action in his books, of course, but reading his plots is like watching a slow-motion recording of baseball pitcher in windup. It’s boring. Plus, it makes me think he’s the kind of guy who’s so proud of the delicious strike he’s about to deliver that he wants to make sure you see, in laborious detail, just how amazing he is. Blech

Those readers blown away by the end result of his pitches will feel that four hundred pages of windup was totally worth it. Me, I got better things to do and plenty of other things to read, and at this point there’s pretty much nothing anyone can say that would make me want to try another of his lumbering tomes.

So what, you ask? Just because I don’t like his stories, you say, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate his writing ability. And that’s true. I can, especially versus someone like Stephenie Meyer. But then, as popular as Stephenson is, the Twilight series has pretty much blown him away, commercially. It even spawned a whole second series that ALSO blew him away — 50 Shades started its career as Twilight fan fiction.

I know people who enjoyed both, and none of them ever said the writing was good. But the books delivered something folks enjoyed all the same. LOTS of folks. Millions and millions. So who’s the “better” writer? Any criteria we choose will inevitably be a reflection of our own tastes. People who enjoy Stephenson’s bloated sacs will say they’re clearly better than Meyer’s ramshackle, and vice versa.

The truth is, we don’t expect the same things from different books. What I want when I open a pulpy thriller is different than when I open a gay erotic romance, or the latest Hugo Award winner. Fiction, as a mode of expression, is as diverse as the people who make it.

I’m actually not saying everything is relative, although I’m sure it sounds like it — just that what we mean, the measure we are ranking, when we say someone is “better” than someone else isn’t consistent. It’s a mental hodgepodge of factors. And even if we were to construct an average of everyone’s hodgepodge and use that to rank writers, it would still be practically meaningless because no one is the average case. The resulting ranking would be different than yours, certainly raising some folks you hated and lowering others you loved, and so would have no practical benefit to anyone, except as a show in itself, a drama: reality TV, clickbait, one big beauty pageant for bored suburbanites to argue about. Double blech.

But on top of its practical uselessness, such ranking would be objective bullshit as well because it would omit most of the fiction written. This point is a little harder to grasp because it requires a knowledge of stats, so I’ll start with an example. Imagine a diagnostic test for a disease with an incidence in the population of 1/10,000. This test is 99% accurate, and you get a positive result. What is the likelihood you actually have the disease?

About 1%. Even though the test is 99% accurate, the low base incidence means relatively few people have the disease, and so many more do NOT. A 1% error rate, then — which seems really good — still means there are, in absolute terms, vastly more false positives than true positives, and so the odds you are a false positive is still pretty darn high. (Which is why you should always go to the doctor.)

The fiction market is not a random sample of all fiction, or all writers. It both directs and is directed by publishers, readers, and the market. Tastes fluctuate and only ever exist in individual subjective units called people. To illustrate this, I often use the example of Frank Herbert’s Dune, widely regarded by those subjective units as one of the best science fiction novels of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it was rejected 20-some times before it was published. Harry Potter was rejected a few times as well. Most people want to believe that given enough trials, the “objective quality” of a manuscript, like those, will eventually be recognized: by the agent, by the publisher, by the retailers, by book reviewers and thought-leaders in the industry, and finally by the reading public, who exist at the tail end of that chain.

But that just isn’t the case. Even if each of those actors had a very modest “error rate,” the cumulative effect would be that false negatives, in absolute number, would vastly outnumber true negatives. In other words, awesome books have been written in the last century that you’ve simply never seen — so many, in fact, that they could fill your reading hours for the rest of your life, if we could only unearth them. The situation has improved somewhat since Amazon created a market for independent authors, but that’s simply revealed a signal-to-noise problem (which was always there but which the publishers, as gatekeepers, artificially obscured with their subjective selection process).

The public beast is fickle, and a giant, and as it prances about, it raises one creator to the sky while trampling five more. Such is life — unfair, and uncaring in its unfairness. Objectively, there is no objective ranking of writers. None. Zero. And that means no one is “better” than you, although you will certainly (subjectively) experience that to be true, as I do. Unfortunately, it also means, objectively, you aren’t deserving of an audience — or indeed deserving of anything — no matter what you write.

And since there is no “proof” as powerful (or as meaningless) as a single salient example, I submit the case of Timothy Dexter. Born in 1748 to a poor working family in the British colony of Massachusetts, Dexter took to the fields around age 8 and so never received much of an education. By chance, he married a wealthy widow, whose friends liked to make fun of him for being a “plain-spoken man” — which is to say, a wide-mouthed asshole.

Tim had opinions on everything, usually bad, and the wealthy socialites he encountered through his marriage, being narrow-mouthed assholes, teased him with terrible business advice. They told him to ship coal to Newcastle, for example, which was a major coal producer. So he did. It arrived right about the time there was a coal miner’s strike, and he sold all his coal at a profit. They told him to ship winter gloves to the Caribbean islands. So he did, where he sold them at a profit to Asian sailors on their way to Siberia. He sold bed-warmers as molasses ladles, Bibles to missionaries, and invested foolishly in a near-worthless Continental currency — which expanded his fortune when, against everyone’s best predictions, the colonists won the Revolutionary War.

Dexter built a mansion, which later became a hotel, and filled the grounds with statues of great men of the age: George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and himself. But try as he might, he could never win the respect of the upper class, who found his arrogance and vulgar opinions distasteful. At one point, Dexter had faked his own death just to see who would show up at his funeral, and when he noted his wife wasn’t crying, revealed the hoax and took a cane to her.

We care because at the age of 50, after amassing a fortune, Timothy Dexter decided he would write a book. About himself.

A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress ran to a mere 8,000-and -some words, a short story by modern standards, and was nought but one long gripe: about the politicians, about the clergy, and about his wife (without whose fortune he would have stayed a very poor man). But the little book’s most notable quality, that for which it is remembered, was that through all 33,864 letters, there was not a single punctuation mark. No periods. No commas. Nada. And only irregular capitalization.

At first, Dexter paid for printing and handed the book out for free, just like any indie author today. But following the same ridiculous luck he’d experienced his entire life, the damned thing took off, and Timothy Dexter’s tiny monstrosity ran through eight separate printings, despite widespread criticism from the literati that the lack of punctuation was a farce. Dexter responded in the second edition by including an extra page of nothing but punctuation — 13 lines of it, in fact — along with instructions that his readers should “peper and solt” the text as they pleased.

In all the world, my friends, there is no writer “better” than you.

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