Meaningless Statements

March 1, 2015 at 9:08 pm (Uncategorized)

There are two things I’m not a fan of: meaningless statements and beating around the bush. When I was an undergrad, I had a psych professor who gave the following advice to prospective grad school applicants: “Don’t ever write ‘I want to help people’ on your SOP. As opposed to what? All those people that want to hurt people? It’s a meaningless statement and doesn’t tell us anything.”

In the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, there’s an interview with agent Jennifer Joel. The magazine, in hyping the article, promised to tell you, among other things, “what writers should really want out of publishing.” Most of the article centered around her experiences as an agent but when asked what she would like writers to know in advance of their query, she states,

Writers need to understand the distinction between wanting to be published and what they really want. Publication is a means to an end. And the end is being read. If you’re looking to get credit, there are easier ways to get credit. But if you feel genuinely that you could make a promise to a reader, and that what you have to say is worth somebody you’ve never met and may have nothing in common with spending ten hours of their time on, that’s the goal.

Unfortunately, this is a meaningless statement. Okay, sure, there are lots of writers that want the validation that comes with publishing, a physical product that, in a results-based society, says that you’ve managed to do something. The literary world, with its often sharp distinctions between published writers and aspiring ones,  is no exception to this. Still, how many writers would be ecstatic to publish a book that never sold a single copy? Obviously when someone says “I want to be published” they mean “I want to be read.”

The problem comes in with the differing definitions of what “I want to be read” means. This is where the beating around the bush comes in. What’s actually being said here is that writers should want to be read by lots of people, i.e. they should want to have mass appeal. They should want to sell a book that will make it on to the bestseller list. For a lot of writers, though, it’s all about wanting to share a certain inner vision. If you get too audience-oriented in your writing, if you let the “what will sell” question dictate too much of the process, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself why you aren’t working as a technical writer or a journalist. Obviously, if you’re pursuing a highly competitive career with little to no financial certainty, it’s because you have something that you want to get out, something operating at a level beyond what’s pragmatic. Certainly, all writers should aspire to the universal, but there is a difference between the universality of a work and the popularity of a work, and at times, they may be very much at odds.

This is what I mean by beating around the bush. There’s a lot of beating around the bush in the lit world, and maybe I notice it more coming from a background in philosophy where the emphasis is on clarity of communication. Still, too much subtlety, too much obfuscation, not only makes the statements appear meaningless (as in the distinction between wanting to be published and wanting to be read) but it makes them actually meaningless. Why? Because in order to decipher them, you have to know what the author is referring to in the first place. If I didn’t already know that agents and publishers often get flustered by being hit with queries for great ideas that “won’t sell” (or, more likely, will be a niche market that won’t produce the numbers that publishing houses require) then I’d probably read such a statement and dismiss it as bloviating. In other words, it only makes sense if I already know this. However, if I have to already know something to understand a given piece of advice, why bother saying it in the first place?