The Importance of a Critical Community

I admit it:  I despise wannabe writers.

Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria.  I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind).  Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs.  They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.

The wannabe is far less circumspect.  These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community.  They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz).  That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point.  Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed).  They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously.  God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.

The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes.  If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.

Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum.  Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life.  Juvenilia.  Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull.  Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent.  Some are clearly cries for help:  look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands meI need affirmation

There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).

I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true.  The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption.  The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).

One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work.  Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days.  These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops.  By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.

But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value.  And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required.  With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.

And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us.  I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback.  Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude.   If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage.  You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.

Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes.  They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone.  Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls.  They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise.  Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).

I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset:  recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption.  Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you.  Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.

Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?


  1. mikecane

    Once again, Cliff, there you go.

    If it’s any consolation, I read today that many of the young are giving up blogging because — gasp! — it’s like *real work*. Maybe they’ll get that idea about *writing* too.

    It’d do my heart good to see NaNoWriMo drop dead one day.

  2. Cliff Burns

    Yes, indeed: and the biggest backers of National Novel Writing Month are those who see it as an “excuse” to start that novel they’ve so longed to write. Except, of course, real writers need no excuse to write, and work (at least in my case) on the average of 360 days of the year, year in and year out. You wanna be an author, kids, be prepared to pay the fucking price…

  3. driftlessareareview

    NaNoWriMo … ugh, blecch! About the only good use for that is improving one’s typing skills, aka, being the next Kevin J. Anderson.

    Alexander Theroux had a great quote about writing, saying something like, if you worked out how many hours he worked on his novel vs. the print run, he said he earned less than someone working at Burger King. Then again, Theroux is an uncompromising artist, not a hack willing to bend for whatever whim the publisher has about “moving units.” If only all writers, wannabes and professions, had such rigorous scruples. “Darconville’s Cat” will remain a novel of the ages, while those vampire romance whatever, Part III, will go down as swill and dreck forgotten and remaindered.

    For writing, the price is high, but the reward is great. Like most things in life, but the light bulb of Fame(TM) attracts a lot of wannabes.

  4. Julie

    Cliff, do you know of any “serious” literary blogs that are promoting polished, talented writers? I agree it is overwhelming trying to sort out the dreck. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore the online space and stick to books just because it’s exhausting to sort through so much crap.

  5. Cliff Burns

    Julie: I think that on-line critical community is still developing. There are places like Blogcritics and Book Ninja and Bookslut; LibraryThing is a fun group to join, if you’re looking for a diverse community of readers; check out some of the names on my blogroll (some very smart people to be found there). Jeez, what else? I like to drop by BookForum and The Guardian (U.K.) site and one of my pals just turned me on to Mumpsimus.

    If you’re looking for an on-line site featuring tons of free fiction of all types, have a look at

    We need to spread the word about the quality resources and review sites to be found in cyberspace; encourage readers who might otherwise be turned off by all the “dreck”. I’m with you: there are pearls to be found in that pile of dung…but it can be a messy, unpleasant job finding them. Hopefully those sites I’ve just mentioned will help you out a bit.

  6. driftlessareareview

    Words of wisdom from the dearly departed William Tenn:

    Re: the science fiction genre: He deplored “the idiocies and the bad writing in it, the cliquishness, the cultishness,” which he said “don’t really belong in an adult form.” (from the NY Times obit)

  7. Julie

    Thanks for all the sources! I also found and like – a site devoted to women’s literary fiction from around the world. These are not your NYT bestselling authors, but I’ve made some great discoveries.

  8. Mike Cane

    I’d also suggest Smashwords. There are things actually worth buying there. I could give you my list except goddammed Mark Coker hasn’t yet added the bit where I can *share* my Library list.

    Anyway, check it out, Cliff. Pros are waking up.

    Declan Burke proposing a writer co-op:

    And writer Christopher Fowler has awakened finally:

    And Warren Ellis has done his experiment (which will grow hugely when the iPad is out there):

  9. Pingback: iPad Links: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 « Mike Cane's iPad Test
  10. Richard Herley

    Cliff, I posted my stuff at Smashwords and it’s densely populated with garbage. 10,000 titles and growing by the minute. But that doesn’t matter; even if your work is on sale in a bricks-and-mortar store it’s surrounded by books irrelevant to your would-be reader.

    The nice thing about Smashwords is the sampling feature. That, and the fact that there’s a remote chance of getting a few pennies for your work.

    About criticism. We need a central site, or at least a central directory of sites.

    One more thing — do you know about It’s run by a very nice guy in Chicago called Matt McClintock. Last time I corresponded with him, the whole thing was running on a Mac Mini in one of his closets. That’s how powerful electronic distribution has become.

  11. Cliff Burns

    Your point re: virtual and real world book stores is a good one: there are only a very small percentage of books produced by traditional publishers that interest me in the slightest. There are various small presses that are releasing far more literate, ground-breaking and electrifying prose than anything seen in the “mainstream” today. I browse a “bricks and mortar” book store and I see a lot of crap: media tie-ins, vampire romance novels (a particularly revolting sub-stratum), zombie books, fictionalized memoirs…if I’m very, very lucky I might find a Vollmann or Auster novel dumped in the bargain bin, reduced by 75%.

    Thanks for dropping by my joint—your essay on “Authorship in the Information Age” should be required reading for writers, established or aspiring…

  12. driftlessareareview

    Another criticism site friendly to the self-published / indie / appropriate nomenclature is the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography:

    I also review self-published works should anyone want to send a review copy my way. As long as the writing is good, the story compelling, etc., I’ll read it, I don’t care who or what organ publishes it.

  13. Diane

    I know people are angry with Amazon but I love my Kindle and do most of my reading on it. Their new system for indies sounds good to me but, what do I know. I can’t even tell a joke let alone write a book. You might want to take a look at what they are offering for authors now. Kindle people read more than average and many love indie books.

    I have a question about Early Reader books. I have been getting quite a few from and because I try to review what I read just so I remember which author’s books I enjoyed. It’s very hard when an author sends you a book and you don’t like it. What should I do? I try not to get books in genre’ I don’t like: horror, quests, young adult books, but I still get books I can’t stand. If it’s in print, they couldn’t change it if they wanted to, so what should I do? E-mail them and tell them I won’t be posting a review because it’s not my kind of book? Try to offer some constructive criticism? I am just a reader after all, and hardly qualified to edit.

    My other complaint is about Young Adult books. No wonder kids aren’t reading much. They seem to be aimed at ten year olds and written by them as well. Hardly who I would call a young adult.

  14. Cliff Burns

    If someone offered me one of them new-fangled iPads, I sure wouldn’t turn one down. And when the prices of these gadgets drop, I think the effects on physical book sales will be fascinating to behold. Just keep people reading, that’s all I ask. I don’t want to be obsolete in my own lifetime…

  15. Diane

    Ipads are just overgrown iphones. They are back lit so reading on one will make your eyes bleed just like reading for any amount of time on any other computer monitor. Too big to put in your pocket or purse. It’s just a net book without a keypad. Blech! Really don’t know why anyone thinks they have anything to do with books.

  16. Cliff Burns

    This Grasshopper still has much to learn about these gadgets and such. I’m still stuck in the era of “dead tree editions” (Peter Watts’ term). Once e-readers start selling for under fifty bucks, I’ll give ’em a look…

  17. Diane

    The term I have heard most often is DTB as in dead tree books. Just want to make sure you know all the new abbreviations. Really, get someone to show you their Kindle. The e-ink really is like reading a paperback except you can carry hundreds of books, a couple good dictionarys, your PDF’s and some music all in one paperback sized 10 Oz. package. Check out all the e-books you could be downloading into it from free e-book week.

  18. Cliff Burns

    Borrowing a Kindle from somebody is akin to asking for the loan of a kidney but I’ll ask around. Not as many booting around north of the border in Canada as yet. Bit it’s only a matter of time…

  19. Diane

    Yeah, there are other readers but I am just so darn happy with my Kindle, I am kind of a pusher. Watch this spot. I am sure people in Canada will start showing up too.

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