Writers who fake it

Hello friends, I’m coming full circle! My various frustrations with the literary world have led me to reprioritize this blog as a vehicle for my writing. It’s a bit ironic because I started it back in the summer of 2008, before I was published at all. Now fourteen years later, I can go back in time and tell that girl, sweltering in the Sacramento Valley heat and having her first experience with stifling wildfire smoke, that being published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

I’m also trying to complain less. Recently I’ve become obsessed with my own petty frustrations, which is really not a good look for a writer. For every writer who feels underappreciated, there’s one who’s not getting published at all. And for every writer not getting published at all, there’s ten who can’t even find the time to write because their lives are so miserable. So either you need to have sympathy for all writers of your skill level who aren’t appreciated, or you need to think you are a unique, special genius who uniquely deserves success. Sometimes I do flirt with the latter belief, but I actually think it’s not true. Back in 2008 when I started this blog I definitely felt like a unique special genius. And I had hopes until quite recently that I was a unique special genius, but now I don’t even know if I believe in unique special genius anymore: I know too much about how literary reputations are constructed.

I think the final nail in the coffin for my own sense of specialness was my year-long search for a literary agent in 2020. It just confirmed to me, again and again, that agents didn’t see my work as special or unmissable. What’s weird is at the exact same time, I developed the unshakeable feeling that my work was better than most of what the agents _do_ consider special and unmissable. 

What characterizes my work is integrity—I say what I’m saying, and I don’t shy away from its implications—and integrity is a moral, rather than aesthetic choice. Most artists, to my eyes, are doomed from the get-go by their lack of integrity. Nothing they write can possibly be good. And people who have integrity in their work and who have gained any traction in traditional publishing are relatively rare, but at the same time it’s actually a very easy thing to do. It’s a choice you can make one day, to simply write as honestly as you can.

So I don’t really see making that choice, which is my main strength, as being a sign of any unique talents or powers. To me, it’s something anyone could do, if they wanted, and I’m surprised more people don’t. To make that choice is such a simple short-cut to creating good work, particularly in non-fiction and narrative fiction, that it’s almost a no-brainer. Of course, the work is less likely to be published, but I think most people genuinely want to write something they can be proud of, rather than just something that goes on the shelves.

For many artists, their lack of integrity comes out at the level of the line. They pretend to a sense of rhythm they don’t have. They read lyrical books, and then they use tricks to create that same poetic quality, but since they’re not actually ‘hearing’ the music, it comes out atonal and bad. I don’t know what it’s like to be that kind of writer, but I have to imagine that on some level they know their prose isn’t right, despite all the praise they get. And I think if you’re straining and introducing false effects at the level of the line, the story as a whole won’t be honest, whereas it’s more than possible (although rare) to have clunky or poorly-written prose that’s powerful and honest (see everyone’s favorite example, Theodore Dreiser).

It’s kind of nice for me that people have forgotten or have never heard of artistic integrity, because it really reduces the competition, but it’s also quite sad that people make choices which doom from the get-go their chances of achieving the lasting fame and impact they seem to deeply desire.

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Okay I don’t know the exact right way to do this, but since I’ve stopped using Twitter, I need somewhere else to put my random thoughts. I’ve been wondering if Leni’s generation (Z+1) is going to think, after growing up w phone and social media obsessed parents, are gonna think those things are just totally uncool, kind of like how the kids of Gen X think being cynical and disengaged is uncool.  

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3 thoughts on “Writers who fake it

  1. Jenny Burman

    Elena Ferrante and Dostoevsky — two writers whose style is basically no style. You can see it even in translation, and their work is what I’d call honest and thus beautiful.

    1. Naomi Kanakia

      It’s true! It’s amazing how much of that comes through even in translation. Although funnily enough Nabokov HATED Dostoyevsky and thought he was extremely dishonest (citing the equivalence drawn btwn Sonia and Raskolnikov in one line, where Dostoyevsky writes about “the murderer and the whore”. Nabokov is like what’s this nonsense, the two characters are completely different. Their crimes are totally dissimilar. I disagree w his assessment that Dostoyevsky is dishonest though. He was definitely tapping into something real

      1. Jenny Burman

        “The murderer and the whore” — not exactly subtle, but I agree it’s not dishonest. I think it’s more like the writer grabbing you by the lapels.

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