My daughter and I have both been rereading The Lord of the Rings recently, and, independently, came to the same conclusion: JRR Tolkein would never have been published today. Obviously, this would have been a tragedy of epic proportions, robbing the world of one of the best books ever written (and, by extension, three of the best movies ever made). But, if my experience in the literary realm these last months is any indication, it is absolutely true. And that begs the question – is writing an art or a science?
Now, any art does require basic training. In the visual arts, even artists who end up in the world of “modern art” have learned the basics: perspective, drawing, color theory, composition, etc. Once they know the rules, then they are free to break them. I like a more impressionistic style when I paint, but I know how to do realism, and that knowledge is what allows me to be more painterly and free in my expression.
Writing is, or, rather, should be, the same way. Of course you need to learn the basics, and you need to read extensively, and you need to know the basics of grammar. But honestly, have you ever seen those books on grammar? Do those couple of inches of paper actually make a good writer? And when they, whoever they are, change the grammar rules, do they send out a universal memo? Because apparently, there was some big grammar conference in 2000 and rules got changed, but I wasn’t invited. So now, the grammar police tell me, I am not supposed to make my name (which ends in an S) possessive with just an apostrophe, as I have done all my life (ie Jennings’ book), but now it should be an apostrophe followed by an S (ie Jennings’s book). Did you get this memo? Because I didn’t!
All of that is to say, I think basic grammar is great. We need periods, we need commas, we need quotation marks, and we need paragraphs. Love them! Reading would certainly be challenging without them. BUT… Is it a set-in-concrete imperative that we write in a different way than we, and everybody else, speaks? Certainly, if you are writing “literary fiction”, you should be writing in a literary style. But isn’t there a “literary fiction” genre precisely because there are other ways to write??? I mean, that seems to be the logical conclusion…
Let’s take Tolkein as an example. He throws all kinds of punctuation at a sentence, in ways that no self-respecting grammar policeman could allow. He loves colons, a point of puntuation that is somewhat out of favor these days, and sometimes uses more than one in a sentence, as here: (see that colon?!)
For a moment he might have paused to consider Gollum, a tiny figure sprawling on the ground: there perhaps lay the famished skeleton of some child of Men, its ragged garment still clinging to it, its long arms and legs almost bone-white and bone-thin: no flesh worth a peck.
A lot of his prose is written like this – can you imagine an agent, editor or publisher’s response? “You have some bad habits in your writing. Please resubmit when you have corrected your appalling sentence structure.” But had Tolkein fit his tale into the constraints of correct grammar, what would have been lost? The voice, the feel, of Middle Earth would be unalterably different than the Middle Earth we know. That changes writing from an art to a science, and sterilizes it.
I write the way I talk, and I “hear” the words in my head when I write them. I always have, and it’s interesting, because I am a visual, not an auditory, learner. I write blogs that way, and emails, and letters, and novels. Since virtually no one speaks in a grammatically correct (per the grammar police) way, I suppose it is fair to say that my writing isn’t grammatically correct. And I do agree that typos and misspellings should be corrected (and I didn’t do as good a job as I should have done with Solomon’s Throne, and am working hard to make sure my upcoming books are better in that regard – and to correct the ebook version of Solomon’s Throne). But grammar… That’s another story. Particularly in dialogue – because again, who among us speaks that way?
I’m not trying to be difficult here. I know some people are grammar lovers, and can’t help pointing out bad grammar. I have a friend who recently admitted to editing library books (in pencil, thank God)! Bless your hearts, you can’t help it. I know. And I am certainly not saying I’m the next JRR Tolkein — I want to entertain readers. That’s it. I don’t want to be taught in college classes. But this question of voice is, I think, an important one, as we see what books are getting published by legacy publishers and the response to queries and all the other things we, as writers, see.
Indie publishing has the potential to bring true voices and artists back to books, in the way that indie music on ReverbNation has brought musicians out of the wilderness of auto-tuning. (Would Bob Dylan have been successful in recent years??) We can be who we are, and not try to fit our storytelling into a mold made by someone whose only concern is numbers. We all know that there are terrible books out there that’ve made a gazillion dollars, that agents and publishers follow trends instead of encouraging uniqueness, and that, if you’re not already famous, you probably won’t be publishing. But that brings freedom, doesn’t it? Freedom to say what we want to say, how we want to say it. Not everyone will like that. The grammar police will tell us that our sentences are too abrupt or our chapters are too short or we use too many colons (refer them to Tolkein — at least that’ll shut them up on colons!).
So what do you think about the future of books — will it be art, or science?