‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.’
It’s a quote from Oscar Wilde that has seen other iterations. If it makes you laugh, or grimace, or perhaps do both, then chances are you’re a writer.
Watching the statistics for the burgeoning self-published e-book market, I can’t help but wonder how many of these literary entrepreneurs have spent the day staring at their work seeing no symbols other than a dollar sign. In the rush to make a buck out of the new frontier, where the only gatekeeper is a bank account and access to a print-on-demand facility, is the focus on the art and craft of writing being lost?
It isn’t just an issue for self-publishing, of course. Those two aspects of writing — the art and the craft upon which it is based — have always sat uneasily side by side, dissing each other with genre aspersions, digging each other in the ribs with sales figures and literary awards. Legacy publishers are guilty of making available poorly edited, structurally unsound and otherwise poorly executed stories; copy editing is the most visible victim of decreasing investment in the finished product.
The situation is made even murkier by the general low regard for writers, and writing, within society. You published a book? You must be rich, now. You wrote a book? Wow, how hard can it be, then — Publish it yaself, didya? You wrote a book? You must be a snob, a geek, a layabout. No ticker-tape parade for you!
Arguably, of all the arts, writing is the one most accessible: the material requirements are low and the perception is that, to practise it, the skill set amounts to being able to hold a pen, or type, even one-fingered will do. We all have a story in us, we’re told; the understanding follows that we are all equally capable of telling that story through the written word. After all, most people in the western world write every day. They learnt it at school. How hard can it be? Yeah, I’ve always thought I’d knock out a book one day, when I get a spare moment …
Indeed, the craft can be learnt. Here’s a noun, here’s a verb; here’s where the commas go. Talk to anyone who’s read a slush pile, and you’ll hear how even those most basic of grammatical instructions can prove mysterious. Almost as mysterious as the professed writer who declares they do not read, or read only their favourite author, or read only one genre. I’m not feeling the love, there.
Which leads me to the art. I don’t consider myself to be particularly artful when it comes to stringing my words together. I don’t consider that I’m a great stylist. I’m aware of gaps in my literary education. But I love my words. I love changing them around to see what difference it makes. I love taking out the comma, and putting it back in again. I am, I think, a proficient craftsman — a wordsmith, if you will. But an artist? Hm. Grey areas and accusations of snobbery abound.
I’m not sure the art can be taught, although I suspect a voracious reading appetite matched to critical awareness is part of it; so, too, an ear for nuance and rhythm; a degree of pedantry might also help. Passion not just for storytelling but forlanguage: most definitely. No, I‘m really not sure that these things — this innate, even arcane, talent for using the right words in the right order — can be taught.
It’s the coming together of art and craft that makes a good book into a great book, and there’s no formula for it. It can’t be mechanised. It can’t be measured in sales figures, either. A technically sufficient, artfully deficient story can tap the zeitgeist and go gangbusters. The artist’s sculpted vision may languish. Go figure.
Of course, not all writers want to be artists — as long as their story is out there, they’re happy — and among those who don’t, money isn’t the only driving force. We write, and we seek publication — to have our stories made available to an audience, through whatever channel — for myriad reasons. Financial and critical success will fall where it will: that’s the mystique of the publishing world, the lottery element that stokes the desire of so many aspirants. Accepting our limitations and shaping our aspirations accordingly makes good sense, to me.
The thing is, regardless of what we want from our writing, the vocation deserves respect: if not from the broader community, at least from its practitioners. That respect begins with acknowledging the craft: learning the tools and the materials, finding a voice, making the finished product as good as it can be. Writing is not just the fallback position for those who can neither play a musical instrument nor paint; it is unlikely to be the best paying job you can do in your pyjamas.
Maybe it’s in the commas that the benchmark of the writer lies. If you’re a writer, the commas matter.