Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In Praise of Not-So-Excellent Titles - Austin

Allow me to say something in favor of not-so-excellent titles. I won’t name the book, but will confess the writing was mediocre at best. The author was a gifted CEO. He wasn’t a gifted writer. Yet I read it at a time when the message proved to be exactly what I needed. It profoundly influenced my Christian walk. That book still sits on the shelf in our church library. I doubt it has been signed out in ten years. But every time I want to pull it, I’m reminded that God used it to speak to me. Just this week I read another old title from our library. In a rather weak novel of just 155 pages it shared a warm and winsome story. In a sense it was a story I have been actively searching for. I can critique it rather harshly. I can point out many ways the writing could be improved. But I can also take from the story the sense of love and hopefulness the author tried to share. Do I leave it in the library? I’m not sure. But I am convinced of this much, I don’t condemn the author. In fact I celebrate the passion behind the writing.

Settling for mediocre writing is not an option. I’m convinced I must strive for excellence. Yet if I’m not writing better in ten years than I am today, I will have failed dismally.

A confession – Much writing that receives critical acclaim leaves me cold. It does not stimulate me. It does not engage my intellect or my emotions. It often uses impressive language, but leaves me saying, “What???” Arguments can be made for my intellectual smallness and I won’t fight those arguments. Yet with a conservative estimate of 8,000 books read in my lifetime, on a vast array of subjects and in a wide range of genres, (I wish I could claim to have retained all that) I’ll risk believing my opinion has some validity. – So Critical Acclaim is NOT what I am measuring excellence by. Rather, it is the ability to communicate effectively, engaging both the intellect and the emotions. Specialty resource books, like dictionaries, still achieve excellence without necessarily engaging the emotions, if they prove a ready source of information that you don’t need another dictionary to interpret. (Like many writers, I can get lost in a dictionary and easily spend an hour when I have gone to it to confirm a single definition, though most non-writers seem to find it a dull, if necessary book.)

How can excellence in writing be achieved? To the best of my knowledge, the “instant” successes as writers can be counted on the fingers of one hand – after being careless with a power-saw. It happens, but if I’m counting on it, I’d better plan on living a very long time. And since I’ve already written extensively and have a list of publishing credits, I’d have to redefine “instant” if I was somehow launched suddenly to fame.

Realistically, writing, writing and more writing is the surest path I know of toward excellence. That path should also be marked by extensive reading and as much feedback as possible. A significant portion of that feedback should be of the barbed kind – the character building rather than the ego building kind. Yet if it is all negative; if it is all, ‘you did this and this and this wrong,’ writers will give up long before they achieve excellence. They will learn to silence the call, or will write in secret, like it is some shameful addiction.

Not-so-excellent titles are and must be part of the writer’s journey. Not-so-excellent titles let authors grow. Not-so-excellent titles still have something vital to say. Not-so-excellent titles are often used by God in significant ways. Writers must strive for excellence. But an infallible God uses fallible people. Writing that draws from the very best I can give will be better than the very best of some other writers. It will not be as good as the very best of yet other writers. That’s okay. What isn’t okay is if I settle for anything less than the best I can do. Neither is it okay if in trying to encourage other writers, I excuse them if they settle for less than their best.

Brian Austin

1 comment:

Linda Wegner said...

Thanks, Brian, for this great piece. Reading it both challenged and blessed me and I'm printing it off to read in the future.

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