RARA-AVIS: The Hell with "Writing What You Know"

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 28 Feb 2008

.... especially if you don't know crap.

This somehow got sidetracked during Gores Month, but I think it might still be relevant. Anyway, here goes:

I'm as big an admirer of Joe Gores as the next guy in the line-up, but the fact remains that we care about Gores because he's a damn good writer. Not because he was once a P.I.

A writer's former occupational experience is vastly over-rated, if you ask me, and certainly no guarantee of a good -- or even authentic -- read. I've read too many novels by real-life cops, lawyers, P.I.s and even criminals that plain out sucked -- and often bore no more relationship to reality than a rerun of CHARLIE'S ANGELS.

Whatever sense of "reality" Gores (or Hammett or whomever) bestows on their fiction could just as easily be done by any good writer with a bit of research, a dash of imagination and empathy in spades.

Yep, those are all the qualities a good detective should have too, but you don't have to be a detective to have them. Now, life experience -- knowing how people think and feel and act -- that's important. And of course professional experience is a part of one's life experience. Still, Stephen Crane never went to war, yet he managed to write a pretty damn good book about it, I hear.

Simply having done a job doesn't necessarily mean you understand it. It's why a writer's professional experience (and the ensuing puffery so beloved of publicists) is a big yawn to me. "Write what you know" is an odious piece of advice, and offensively limiting. It's fine, as far as it goes, but "Write not just what you know, but what you can feel, think and imagine" would be far better advice.

Alas, too many would-be writers can't feel, think or imagine worth a damn. It's why so much "literary" fiction centers on self-centered writers and their mountains-out-of-molehills creative angst and petty mid-life crises. Oh, gee, a struggling writer has an affair with a sexy young co-ed and an existentialist crisis?

Gee, I never read that one before...and they call mysteries "genre" fiction.

Kevin Burton Smith The Thrilling Detective Web Site 1998-2008 10 Years of P.I. Thrills

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 28 Feb 2008 EST