Darkness, Light and Assumptions of Quality

The New York Times profiles Amanda Hocking. Apparently, this is their way of acknowledging her success, since Amanda Hocking’s books are still excluded from the New York Times bestseller list, though other self-published e-books have been included in the list.

In many ways, it’s an odd article. There’s almost as much focus on the clothes worn by Amanda Hocking and her family and on the furnishings of her new house as on her novels and her writing career. The whole article feels like a puff piece for the lifestyle section rather than like an author profile from the arts and literature section – probably because it is, sort of (The article appeared in the weekend magazine supplement of the New York Times). When was the last time you saw an article about Philip Roth or Salman Rushdie that included detailed descriptions what they and their families were wearing or what their houses looked like?

Though I’m beginning to suspect that at least a segment of the New York Times readership really cares about such fashion details, because the same edition also includes an article on Anna Paquin and True Blood which devoted two paragraphs to the bleaching of Ms Paquin’s hair, while I was far more interested in information about True Blood. That’s probably why I’m not the target audience for celebrity gossip mags, though I’d expected better from the New York Times.

Nonetheless, those bits of the article that actually do focus on writing are interesting and Amanda Hocking comes across as a genuinely nice person, much like on her blog. One thing that particularly struck me was that she initially tried to write darker books, because she believed that dark equaled “worthy, highbrow and of artistic value”. Unfortunately, darker stories did not match Amanda Hocking’s voice at all and it wasn’t until she started writing lighter novels that she became successful.

The assumption that darker works are automatically of greater merit than lighter works is pervasive in western culture. I’ve touched upon this before, most recently in yesterday’s post on TV drama.

The assumption is not just wrong (lightness and humour are just as difficult to do well as darkness, if not more so), it is also doubly problematic. First of all, because creators of lighter stuff often find their work dismissed as frivolous and irrelevant (See the dismissive attitude towards chick lit for example), but also because this assumption leads writers (or any other artist really) to adopt a style and voice that matches what is considered good and prestigious, but which may not match their natural voice at all.

For example, I once tried to write a story in the Mythpunk or New Weird style (what are we calling it these days anyway?), because that seemed to be the sort of writing that was winning all the awards and published in the prestigious magazines. There’s only one problem. I don’t write that way at all. So I wrote a few paragraphs in deliberately ornate, imagery rich style. Then my natural voice came through, I started adding snarky asides to my beautiful imagery and the whole thing turned into a parody of the sort of fantasy that was considered of literary merit at the time. The result was pretty funny, though completely unpublishable, because I can hardly sent it to the markets that publish the sort of stories I parodied and no one else would get the parody.

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