Here’s what I think…

Starting with the understanding that authors are human, and therefor inherently flawed, we should expect authors to write the best books they can. In keeping with the Golden Rule, that means our readers should expect the same thing from us: that we write the best books we can.

If we start with the understanding that we’re human, we should also start with what I believe to be the central reality of creative writing, that there’s no such thing as perfect. No one has yet written, nor will anyone ever write the perfect novel. Those words simply do not go together. There is no universal set of criteria by which to judge that, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just an asshole. All art, whether it comes in the form of a novel or a sculpture or a song or anything else, lives, always has lived, and always will live entirely in the realm of the subjective.

That said, I know I can, if I were so inclined (and rest assured, I am not so inclined) put together a list of books I’ve read, or started to read, that I absolutely hated—books in a moment of knee-jerk reaction I’ve proclaimed as “bad,” or “the worst.” Likewise, there are books that I stop just short of worshipping. In similar moments of weakness I’ve even used words like “best,” or maybe even “perfect.” But this is strictly hyperbole, on both ends of the spectrum.

Writing a novel is hard. In fact, if any of us were to take a step back we would flee from the very thought of it. It’s nothing short of intellectually impossible to arrange a million or so letters into tens, even hundreds of thousands of words, in just the right order so they trigger an imaginative journey in the mind of complete strangers separated by time, place, and culture. Looking at it that way, it’s just absurd that such a thing could be conceived, let alone done, and done over and over again by author after author for century after century all across the globe. For me, anyone who does that is worthy of at least the respect of a first read.

So then should we expect any novel to be “perfect”? That’s crazy talk.

Can we expect it to be “good”? By what measure?

Can we hope to like it? Of course!

If we don’t like it does that make the author a villain of some kind, a deceptive rascal passing himself off as a “novelist” like some kind of intellectual wolf in sheep’s clothing? Get over yourself.

If we do like it does that make the author a giant astride the Earth, a figure of unquestioned perfection to be worshipped by all who come into the light of this great work? Cults start this way, and there’s never been a really positive cult, now has there?

The humanity of authors and the imperfection of their work can take many forms. I won’t flog away at current stories of authors who have come out on one side or another of political and social divides, or dive once more into the breach of how long ago does an author have to have died before we can understand openly racist remarks as a product of a less enlightened time and not a bad person. Some authors wear their politics entirely on their sleeves, so if, for instance, like me, you know enough about Ayn Rand, have read some of her other work (I’ve read both Anthem and The Fountainhead), and have a good sense of her perspective and her place in history that you’re content to leave Atlas Shrugged on the shelf, then fine. If, like me, you feel more sorry for H.P. Lovecraft than you are angry with him, but won’t give Ian Fleming the same historical cover, also fine.

This is all part of it, and by “it,” I mean any form of public expression. The work and the artist are both inherently imperfect, creatures of their time and culture, their upbringing and education, their fears and aspirations—their humanity. And one way or another they’re going to disappoint. Though his short stories are central to my education as a writer, Harlan Ellison was an imperfect guy. No more perfect were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and other writing idols of mine like Woody Allen. I know authors are people, and people do and think bad things—sometimes even commit unforgivable crimes.

I expect authors to write the best books they can, and hope they’re the best people they can be too. I hope my readers will expect the same of me. But with precious few exceptions all I really need to know of authors as people I will find, one way or another, in their work, and in most cases, I don’t really know much of anything about a particular author’s life going in. I can “agree to disagree” with a contemporary author about some things, other things will have me running for the hills. I reserve the right to ignore authors I don’t like—either as writers or as people. I also reserve the right to change my mind over time. And that only works if I respect my readers’—or my potential readers’—right to ignore me if they don’t like me, and change their minds along the way. We all have to individually find our own limits, and I don’t think anyone should be forced to read any novel, just as much as I don’t think anyone should be prevented from reading any novel.

I am one author. I am one reader. Every other author is one author. Every other reader is one reader. That’s how this has been working since the invention of the written word, and it will keep working that way well after I’m gone.

—Philip Athans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. coyotescribe says:

    Thank you. I needed that. Great article! I’m 103,000 words in, five chapters yet to write. I know where I’m going, but that doesn’t check the overwhelm. 🙂

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