I would like to welcome Shamus Award Winner Paul D. Marks as my guest blogger. This week Paul offers Murderous Musings readers his insight in writing. I encourage you to pass his insight onto others and also check out his website, PaulDMarks.com. Thank you, Paul!
SHOULD WRITERS “WRITE DOWN” TO THEIR READERS?
By Paul D. Marks
I recently saw a writer post something on Facebook about an editor wanting a writer to remove certain historical references from his manuscript because the editor thought some readers might not recognize them. Dismayed, the writer then asked his Facebook friends whether he should keep or remove those references. This author’s question got me thinking about my own writing, and whether or not I should “write down” to my readers.
Certainly, all writers want to convey certain thoughts, emotions and ideas to their readers. To do that, we often use literary or historical allusions, scientific and cultural references. But in doing so, we believe our reader base will possess a similar degree of shared knowledge so that when we mention references to Freud, Shakespeare, Billie Holiday or Queen Victoria, (who lent her name to an entire era) or simple phrases such as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, they will not only comprehend what we are saying, but relate to it. We also assume that if they are unfamiliar and curious, they will look it up.
Unfortunately, our cultural ties-that-bind are either breaking down, or they are not being passed down to younger generations. Granted, every elder has said this regarding successive generations, but the problem seems to have worsened in recent decades. The media, social media, internet, video games, educational system, parents and a breakdown in nuclear families have all played a role in this demise.
Sadly, today’s younger generations seem less informed about history, literature, pop culture (other than their own), high culture and in general, most things that preceded them. As a result, every subsequent generation has been left further behind. When I was a kid I might not have known the difference between Catherine the Great or Katharine Hepburn, W.E.B. Du Bois or Jorge Luis Borges, or Benny Goodman and Beethoven, but they eventually came into my consciousness because I was curious and did some research. Today, many people know little of our major figures, even from recent past. Ask a young adult about our history in warfare and few will have a clue. Mention George Washington, FDR, Lincoln or Cesar Chavez and see their reaction. Sadly, most people rarely let history seep into their consciousness.
As a writer pitching ideas to Hollywood executives, I used to begin as if my audience and I had a common knowledge base. When I quickly learned that wasn’t the case, I dumbed my presentation down so as not to include anything that might make any of them feel insecure or ignorant. Although most had heard of Casablanca, few had seen it, so if I mentioned it was like “a modern day Casablanca,” their blank stares forced me to first describe the Casablanca plot, which I then explained my reference.
Mind you, these were intelligent people, many of whom came from Ivy League schools. Even so, few knew anything about World War II, the Cold War, Viet Nam, or that “black comedies” are not films named for featuring African American characters, but rather for its style. I also learned that many were unfamiliar with basic phrases or expressions. Regardless, I soon realized that whenever I had to explain a reference, I had lost them.
Of course, ignorance applies to anyone who is not informed. This includes Hollywood executives, psychologists, professionals I’ve encountered while doing research, and people I have met in everyday life. Remember that ignorance is not a statement of intelligence, but rather a lack of knowledge. Several years ago a group of journalism students demonstrated their knowledge of their world and current events in a questionnaire. The results were shocking because they proved to know little. If anyone should be curious about history and current events, it should be journalism students.
How many young people know that many great literary works contain biblical references? Hemingway used them in The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises. Moby Dick, a book considered by many to be the greatest American novel, is filled with them. T.S. Eliot used them in The Wasteland. Bob Dylan used biblical allusions in many songs that even now go over most people’s heads. Even the recent TV show Lost did this. Those sharing that common knowledge base will easily pick them out. But in spite of having the Internet and hyperlinks to instantly provide answers, few will choose to expand their horizons. Without understanding the references in a story, the viewer/reader will lose much of the story. As a result, while I prefer using cultural references in my writing, I now think twice about including them. Of course, in doing so I am also guilty of not only dumbing down my work, but society, in general.
No doubt my decision to “write down” has actually stemmed from working on film and radio scripts where I was instructed to dumb things down. On one radio show, a fellow writer and I were called on the carpet and given a condescending lecture by the producer for using “big words”. Words like condescending. No doubt this was the result of him feeling embarrassed because he didn’t understand their meaning. But he wasn’t alone. Jay Leno’s Jaywalking segments demonstrated how little the average person knew. Many of those Leno interviewed couldn’t identify President Bush and Obama from a photo. Others believed it was Joe Biden who crossed the Delaware. Leno has admitted he didn’t have to search for “dumb” people. Normally, they went with the first few people they came across because there was no need in searching any further. Again, this is not to say these people are stupid. More likely their ignorance is due to apathy and/or narcissistic values.
Personal computers, cell phones, social media and Twitter have changed the way people globally interact. Furthermore, because many families are spread out, grandparents may not live nearby, so their knowledge is not passed down. Nowadays, shorter attention spans means longer articles are being disregarded. Reality shows have greater audiences than shows on the History channel. Even the Discovery Channel have been forced into shows like Escaped: Real Prison Breaks or the Learning Channel’s 19 Kids and Counting to retain its viewers. And the Biography Channel has resorted to stories about movie and TV stars of little significance rather than people of historical significance. This disturbing trend seems to prove that today’s audience prefers vapid celebrities and superficial reality shows to those shows having historical significance. Unfortunately, what people fail to understand is that without understanding our past, we lack the knowledge and ability to influence our future.
Personally, I do not like dumbing my writing down. I believe authors should challenge their readers to learn more by forcing them to look things up and expand their vocabularies and worlds. Writers need to challenge their readers to dust off an encyclopedia, history book, and surf the web beyond paparazzi photos and cute animal videos. (Hey, I like them too, but . . .) I love using examples from history and literature, etc., in my writing, and hate seeing them get lost in the quicksand of lethargy. There is far more to life than celebrities and housewives’ gossip or what’s just happened in the span of someone’s conscious memory. There is also more to life than selfies, in both the literal and figurative sense. The bottom line – write like you mean it.
POSTSCRIPT / SIDEBAR:
There are a couple of famous stories about well-known works being rejected after they had been huge successes. One example is writer Chuck Ross who hand-typed the script for Casablanca, arguably one of the three best and most famous American movies of all time, and considered by many to be the best. For grins, he changed the title and submitted it to several producers. Not surprisingly, most didn’t recognize it and rejected it outright. When some thought the people best to play the roles were unfortunately dead, he knew they got it. This example shows you how even Hollywood is unaware of its own past. Check out this link to find out more: http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/archive/permalink/casablanca_rejected
Ross further tested his “oblivious theory” by using a novel written by Jerzy Kosiński, who won the National Book Award for Steps. Ross typed it up as a manuscript and submitted it to Kosiński’s own publisher, who then rejected it without ever recognizing it, proving even the supposedly “literate” publishing industry is not immune to ignorance. The moral of the story is, don’t feel bad if you get rejected because the reviewers don’t necessarily recognize good material. Check out Ross’s experience with this link:
Thanks for having me, Mark!
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Paul D. Marks’ novel WHITE HEAT is a 2013 SHAMUS AWARD WINNER. Publishers Weekly calls WHITE HEAT a “taut crime yarn.” And Midwest Book Review says “WHITE HEAT is a riveting read of mystery, much recommended.” Paul is also the author of over thirty published short stories in a variety of genres, including several award winners—and L.A. LATE @ NIGHT, a collection of five of his mystery and noir tales. His story HOWLING AT THE MOON will be in an upcoming edition of Ellery Queen. And he has the distinction, dubious though it might be, of being the last person to have shot a film on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for condos. According to Steven Bingen, one of the authors of the recent, well-received book MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot: “That 40 page chronological list I mentioned of films shot at the studio ends with his [Paul D. Marks’] name on it.”