The Power of Crap

Today’s meditation is on crap. You know, as in the kind that sells. The kind that you swear you will never, never write. Whether it’s a vampire novel, a heart-wringing romance, another wearying urban fantasy, the old elves and wizards stuff, gum shoe detective yarn, heart-pounding thriller or outrageous conspiracy tale about Jesus.

From this list pick the one you despise the most. Think of the author you just read who indulged in this tripe. You probably moaned to writer friends about how crap sells.

Now sit down and write some of that guano. Write a scene or two. Only write it better.

Yes, I’m suggesting that we give our most unfavorite kind of story a bit of a go.

If there’s a kind of story we really dislike, even hate, it may be the very place where a major learning experience can happen. Take those shmaltzy romances. Are you afraid to write about sex and love? Are thrillers too implausible for you?  Look a little deeper into these mind sets. What would happen if you gave rein to the romantic in you, or that paranoia hiding just under the surface? Might these be a source of a powerful story?

What if there’s a hidden reason we belittle these genres, one that has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the subject matter? You may be avoiding something, and the act of shoving it down may have conferred power upon it, much like buried compost grows warm. Perhaps a hot story lurks behind our protestations that we would “never write that stuff.” Too psychological for you? But think of it this way: Why do millions of readers love the kind of story that you dismiss? They’re morons? Tasteless? Look a little deeper into such a stance: These people actually read books. They are not lesser beings–yet that is the implication of our arrogant judgement about stories unlike our habitual own..

But leave that aside. There may be other benefits in writing “out of character.” Out of character for you. Think of it as an exercise in flexibility where you tear down fences, explore forbidden territory, and develop new muscles. What have you been writing for the last few years? Are the stories starting to repeat or are you bored with your own themes? Sometimes we get in a rut. It happens so naturally. We write the things we’re comfortable writing. And keep writing them.

As storytellers, we should be able to find an interesting thread in any subject. It’s not the type of story that determines quality, it’s how the story is brought to life. If you find certain types of stories boring or superficial, try writing one like that that’s not. I challenge you to dig down and find a universal story in the most prosaic, bland, even stereotyped situation.

One thing that may come out of this is a new appreciation of what readers relate to and why. You may uncover the undying appeal of romance, the power of fear and revulsion, the attraction to unabashed sense of wonder or the profound comfort of traditional fantasy.

You may call it crap. But your job is to turn it into something better, or at least something fully your own.  And by doing so write to a place you never thought you could go.

And stop me the next time I complain that a book is “drivel,” as I recently told a friend. A more nuanced answer would have been, “That story was too simple for me.” I like more nuance and layering than that author chose to deliver.

But her highly successful story wasn’t crap.

8 Responses

  1. Steve says:

    As a science fiction writer aspiring to rise above the level of the “crap” many expect from the genre, I’ll give you an AMEN.

  2. Tiyana says:

    Great post, Kay! Not only does this challenge me to try writing in other genres in the future but also to see the value in all types of fiction, despite any misgivings.

  3. My friend made fun of me for bringing marble cheese to a fancy party.

    But people ate it and liked it! I dare say they liked it better than the stinky expensive cheese with the blue mold.

    I would never put down an entire genre, but then again, I already write what some call “crap.” One of my beta readers turned her nose up at the first chapter and said she doesn’t usually read “stuff like this.” Then she *confessed* she read it all in one night because she had to find out what happened. I emphasize confessed because she seemed a bit embarrassed to enjoy something so lowbrow.

    When this happens, I remind myself with two words, how little I should care. “Marble cheese,” I say.

  4. Kay says:

    Thanks Steve. I especially hate the snobbery regarding SF. It’s outrageous and tiresome. Write and prosper!

  5. Kay says:

    You’re welcome, Tiyana. I felt a rant coming on, and managed to turn it into something that I really believe can be a positive exercise.

  6. Kay says:

    I applaud your open-mindedness. The level of discourse in literature as in politics needs more of this!

  7. I agree completely. However, a question: isn’t “crap” like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, a.k.a. the reader? I think a lot of Faulkner is “crap”, but who am I to say that about a Nobel laureate in Literature? Guess all my taste is in my mouth, hey.

  8. Kay says:

    Yes, you’re right, in eye of beholder. But I was just using the term to mean commercial stories that snobs put down. And as to the “crap” that one just instinctively hates – despite critical or popular acclaim – it is one of the most remarkable features of the reading experience, how people react individually, for or against. I am often astonished how differently people react to my own books, for example. I would love to know–Every writer would love to know–why some will love it, others hate it. And while this is understandable on an individual basis (some people hate broccoli) the fact that people get so passionate about the arguments pro and con makes me wonder what is buried there.

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