I admit it: I am a snob when it comes to writing.
I’m usually good about keeping my snobbery in check, because it really is an unflattering trait; I hate arrogance in anyone, but especially in myself, but it pops up from time to time. The catalyst is almost always an example of someone who (in my snobbish, arrogant opinion) has no business calling themselves a writer.
Today’s impetus for these distasteful feelings of self-importance: a story that appeared in the Newtown, Virginia Patch website about the upcoming Village Renaissance Faire. I am not linking to that story because it’s not my intent to embarrass the writer, who described a particular performer as a “fictional writer and substitute teacher” in real life.
A fictional writer. Not a fiction writer.
To be completely fair, this could be one of those stupid brain farts every reporter has, that somehow slipped by the copy editors. It happens. It happens to me, and it’s always something really dumb like that, something I know better than to do — using “affect” instead of “effect” or typing the wrong form of “there,” etc. But in a moment of haste (or under-caffeination) a simple mistake is made.
I usually catch it, but sometimes I don’t, and sometimes the copy editors don’t either, and next thing I know my very bone-headed mistake is in print and I look like a moron.
So, the occasional gaffe like the above example might set me off, but when I calm my white ass down, I realize it is probably the same kind of goof I have made countless times and will make countless times more.
I’m not so forgiving when I see something so riddled with stupid mistakes that it cannot possibly be excused away as “just one of those things” — misspellings, rampant punctuation misuse, wrong forms of a particular word, terrible sentence structure, and the ever-popular Totally Unnecessary And Inappropriate Capitalization Of Improper Nouns — and the person responsible refers to him- or herself as a “professional writer.”
That phenomenon has become more prevalent in the electronic age, particularly as the e-publishing and vanity press industries have grown. People who can barely string a coherent sentence together, much less understand deeper complexities as thematic content and pacing, are producing crap and, by the mere fact other people are seeing it (and sometimes paying for the privilege), bestowing upon themselves the title of professional writer.
As the saying goes (and I may be mangling this quote): the great thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a forum; the bad thing about the Internet is it gives everyone a forum. It’s also giving people delusions of adequacy.
Now, an important question to ask is: what actually qualifies someone to call themselves a professional in this day and age? Time was, the criteria were simple: if you got paid and your work was published by a reputable producer, be it a hometown newspaper or national publisher, you were a pro.
I think the advent of blogging has changed that definition. There are a lot of people who write for free, just so their work can be seen, and sometimes through a respected outlet (although if you read about the lawsuits that have been filed against it, you might argue that The Huffington Post, which uses a lot of unpaid bloggers, is not respected. I make no judgment one way or the other, I merely present it as an example).
Perhaps nowadays a better measure of whether someone is professional is whether a writer is serious about the craft, by which I mean: is the writer is dedicated to learning and knowing the basic mechanics of writing (i.e., having a firm grasp of the English language); is the writer dedicated to learning and knowing the many elements of storytelling (plot, dialog, theme, characterization, etc.); and is the writer open to receiving and responding positively to criticism about his work?
I have encountered a lot of people who refer to themselves as writers, even though they completely lack any grasp of what makes a good story, and in some cases they have managed to wring a few bucks from their efforts; and I’ve met people who have not made a single dime off their writing, but thoroughly understand the craft. I would be far more inclined to call the latter a real writer than the former.
My version of practicing what I preach is when it comes to my hobbies. I’ve performed in renaissance faires for (sweet Jesus) 16 years now, and I might refer to myself as an actor, because by many standards I meet the criteria, and I could even refer to myself as a professional actor because I’ve been paid to perform.
But honestly? I feel like a huge fraud applying the term “actor” to myself when I look at some of my friends, who have been acting steadily for years, went to school to study their art and hone their skills, who bust ass to make acting their career. These are real actors. They know and love the craft. Me? I’m a guy who acts sometimes.
Them: Actors. Me: actor, with an asterisk. I don’t deserve to be called a real actor.
And some people don’t deserve to be called real writers.
Lest you think me something of a dick for being possessive of my profession, be aware that it’s a normal reaction among creative types. If you don’t think so, ask an aspiring author how he feels when some brainless reality star twit gets a lucrative publishing deal to churn out a piece of pop-culture junk food through a ghost writer, or ask a struggling actor how he feels when the Flavor of the Month Pop Star gets her own TV series or gets tragically miscast in a lead movie role.
It pisses us off. It pisses us off when the system rewards mediocrity because we feel all our hard work has been a waste of time, our dedication to our art meaningless. No matter who you are, failure despite your efforts stings worse when someone else succeeds despite their lack of effort (and in some cases, passion).
I will continue to try to keep my snobbery restrained but, fair warning, it’s still going to be there. I think I’ve earned that much.
(EDIT: As readers will note from the comment below, I misspelled “gaffe” in the original version of this post. That error has since been fixed. Not that it was an accident, you understand. I totally meant to do that, to drive home my point. Yep. Totally intentional.)