Friday, January 27, 2006

Ask but don't Answer

Writing is a lot like teasing your younger brother with a secret.

The longer you hold it over his head, the more worked up he gets.

All stories, no matter the genre, can benefit from suspense. The tension doesn't have to be in the form of the bad guy stalking the hero. It can be much simpler, much less dramatic, but still make the reader want to keep reading. For example:

"You seem upset," Jack said. "What's up?"

"I'll tell you later." Herb said. "In private."

And we have suspense.

Posing questions, then making the reader keep reading to get the answers, is the essence of the term "page turner."

This why why soap operas are so popular---nothing is ever solved. This is why the 10 o'clock news gives you a quick teaser of their most interesting story, and doesn't show you the full clip until 10:29.

Ask a question, but don't give the answer right away.

I'm currently writing my fourth Jack Daniels book, DIRTY MARTINI, and my wife demands to read it as I finish each chapter. She was yelling at me yesterday, because I had a scene with the villain surrounded by all of this obscure equipment, but didn't explain what the equipment was.

Wife: What's all that stuff he's using?

Me: You'll find out later.

Wife: Write faster.

Writers need to be teases. It keeps the story moving. It makes the reader want to know what happens next.

Don't give the reader everything at once. Hold stuff back. Feed it to them slowly. Even boring exposition and backstory can become unbearably dramatic if you withhold the information rather than spill it all at once:

"What's wrong with Donna?"

"Oh. She had some... problems, a few years ago."

What works about this method of building suspense is that when you do share your secret with the reader, they feel like they're a part of it. They remember the earlier reference, and are happy to be let in on the game.

This works not only with omitted information, but with seemingly unneeded details.

On page 17: "He got out of the car and pulled the tarp on top of the chemical box."

Then, on page 178, you reveal what the chemicals are for. And the reader goes, "Aha! I wondered what those were for!"

The more seeds you plant, the more fun the read. Just remember: restraint is the key.


Jeri said...

I agree totally, but I wonder if different readers have varying levels of tolerance for this kind of suspense.

One of the readers (out of 10 or so, counting my editor and agent) of my last ms kept pointing out what she called "dangles," where little hints, quite similar to the ones you cited, were dropped and not resolved for awhile. The only one she liked was one that was resolved on the next page.

So now I'm working on another book, which has a heavier emphasis on mystery and a calculated disclosure of information and disinformation, and I keep hearing her voice in the back of my head: Don't dangle, don't dangle.

Do you think there's a middle ground between teasing and frustrating, or is all frustration good, as long as it's resolved eventually?

Confessions of a Starving Mystery Writer said...

That's what mysteries and thrillers are all about - the dangle, the red herring, and the unanswered issues. Keep them on the edge, payoff, but not the whole enchillada...

The good ones anyway, leave it to the reader to supply some of their own perceptions.

Great topic.

Jeri said...

I guess I should add that I write fantasy, not mystery/thrillers, but I think Joe was right when he said at the top of the post that suspense is key to any genre, if you want readers to keep turning pages. The faster they turn pages, the faster they can run out and buy your next book!

eileen said...

Ahh, but be careful the clues are not so cloaked savvy readers miss them. Makes me mad when I have to back up a few pages to find that reference.

Rob Roberge said...

Joe--i think it's great you're helping writers and in general, i just lurk...but, wow, this is bad advice...

this so misunderstands the nature of suspense...suspense occurs when the reader says "What will happen next?" It doesn't occur when the reader says "What is happening?" This is a cheap gimmick...and good writing, no matter the genre, avoids not say what's going on (as in the example you use where a character asks a question and then have it unanswered), is the sign of an insecure text that doesn't trust there's enough story to hold the reader with good writing and characters, so they use manipulation and beginner's tricks.

not trying to start a fight, but i just think this is awful advice-and I will end up with bad work on my desk (teaching/reviewing, and so on) if people listen



Jeri said...

I think it depends on the context. In Joe's example between Jack & Herb, if Herb is the evasive type, or if there really is a compelling reason why he can't talk about it, as well as a compelling reason why Jack would ask at that moment, it's realistic as well as suspenseful. The key is making the evasion/delay believeable on its own, as opposed to throwing it in as a cheap trick, like soap operas often do.

Also, the eventual payoff has to be worth it.

JA Konrath said...

Writing is all about manipulation.

As for beginners tricks--beginners ten to blow their wad early and spill all the relevant details as soon as they think of them. That's bad writing.

For example: You have a killer who, after he kills each vicytim, he takes their fignerprints.

The writer knows the reason the killer is doing this. So does the killer. But neither reveal it to the reader until the hero cop figures out the reason for herself.

Whenever Q is instructing James Bond about some gadget and says, "Whatever you do, don't touch that button!" it whets the viewers appetitite for when Bond eventually will touch the button.

I'm not telling writers to confuse the reader. I am saying that less is more, and leaving explanations until later not only make the book more compelling, but ultimately more satisfying.

Are you saying as soon as we meet a villain we should know his motive? If something is bothering a character it should be revealed immediately? The reader needs to know exactly what is going on from the very beginning?

Don't tell that to Shirley "The Lottery" Jackson. Or to Rod Serling. Or Dean Koontz or Stephen King or M. Night Shymalan or Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler of David Morrell or anyone who writes suspense.

All stories are about "What happens next."

I'm talking about teasing, not confusing. The first compells. The second annoys.

Rob Roberge said...


i think both annoy. look at your own simile... "Writing is a lot like teasing your younger brother with a secret."

well, your little brother would rightfully hate you for this...because it's an abuse of power...a bullying tactic...the brother in this example would resent and despise the older brother...and so will a smart reader.

i'm saying that witholding information from the reader that a POV character knows is cheesy and the mark of a hack...watered down bad writing learned from bad screenwriting. yup.

BUT--i realize you're not saying to confuse the reader...and that's good, but i think people would take it that way...and i would argue for never having an explanation in a text...explaining anything in a story is like explaining a joke--it's either redundant or too late...

BUT, with the exception of shirley jackson, you didn't really name a decent prose writer (the rules are different for TV or screen...since you're not in someone's head, and thereby can withhold information in the visual medium)...maybe king. (i haven't read cussler, so can't say...the rest write shit...and don't give me that 'well they sell' argument...the bible sells, so does journey and doesn't by itself make anything good...)

But, all good writers write suspense (genre or not)...every story is a mystery, and every story is a haunted story, like Paul Auster says...

But, like Wittgenstein said, "even if everything were known, there would still be mystery." Mystery isn't about being in the dark on's about the essential unknow-ability of the world. For, me, anyway...

but, hey, big world...taste and all that.

seriously...i do think it's VERY cool of you to want to help yound and unpublished writers, and i don't want to start a war...i'm all for writers helping each other...i just think this is advice in how to write poorly, and in an effort to balance the table with other opinions, i would hope that writers stop doing this sort of bad's probably THE most common amateur sign in my students' writing.



Rob Roberge said...

whoops...haven't read Morrell, either...don't mean to make comments about people i haven't read...

so, i'm saying Koontz and Clancy suck, i guess...which i will happily stand i have read them and they are pretty mind-numbingly dreadful...


Anonymous said...

Okay you two,

I believe this argument is along the same lines as the stream of consciousness issue. The simple truth is that the more you yap about it, the more complicated things get. The more you study HOW and WHY people act and do the things they do the more water logged the whole work becomes.

Rob- books (mainly thrillers and their ilk) operate the same way grocery stores do. You put the good and neccisary shit in the back because you know the products get better as the customer goes. Real life is suspenseful and mysterious. Would you rather wake up to a new day and explore the options or call up the psychic network and call it a day?

I can see a little to both sides here. But the point is to make things natural. You cant stick a formula to human nature, so just write what you see.


JA Konrath said...

"so, i'm saying Koontz and Clancy suck"

That's fine. Your opinion counts.

They've also sold a combined total of a billion books.

Emulating Koontz and Clancy is not a bad thing, no matter what you personally think of their prose. Obviously not everyone thinks that way.

The bible has sold even more. And both Journey and Starship still sell, even though they peaked decades ago.

Teasing your brother might not be as good an analogy as teasing your girlfriend in the bedroom and prolonging her orgasm.

My advice stands. Don't reveal everything at once. Draw it out. That's more fun.

Good debate, though.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Hey, all I know is that Forbes magazine has pictures of Joe with his tons of mail, and Terry Whalin, the editor is writing posts about Joe's success...I think I'm listening to Joe!

JA Konrath said...

"I think I'm listening to Joe!"

That's sweet Bonnie, but don't listen to me because I'm me. Listen to me because I make sense and you agree.

If I don't make sense, of if you disagree, for heaven's sake, don't listen! Everyone (me included) can give bad advice.

Just not on this particular topic. :)

Rob Roberge said...

clearly we disagree on the whether something has sold a lot of copies gives it, it's a waste of time debating it...and yes, someone might make money emulating clancy or koontz, but they wouldn't be a writing well...just because something sold well is no more an indiction that it's good than saying it is good because it DIDN'T sell...snobery both ways, and not very interesting, nor really a position worth arguing. If sales were the measure of quality, we would only need read the top ten books of every year...

that would, though, have us reading Tom Boyd, rather than Hemingway or Fitzgerald...and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, rather than Raymond Carver or Amy Hemple.

An ugly literary world...

BUT--if the analogy is changed to the prolonging of the orgasm simile, i think that's different--(and one i'd agree with) it implies a relationship of equals and one of intimacy and joy...

...rather than manipulation and general distain, which the secret from the brother one had...

So, yes, if it's done with respect and love for the reader, and not out of some hack cheapness, sure.

Cheers--i gotta go write, so i'm sihning off-


Adam Hurtubise said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeri said...

The sex analogy is spot-on, Joe. The difference between the teasing brother and the teasing boyfriend is that the brother often doesn't deliver (there's really no secret, he's just torturing you because that's his function in life), but the boyfriend does.

At least, he does if he wants to remain the boyfriend.

As for me, I listen to Joe because he makes sense, even when I disagree. I'm not a mystery fan, so I'm clueless as to how successful he is, or even whether he's a talented novelist. All I know is that this is a damn useful blog.

Unknown said...

Teehee you said "donna"

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Rob on this one (and not merely because we teach at the same school and therefore I share his fears). I read a book recently by a crime novelist of some renown who shall remain nameless and this is exactly the sort of drama building he did -- cryptic conversations that augered for a big reveal somewhere later on, but which only served to annoy me as a reader, primarily because the narrator knew all the answers but chose not to share them with the reader. It felt like a short cut in place of actual emotion and drama. As a writer, I knew what this writer was doing, could see it taking shape 100 pages before the big reveal came and I thought, in my writer hat, Oh, this is a silly thing to do. As a reader I thought, as I sat out by my pool, Oh, give me a break, just tell me the damn piece of evidence! I don't write normal crime novels -- and I'd venture to say Rob doesn't either -- so therefore much of what I do isn't predicated on the sleuthing of evidence or the sussing out of minor points of dialogue, but even in my most literary works there is, at heart, some mystery to be solved and, in that regard, I trust my reader to fill in a lot of blanks. Teasing out evidence or bit of mystery in a person's life need not be a chore -- it's the act of discovery that happens in every book, crime, literary, pop-up, whatever -- and therefore my sense has always been to be as organic as possible. Let drama unfold as it would in real life, which is to say that people in real life probably wouldn't tease out info in the way you're describing. I guess in the crime genre the person to look at in this way would be James Lee Burke, who deals far more with the emotion of issues than the face value. When he succeeds, like in Jolie Blon's Bounce for instance, it's not because he's forced us to wait for answers, but because we discover our answers at the same time the narrator does.

(And, Rob, I've read Clive Cussler and I'm not afraid to say all sales figures being equal, I'd rather read The Devil Wears Prada...)

JA Konrath said...


You missed the blog where I stated great art = popularity, and had a gazillion people jump on me.

That's what's fun about this place---dissenting opinions are welcome, and healthy debate is encouraged.

In tomorrow's blog: Deux Ex Machina--A Great Way to End a Book.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I've long said that every story should be a mystery, no matter what the genre.

In other words, it should unfold slowly, put questions in the reader's mind and take its time in answering them. And as each question is answered, a new one should arise.

Anonymous said...

The more I read this blog topic the more i conclude that the real problem is between the nature of POV. Either 1st person present narrative or third.

I could see suspense getting a little preachy and overcooked with third person. On the other hand, writing and discovering with the first person would add intimacy with the reader. Yeah...


Jude Hardin said...

If you want to know the ultimate secret to creating top-notch suspense...

Jude Hardin said...

I'll tell you tomorrow.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


I'm with you 100% here. It reminds me a little of the screenwriting term for dialogue being 'on the nose', which is something you don't want, where everything is just put out there and means exactly what it says. Subtext is good. My favorite books are the ones where information is doled out on a need to know basis only, so you keep reading to see if what you think might happen does.

There's a difference though between withholding information just to toy with the reader, which is what I think Rob has a problem with. That's just one way, not the only way. I like stories where the narrator is on the same page as the reader...both of us in the dark, discovering things together. That way I don't feel manipulated...if that makes sense.

Oh, and Rob, have you read more than one Koontz book? Just asking because I think he is one of the more literary suspense writers. He's been underrated for years, but has been getting more credit in recent years. Lightning, and Odd Thomas are two of his best books.

:) Pam

Jeri said...

And what about an unreliable narrator? She would hide or distort things, not for the sole purpose of toying with the reader, but for her own reasons. Do we take everything Holden Caulfield or Humbert Humbert says at face value?

JA Konrath said...

I'm not against playing fair with the reader. But I'm against revealing everything at once.

Consider Fight Club.

Jude Hardin said...

Make 'em worry, make 'em wait (but not too long), continuously raise the stakes.

Let's say we have four teenagers, two boys and two girls, in a remote cabin at night playing Monopoly by lantern light, drinking tequila and listening to Led Zepplin on a battery-powered boom box. The Monopoly pieces start to rattle on the board. Nothing much to worry about here, tremors like this occur frequently in this part of California. But now switch POV and show a dark figure crawling under the cabin and planting a suitcase there. Now we have something to worry about. We don't know yet what's in the suitcase, but we know it can't be good. Make the reader wait a while, then reveal that the suitcase contains a bomb. Now we really have something to worry about: four teenagers lives in danger. That might be enough, but why not raise the stakes some more. Let's say the bomb is a small nuclear device and that the cabin sets on a small geographical fault line that leads to a larger fault line that leads to the mother of all fault lines--the San Andreas. Now we REALLY have something to worry about. Half of california is in danger of falling off into the Pacific. Can we raise the stakes even more? Sure. Let's say a good portion of the nation's leaders (including the President and Vice President) are in San Diego attending the incumbent's party convention. Now our entire system of government might be in danger.

Now all we need is a protagonist to stop all this from happening.

Will he succeed?

I'll tell you tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Joe, Fight Club is the antithesis of what you were saying initially. You learn the true identity of Tyler Durden through the subtelty of the experience of reading it, and understanding that the nameless narrator is unreliable -- most 1st person narrators are unreliable, of course, but in Fight Club it's an exceptionally unreliable one -- not through dropping unanswered questions about "Gee, who is making all this soap..." type stuff. As a person who sort of built a house on unreliable narrators, this is sort of what I was talking about in my initial response, which is to say that the drama of Fight Club is not created through tricky dialogue, but through the circumstances of the story and characters finally making sense. The A-HA here is the moment when you, the reader, finally realize that it's a split personality (which happens, or at least it did for me, a short while before it happened to the narrator), not when the narrator reveals something he already knows.

Anonymous said...

Tod is right - with both his posts.

And on a semi-related-cuz-it's-in-the-backblog note:

What I think a lot of people forget, in this day and age of money = success, is there is very often a difference between what is good and what sells.

JA Konrath said...


Chuck was still witholding info from the reader, which made the book more compelling.

Whether that is done through dialog, action, or an unreliable narrator, it makes for a more itneresting story.

JA Konrath said...

"there is very often a difference between what is good and what sells."

The problem with that statement, Paul, is that it can't be proven.

Opinions are subjective. The only truly objective way to determine what is good is by popularity---how many people share the same subjective opinion.

One way popularity can be determined by sales.

I want to write popular fiction, and make a decent living doing so.

And I believe that trying to appeal to the masses is a more reasonable way to acheive this goal than writing 'art' which may only affect a certain segment of the literati.

I write for a targeted audience. Not for art. Not for intergrity. Not for the critics. Not for the approval of my peers.

I believe that it is possible to write for the masses and also write something good. And I believe that writing popular fiction is a lot harder than writing 'art.'

Anyone can write something and call it 'art.' Not everyone can top the NYT bestseller list.

It's easy to knock Koontz or King or Cussler or Brown or even Cornwell and Harris (which I do all the time.) It's easy to dismiss their writing, their characterizations. Its easy to call their work formulaic, cliched, and poorly done.

It is not easy to emulate their success, which is something I want to do.

I 100% agree that a lot of crap gets published.

Do you want to write art and be read by hundreds, or popular crap and be read by millions?

Because the folks who write art and are read by millions are pretty damn rare, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

(Long time reader, first time caller).

At the risk of seeming impartial, I think the principal debators (hereafter identified as the Konrathites and the Robergians) are arguing which colour the wheel should be.

I don't believe the Konrathites intended to say that the best/only way to build suspense is merely playing "I know something you don't know", nor are the Robergians arguing that the mystery should be resolved as soon as it is revealed.

Defining the grey area in between is hard, though, which is why everyone's discussing whether Art = Sales. It's easier to gracefully step out of a discussion when it descends into wholly subjective meaninglessness.

The extent to which a crime/mystery/suspense author plays with suspense is what defines them as a author. Whether you side with the Konrathites or the Robergians, it's important for the apprentice writer to consider this issue, pick a position, and stick with it (within each story).

Many successful mysteries are essentially just puzzles, with suspense generated from the complexity of the puzzle vs the patience of the reader. For many people who don't read crime extensively, this is the definition of a mystery story. The mark of a "good" mystery in this case is the extent to which the conclusion seems "fair" - is the solution as plausible and inevitable as it was obscure until the end.

At the other end of the spectrum is the chase story, in which there is really no mystery at all, just the "will they/won't they" suspense of the hero's journey. And in between is every flavour of crime/mystery/suspense story.

The "rules" of suspense (and reader expectations) are different along this spectrum. Agatha Christie doled out clues and twists in measured intervals, practically defining the mystery novel as it is seen popularly, whereas Alfred Hitchcock said the key to suspense was to "give the audience all the facts" (though he didn't practise this literally).

It's obviously possible for a writer to be "good" at either end of the spectrum. It's also possible to suck, utterly, at both.

And at the risk of sounding like I know what I'm doing, I posit that the key to employing suspense is:

Don't suck.

As a reader, you know what sucks. As a writer, then, you should be able to reasonably avoid sucking, by simply not doing anything which you, the reader, would identify as suckage.

Personally, I think the titular head of the Konrathites could have been clearer in defining suspense. In the two brothers example in the original post, the suspense only really works if there's a legitimate reason for Herb to keep the secret for later. If not, it's a cheat. It's not fair, and it sucks. (Guess that makes me a Robergian.)

Anonymous said...

The only truly objective way to determine what is good is by popularity

Wow. I don't even know where to begin with that statement.

In a way, it actually makes me feel bad for you. To believe that - you are so cheating yourself.

I'm sitting here thinking how to explain it to you, but it's a version of the Harley-Davidson adage - "If you have to ask, you'll never understand."

Meaning, if you truly believe that, Joe, then there is no way you will ever understand why it's so wrong.

JA Konrath said...

The arguement has continued over on Lee Goldberg's blog, at:

Paul-- "If you have to ask, you'll never understand."

That's a cop out. My logic is solid.

Popularity determines greatness, not subjective opinion.

What sells the most, and what wins awards, is how society venerates artists. There's no tape measure that you can hold up to a work of art that inarguably states if it is worthy or not. It's all personal opinion.

You don't have to like it. But I'd love to hear you prove me wrong.

"In the two brothers example in the original post, the suspense only really works if there's a legitimate reason for Herb to keep the secret for later. If not, it's a cheat. It's not fair, and it sucks."

That's a good point that I neglected to mention, but I've become so wrapped up in defending my posiiton I don't want to give an inch.

When you withold information from the reader, it needs to make sense in the context of the story, and it needs to have a purpose.

My post was for newbie writers who tend to dump all of their ideas on the reader at once, rather than dole them out slowly. I used some VERY simplistic examples to show this.

Anonymous said...

With your logic, then Janet Evanovich is a better writer than Gabriel Garcia Marquez...

Jude Hardin said...

Pop-Tarts vs. Budin De Virrey.

Welcome to the real world.

JA Konrath said...

"With your logic, then Janet Evanovich is a better writer than Gabriel Garcia Marquez..."

Can you catagorically prove that he's a better writer?

According to total sales, la Janet is the champ.

Lament that all you want, but the facts are the facts.

You can revere whomever you like, but it all comes down to how many people agree with you. And since we can't give the entire world a Gallup poll, all we have to go on is sales.

Making statements such as the one above is faulty logic. You infer a universal acceptance of Marquez being somehow superior. Why? Because of his florid prose? The weighty topics he writers about? His sentence structure?

I could effectively argue that Janet is much funnier than Marquez, and it's harder to be funny than provacative. I can argue that literature is a form of entertainment, and Janet is a more entertaining writer.

There is nothing intrinsic in ANYONE'S writing that makes it good or bad. There is only subjective opinion, and popular acceptance.

The infuriating thing is, I'm right.

Julia said...


I posted something similar on Lee Goldberg's comments, but I'm going to post it here too.

I both agree and disagree with you. First person POV work with your type of suspense. I enjoy a story where I figure it out as the character figures it out.

However, I get truly annoyed at the narrator who keeps info from me.

Mark said...

Sounds like the art v. pulp argument to me. All of these techniques should be invisible to the reader. If they see the trick it didn't work.

Rob Roberge said...

Joe wrote:

"You can revere whomever you like, but it all comes down to how many people agree with you. And since we can't give the entire world a Gallup poll, all we have to go on is sales."

so, opinion is meaningless and subjective, unless there's a GROUP, and then it's a fact. That's silly. And, really, too dumb to explore as an argument...and the fact that you can't see that, well, really it's kind of sad...and i could argue (and do it well) that Marquez is better than the people you name, but it would fall on the eyes of people who already decided to embrace crap, and it would be a waste of time...

Also, no one has sour grapes, just to be clear (at least not me or Tod, as I know him pretty well)...If I say Steve Perry or Dan Brown stink, it doesn't mean I'm mad at them...or that i want to be means they stink. (Altrough I believe Tod would disagree with me about Steve Perry :)

Some writers would like to have a career like, say Denis Johnson (an amazing writer with an audience)...rather than some hack who only adds to the cess pool of disposable mediocrity out there...

What Dan Brown and Kootz do really has nothing to do with what I do, and I think it's fine that they sell. it has a function for those who choose it, that's cool...

But no one (except you...putting up false claims and straw mnen, here) made claims of 'art' of the 'literati'. And no one made claims about wanting to do anything but entertaining books. We're not talking about Finnigan's Wake here.

Being entertaining and being good are not mutually exclusive...

Not everyone wants what you want, Joe (which reads to me like a lowest common denominator cynical world of 'product' measured by shareholder approval).

If audience IS quality, go write for Married With Children or some such shit...their worst-rated episode had a bigger audience than Dan, it must be better...

Be a hack. Like hack writing. It's all fine. We're not curing cancer here...But don't act like it's good, and don't have false bravado that hack writing is harder to do than quality writing. And don't act like what you're doing isn't a choice.

I just wanted to clear up some of the terms here--you seem like a nice guy...i'm all for helping writers...But just because you say facts are facts doesn't make it so (as, at the very least, our president has proven) can say your logic is sound...but it's based on such a silly and weak premise, it isn't worth arguing about.

Just because someone disagrees with you, or feels more passionately than you that shit writing is bad doesn't mean he is mad or full of sour grapes...I'm not mad at all...I wouldn't trade my life or writing career for anyone's...My career's good...people dig my books. I teach cause i want, not as some moron implied, because i don't entertain readers...I just disagree with you, man.

And yours is an opinion...Non verifable, except by the narrow terms you use, which i reject.

Peace. I'm off...just wanted to clarify some of the terms...and didn't want words (or theories on 'art' and sour grapes) put in my mouth. I'm not angry. I just, respectfully, think you're very wrong. And this blog is your house and people dig it, and I don't want to anger folks anymore in your house , so I think I'll take my leave--Wish you all the best



JA Konrath said...

"so, opinion is meaningless and subjective, unless there's a GROUP, and then it's a fact."

Did I say that? I thought I said that popular opinion dictates the greatness of art, because personal opinion doesn't count for much.

If Marquez is better than Evanovich, why has she sold more? Because people are stupid? A philosopher once said that it is impossibly for a country to elect a leader that is stupider than the electorate. Welcome to corporate america.

"If I say Steve Perry or Dan Brown stink, it doesn't mean I'm mad at them...or that i want to be means they stink."

Opinion. Not fact.

"Being entertaining and being good are not mutually exclusive..."

Really? Can you provide examples of good media that doesn't entertain, and entertaining media that isn't good?

"...lowest common denominator cynical world of 'product' measured by shareholder approval."

Books are products.

"But don't act like it's good, and don't have false bravado that hack writing is harder to do than quality writing."

So it's harder to write 'art' than to be a #1 NYT bestseller?

Married with Children was very good at what it set out to do. Belittle it all you want, it was a big success. But because Al Bundy wasn't filled with the criminal angst of Tony Soprano, it's easy to dismiss.

I contend that the best way we have to judge the success of an artist is sales. Show me I'm wrong.

"you can say your logic is sound...but it's based on such a silly and weak premise, it isn't worth arguing about."

In other words, you won't refute my arguement, you'll simply insult it.

"I'm not angry. I just, respectfully, think you're very wrong."

I'm not angry either. This is fun. And I think it's cool that you disagree with me. That's what makes this blog interesting.

"I don't want to anger folks anymore in your house."

I don't think you've angered anyone. In fact, you have many folks who agree with you. Which is how it should be. Healthy debate is good.

Sometimes things get heated around here, but I always respect the folks I debate with. If I ever get out of line, call me on it and I'll apologize.

Anonymous said...

this whole debate really brings two important points across: 1) building suspense is very important, and 2) sometimes we have to just ignore all you so-called experts and just figure things out ourselves. thanks as usual, joe.

Vince said...

"I thought I said that popular opinion dictates the greatness of art, because personal opinion doesn't count for much."

Popular opinion dictates the popularity of art. Nothing more, nothing less. Popular opinion is personal opinion in the aggregate.

"I contend that the best way we have to judge the success of an artist is sales. Show me I'm wrong."

You're right, Joe -- provided that you intend 'success' as a measure of popularity and not quality.

There are novelists who sold millions of copies but are now no longer in print. There are books that failed upon initial publication that are still read decades, even centuries later, in brand new editions. Authors in that first group, by any definition, have to be considered popular. Those in the second, arguably, are great. I never thought one had anything to do with the other. But those with a foot in each camp are forces to be reckoned with.

JA Konrath said...

"You're right, Joe -- provided that you intend 'success' as a measure of popularity and not quality."

What other way is there to objectively signify quality?

Vince said...

"What other way is there to objectively signify quality?"

There is no way to objectively signify quality. If there were, this argument wouldn't have been raging for days on this blog, and for centuries throughout history.

Quality is completely subjective, popularity completely objective. If two million people buy a particular book, that is a fact, and the author is to be congratulated and should at the very least buy a round of drinks for his pals. But that fact doesn't tell us how many of those two million people liked the book, or bought it solely to impress their friends, or even finished reading it. It only tells us that two million people bought this book. It doesn't measure anything else.

JA Konrath said...

"It only tells us that two million people bought this book. It doesn't measure anything else."

That's where we disagree.

I think popularity is a perfectly good way to judge the effectiveness of an artist.

For something to catch on, it has to resonate somehow. It isn't simply corporate marketing, because many big books and movies and TV shows fail.

Sales can indicate the how universal the appeal of a particular work of art.

JA Konrath said...

Van Cliburn sucks!

JA Konrath said...

"Yeah, but he's sold tons of albums, so he must be good, right Joe?"

Oh. Yeah. He's a genius.

Anonymous said...

"If a tree farted in the woods and there was nobody there to smell it would it still stink?..."

I'm a bit late to this discussion, two of my buddies were duking it out in the parking lot of the Dew Drop Inn. The squabble was about Miller Lite-- "Tastes great!" "Less filling!" To me that's one of the great debates with no clear cut answer; the redheaded step child of the math problem about pi.
So, I got no answers and I sure ain't calling nobody out -- but I got a question: Who would you rather be, Tom Waits or Kevin Federline? [ Britney bootie not included.] Ok, that's not a real good example, how about Vincent Van Gogh or Thomas Kincaide? If it's Vincent, I say go with your vision, don't worry about living in poverty and being long dead before your talent is appreciated. If it's Kincaide, I say go ahead and paint them pretty damn pictures and make mega-millions doin' it; ya' can't buy a Ferrari on the, " my estate will pay for it in a hundred years" plan.
And hey, if any of ya'll can be a Vincent Van Kincaide I tip my bottle of two dollar wine to ya.' [What was the question again?]

Respectfully, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

bro, if what you say about popularity is true, then we could say that what something is good or true because most people think and act that way... so, 60 years ago, we all thought that walking in the moon was impossible (according to your point of view that would mean that they are right because most people think is right) and someone would arrive and contradict everybody and be called crazy and stuff... and only time shall be the judge in this situation (we all know that it is actually possible to walk in the moon). So all through history thing were like that, think of colombus, copernico, galilei, etc... so you have something wrong in your logic bro... one of your premisses is wrong or false, check that up...

regarding the example of the brother teasing his younger sibling: you could have easily resolved that by saying - what if the older brother is actually hiding a present for his little brother? would the little brother be annoyed after knowing the secret for being teased? or would he be able to enjoy the present better? the thing is that we can actually use "manipulation" techniques for good causes like this one where the payoff is better.... if we withhold information for nothing, then it is just plain annoying, if we do it for a better purpose (and the payoff is worth it) we get magic.... no, seriously, we get magic.... think of it... how does magic works? do we actually show every single detail of the trick or the object? or do we really hide most of it to create that uncertainty issue that creates suspense and make the whole trick more interesting? do we actually explain what happens during the trick reveling the mystery? or do we actually hide almost everything for creating the effect? is that wrong? isn't that entertaining?
regarding Garcia Marquez... who has won a nobel prize? sometimes the best only are liked by the best (real elitism), just like fashion, there are some things you see at the catwalk that you would never even think to wear, but are rated excellently by the "experts".. so just think of that... maybe most people don't have the maturity for understanding real 'art' (just like most people didn't have the "maturity" for understanding that the earth was round at the time of Colombus)... and that doesn't make the artist a lesser one, it makes the artist, an innovator, someone ahead of its time... like I said before: only time shall be the judge in thin matter or any othre like this one...