Writing the Whole Enchilada

On Sunday, July 6th, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer played an incredible tennis match at Wimbledon, but what I found most interesting was that no U.S. men reached even the semi-finals, nor did they at the French Open. I also watched the televised celebration of the fourth of July at the U.S. Capitol and was far less than impressed with the performance of “American Idol” Tyler Hicks. On what might seem an unrelated note, the performance of American stock analysts was woefully inadequate in ferreting out and making public the all-too-obvious weaknesses in the mortgage securitization field, and the greed of all too many institutional investors in seeking “quick and unrealistic profits” was a major factor in creating the circumstances that led to the mortgage meltdown and the current recession. And, in the field of F&SF writing, where are the new “great” young American males? I see women with promise; I see comparatively young British writers like Charles Stross. I see a “great” book here and there, but see comparatively little continued production of consistently good books by more than just a few American male writers under 40, while the shelves are exploding with books by American women.

Admittedly, these are semi-anecdotal examples, but from what I’ve seen, they’re definitely representative. In all these cases, American men don’t seem terribly interested in perfecting the full range of talents necessary to excel. Current “top-level” American male tennis players don’t want to put in the hours and effort to perfect back-court ground strokes and work to obtain the conditioning necessary to scrap for every point in the way John McEnroe and Andre Agassi once did. One noted U.S. tennis coach closed his camp with the statement that young Americans didn’t want to work, because it interfered with their social life. Tyler Hicks is good looking, well-dressed, energetic, and enthusiastic, with good dance moves. Unfortunately, he’s supposed to be a singer, and his singing is definitely second-class, if that. So why are Americans focusing so much on appearance and failing to see that his vocal production is lacking? The failure of U.S. financial analysts to consider the full range of factors behind the credit and mortgage boom… and subsequent bust… reflects the same kind of failure — a focus on what is immediate and easy and profitable, rather than on the core requirements for long-term excellence and financial stability — and the results were just as predictable.

All of this applies to writing as well. In its simplest sense, fiction consists of two components — technical skill in putting words on the page and story-telling. Writers who have great technical skill and write beautifully crafted prose with either limited story-telling or none to speak of [such as in the Ghormenghast Trilogy] aren’t complete writers, and won’t sell much, if anything. Writers who are technically deficient but who tell great stories are like the top American tennis players — they’ll make money, but they’ll never be great.

In any field, to excel requires a mastery of the full range of skills, not just what’s easy, or popular, or what brings in the cash, and right now, it seems to me, the interest in popularity and cash is destroying the desire for greatness in all too many fields in the United States, especially those that take great and sustained effort, and particularly among American men.