Baby, it’s hot outside or the perils of “good writing”

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Today’s column focuses on the subject of taste and how our perception of taste affects everything — including our beliefs about “good writing.”

I’m writing this as I sit in the local branch of our public library. Why? Not because of the books, although I adore being surrounded by such tangible evidence of the work of writing. I’m here for one reason. The air conditioning.

In Vancouver, we have been living — and I use that word loosely — through a relentless wave of stinking hot weather. Yesterday, at the airport, it was the highest temperature ever recorded in Vancouver in July.

My house was worse, trust me. Our back porch hit 38 C (that’s 100.4 F) in the early evening shade. And as we tried to go to sleep, at 11:30 pm, our bedroom was 32.5 (more than 90 F).

Furthermore, it’s been like this for six freaking days. Not that I’m a wimp. When we went to Nevada and Arizona in May, it was 100 degrees just about every day and I thrived. But there, every time we set foot inside it was like walking into a Frigidaire.

Part of the issue here is that that few Vancouver homes have air conditioning. It rarely breaks 75 degrees — and almost never does that at night — so most people would rather spend their spare cash on extra umbrellas and rain boots.

And where we do have air conditioning (grocery stores, big offices) it’s often a little suspect. If the air conditioning I experienced in Las Vegas was an actor, it would be Arnold Schwarzenegger — ready to jump on the hot air and wrestle it to the ground. Here it’s more like Jason Alexander — flustered, ineffectual and a tad sullen.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I was speaking with a friend the other day and he was loving this hot weather. But that doesn’t make him a better, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan person than me. It just makes him different. Similarly, if you prefer even colder temperatures than I do, that doesn’t make you morally superior.

Writing is much the same. There is no Socratic ideal that constitutes “good writing.” Fact is there’s a small amount of writing that’s so good that most people will call it such. And there’s a slightly larger amount that most people would discern as bad. But once we’ve eliminated the extremes, it comes down to a matter of taste.

For example, I recommended Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked, which I loved, to a neighbour of mine. She told me at a party recently that she hated it. (Worse yet, she’s the kind of person who can’t leave a book unfinished, even if she doesn’t like it. Oh, the guilt. . . .)

But this strong reaction shouldn’t have surprised me. If you look up the book on Amazon, you can see that 632 people give it five stars. On the other hand, 264 give it one star — the lowest rating. Who was right? Both camps! Just as we have strong opinions about the weather, so, too, we have strong opinions about writing.

Similarly, I’ve noticed a positive relationship between the fan mail I receive for this newsletter and the number of unsubscribes I get. In other words, the columns I write that earn the most wildly enthusiastic responses also generate the most unsubscribes. This might seem contradictory but, actually, it makes perfect sense. What some people love, others, inevitably hate. Very often, the words or thoughts that draw out the strongest feelings in us are exactly the same words and thoughts that make other people feel uncomfortable, bored or angry.

So, for the writer, there’s only one question:

It’s not: “Is this writing any good?” Or, “Will this piece of writing win a prize?” Or, even (unless you’re writing fiction), “Do I like this piece of writing?”

The question is: Does the writing meet the reader’s needs?

No matter how hot the temperature outside, that’s what you need to know to stay cool, calm and collected.

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