Thursday, 11 May 2017

U is for UP TO SNUFF

Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries taking snuff (powdered tobacco) was a rich man's vice and the valuable commodity was carried in ornate boxes crafted in gold, mother-of-pearl and other precious materials. Thus, if you were 'up to snuff' you were the tops in terms of wealth, fashion and sophistication. Few people now indulge this habit but the phrase 'up to snuff' lives on as a way of describing things or people of recognisably superior quality. How can we achieve this accolade for our work as writers? The only people who can confer it are our readers. That means we can't know whether our books are recognised as having real quality until they are published. By then it's too late to improve them. What steps, then, can we take while our work in in progress to ensure that it has a good reception and reflects favourably upon our skill as writers?

Well, we could let friends or family members read it. Not the best idea! It's a bit like putting our own child out to foster parents. We are reluctant to see it forming other relationships. As for the chosen readers they are likely to be very complimentary because they want to please us. If they stifle their reservations we have learned nothing. On the other hand, if someone gives us honest critical feedback we might resent it - and bang goes a beautiful friendship!

Alternatively, we could put our precious MS out to a professional reader. There are plenty offering their services - for a fee. The best ones will tactfully give considered advice. Here, the problem is that we are dealing with just one individual, whereas the success of a book depends on the favourable concensus of thousands of readers, each with his or her own preferences. More importantly, such paid critics have no personal investment in our work. They will not share in our success or failure once the book hits the market.

It remains true that the best people to help us raise our game are agents and publishers' editors. They do have a stake in furthering our careers. If we prosper, so will they.

So much for seeking criticism. The other side of the coin is knowing how to take it. Whatever we write reaches its 'finished' form as the result of a long, continuing process of self-criticism (or it most certainly should). We are constantly changing, revising, crossing out and re-inventing. We - and only we - know what we want to say and how we want to say it. As a result, it's not easy to accept from someone else any suggestion that we may have got it wrong, that it could have been done better. Successful writing involves compromise because we need to write, not only what we want, but what other people want to read. Compromise is never easy. If we reject it, there's no point in our seeking advice in the first place. If we slavishly follow every amendment urged upon us, we will end up with something that does not satisfy us and may well not satisfy others.

In bygone eras social climbers tried to get up to snuff by slavishly following fashion and I guess not a lot has changed in that regard. It may be true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it seldom, if ever, works in the writing world. Copying popular authors' subject matter and style invariably ends up by exposing our own lack of 'flair' or 'elan'. And, in my opinion, there's something tawdry about piggy-backing on someone else's achievements. We should be offering our own skill and insight to the world.

Will we be rewarded in material terms for doing so? Well, it would be nice to believe that 'genius will out' but experience suggests that, 

     Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
     And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

There are two truths about the writer's world that are profoundly unfair: too much rubbish gets published and too much work of real merit does not get into print. But success is not solely measured in material terms. Self-satisfaction, regardless of market reaction, is worth more in the long term. An author whose life and work are marked by passion, imagination, persistence and sheer, bloody slog is, I suggest, a creative agent who is truly up to snuff.
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