Novelists are famous for their struggles. We must face the crisis of writer’s block, the crushing disillusionment of learning that our work needs improvement, and the emotional turmoil of revision. Many novelists must weather rejection after rejection while struggling to find instructional materials that actually help them improve. A writer can spend decades of study and thousands of dollars in educational programs and still not have the skills required for success.
For the few that do well, it feels good to believe that success is based on merit and that there are no wrongs to rectify. But this state of affairs wasn’t inevitable. It’s the result of a cultural movement that started over 200 years ago and still has a grip on us today.
The Tenets of Romanticism
Romanticism was born in late 18th-century Europe, during the Age of Enlightenment. In France in particular, Enlightenment rationalists judged art, theater, and literature by the standards of neoclassicism. This included a bunch of arbitrary and extremely restrictive storytelling rules Mythcreants has mocked elsewhere. For instance, all stories were supposed to take place over a 24-hour period. Naturally, speculative elements such as ghosts were out of the question.
Starting in Germany, Romanticism arose partly as a backlash to this nonsense. While the specific expression of it naturally varied a great deal, it generally included the following beliefs:
- Neoclassicism called for emotions to be restrained, whereas Romanticism placed central importance on emotion. Works were supposed to express the emotional state of the writer and appeal to the emotions of the audience.
- Artistic freedom and originality were considered paramount, whereas being cliché or derivative was the worst. Writers were even supposed to isolate themselves from the outside world to ensure nothing influenced them.
- Many Romantics thought that if a good artist was left alone, their subconscious would follow natural laws. Accordingly, they believed great stories came from the unbridled inspiration of writers who were inherently genius.
- Romantics asserted that because literature and art are a matter of subjective taste, there’s no point in following rules of any kind.
While less central to this topic, Romanticism also had tone and aesthetic preferences. In response to the industrial revolution, they emphasized idyllic depictions of nature and of the past. They were fond of the medieval period and had no issue with speculative elements. Unsurprisingly, this led to today’s fantasy.
History nerds will tell you that Romanticism peaked in the first half of the 19th century and then was replaced by realism. Instead of idyllic scenes of nature and the past, it valued the gritty reality of the present. Also, speculative fiction was once again taboo, because of course it was.
But those were just aesthetic changes. Somehow, the reign of the genius writer who spontaneously generates masterpieces from their subconscious never ended. Today, this idea still influences many fields. While storytellers of all stripes have no doubt encountered it, novelists are among the most affected.
How This Sabotages Novelists
Even if you don’t explicitly believe in the tenets of Romanticism, you probably internalized them before you ever set pen to paper. According to Romanticism, everything you need to know is hidden in your subconscious, so most writers begin under the impression that they don’t have much to learn. After a novelist starts an ambitious work under this mindset, the next step is a collision course with reality. Sooner or later, the vast majority of fiction writers will face harsh disillusionment and disappointment. But this only happens because of the writer’s beliefs coming in.
To illustrate just how profoundly Romanticism has changed the learning process for fiction writers, let’s compare it to another craft without so much baggage: woodworking. It’s obviously wrong to say that woodworking includes no artistry; it has a great deal. However, everyone understands that if you want to create a wood chair that won’t collapse under you, you have to follow some natural principles. Similarly, if a novelist wants anyone to appreciate their story, they can’t just write “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeatedly for a hundred pages.
Now, imagine it’s your first day in woodworking class. To start, the teacher shows you how to use a few tools, and then sets you to work making something incredibly simple. Maybe you’ll cut out a few chunks from a two-by-four, sand them smooth, then nail them together before you stain and varnish.
You show your work to the teacher, and she points out where you needed to sand more or where your cutting was imprecise. Maybe you were hoping she would be impressed, but it’s only your first try, so it’s no big deal. You listen to her tips and work on improving your skills as you slowly take on more challenging projects.
If you learned woodworking via the principles of Romanticism, you would forgo instruction in favor of intuition, cloister yourself in your basement, and try to build a liquor cabinet as your first project. Then, when your liquor cabinet looks terrible and starts falling apart, you would feel absolutely crushed. Not just because your project didn’t work out, but because of what you think this failure means about you.
Again, Romantics believe that masterpieces have no origins other than the writer’s inherent genius. So when something goes wrong, it means the writer isn’t good enough. And because learning is discouraged, this supposed genius or lack thereof is largely an immutable characteristic. When your ambitious first attempt at a liquor cabinet doesn’t work out, that means you are forever incapable of crafting a good one.
In our search for answers, many writers learn that this mindset is wrong. But by that time, we’re usually invested in an ambitious project. We’ll spend all of our energy trying to fix our janky liquor cabinet instead of practicing on smaller projects, thereby making our progress slow and discouraging. When we finally move on, it’s tempting to think that since we’ve grown, we can do the same thing and it’ll work out this time. Just as likely, the cycle of disillusionment will repeat itself.
On top of that, just because we know better doesn’t mean the internalized messages go away. Whenever we send our work to an editor, agent, or publisher and get a less-than-glowing response, what many of us hear is you aren’t brilliant enough. To accept that our work has flaws and spend our time and energy fixing them, we have to face our feelings of inadequacy.
Whenever we get stuck, this sentiment rears its head. We might be stuck because the wood we used to build our cabinet isn’t quite right, we measured wrong in the beginning, or our day job is sapping all of our energy. But rather than thinking of obstacles in terms of the particular situation we’re dealing with, we’ll blame ourselves. Every time a project doesn’t go smoothly, it’s because we have woodworker’s block. Naturally, solving this problem via any sort of calculated method is gauche.
Even the rare writer who succeeds with their first novel is hindered by Romanticism. Sure, their ego is comfortably inflated,* but believing in their own genius means they are unlikely to grow much as a writer. After they become famous, they will reject all feedback from editors, and their novels will go downhill from there.
How Romanticism Sabotages Editors
While the damage to writers is enough to justify why Romanticism is harmful, the writing itself is only one part of the fiction industry. Many writers get critical feedback from their editors. But editors aren’t helping fiction writers as effectively as they could. Romantic ideology holds them back.
Under Romanticism, the emotion, creativity, and subconscious of the individual writer is paramount. Outside influences on the creative process are frowned upon. Editors are a shameful outside influence, and they are painfully aware of it. While an editor focusing only on the technical aspects of writing may not have much trouble, when it comes to the story itself, many, if not most, editors are afraid to offer suggestions or examples.
For instance, let’s say your heroine is on a quest for a magic sword. She has a mentor with her, and every time she faces an obstacle, the mentor tells her what to do. This means she has no agency, a common storytelling problem. A content editor who knows their business will notice this issue and inform the writer. However, most writers need more guidance than simply knowing what the problem is. Unless they are already experienced storytellers, they’ll also need to know how to fix it.
That’s why when Mythcreants does content editing, we report problems to the writer in a format like the one below.
I love the labyrinth of challenges the heroine has to go through to reach the magic sword – they’re fascinating and full of tension. However, currently the heroine gets past those challenges simply by following the directions her mentor gives her once he reads the ancient inscriptions. Readers are likely to find that unsatisfying; they’ll want to see the heroine triumph over each challenge using her own mettle or wits.
- One option is to have the heroine enter the Labyrinth alone or become separated from her mentor while they are inside. That way she’ll have to decipher the inscriptions herself. She might have picked up a little of the ancient language from her mentor, or she could look at illustrations and other clues to guess what it means.
- Alternatively, the mentor could keep reading the inscriptions, and the heroine could be instrumental to some other aspect of each challenge. After the inscription is translated, her mentor might need help understanding what the cryptic words mean. Or they might give dangerous instructions that she must complete because she’s in better shape than her mentor.
Our goal is to give our clients actionable advice that they can follow even if they aren’t storytelling experts. With these types of recommendations, writers not only know what the problems are, but also they’ve been given some ideas for how those problems could be solved in their stories. They can use our suggestions if they want to, but even if they don’t, it provides a more specific idea of what they need to do.
Most content editors we speak to are astounded that we do this. In their minds, if they offer any ideas in their feedback, the story wouldn’t belong to the writer anymore.
When explaining why this isn’t the case to other editors, Oren uses a specific analogy. Let’s say you decided to give yourself a new hardwood floor. You talk to an expert and tell them about your home, your budget, and what kind of floor you want. Based on your needs and goals, the expert recommends you use maple. You buy a bunch of maple, but you still have to do all the hard work of putting in the floor and finishing it. When it’s all done, you would never say the expert created your new floor. You obviously did it yourself.
However, if the flooring expert followed the tenets of Romanticism, they wouldn’t be able to give you any suggestions. Instead, they would try to offer advice aimed at provoking thought and providing inspiration, hoping that will allow you to come up with the right ideas yourself.
They might tell you:
- Visit buildings with beautiful hardwood floors and study them closely.
- Ask yourself: how should each wood grain flow to create a pleasing pattern?
- For fifteen minutes each morning, sit quietly and picture the perfect floor in your head.
It’s not that these suggestions are necessarily bad; some of them might be quite helpful. But if used instead of more concrete advice, they’ll probably leave you confused about whether to choose maple, oak, or pine.
It is true that to give helpful suggestions, an editor has to have a good understanding of what’s important to you and what you want to accomplish with your story. Mythcreants works to draw this information out of our clients, whereas most editors we know of count on their clients to volunteer anything that’s important.
How It Affects Instruction
Instruction for novelists comes from a wide variety of sources, including academia, books, and industry workshops. When it comes to the technical side of writing, I think these sources do okay.* But on the storytelling side, their value is more limited. That’s where Romanticism holds the most sway.
In response to the arrogant artistic “rationalism” of the Enlightenment, Romantics basically swore off understanding. They declared that everyone would just use their subconscious to craft stories and that there was no point in trying to create guidelines because it’s all subjective anyway.
So unsurprisingly, a great many professionals in the industry today, including writers and editors, rely on their subconscious to make storytelling judgments. They know something’s broken when they read it, but they have trouble identifying the cause of the problem and describing it to others. They’ll struggle to form that knowledge into a general principle that helps others avoid the same problem.
At Mythcreants, we call the process of articulating what your gut knows intellectualization. Without it, you may recognize a storytelling principle at some level, but you don’t fully understand it. And if you don’t understand it, you can’t teach it. This is one reason that bringing in best-selling novelists isn’t a magic fix for bad writing instruction.
The problem is that instructors have to learn what they teach somewhere. When a society has spent hundreds of years rebelling against bad attempts at understanding by rejecting the pursuit of knowledge, what anyone in that society can learn is limited. That’s how you get this state of affairs. You know, the state of affairs where a blogger like me is constantly making up terms because no one in the industry has words for anything.
Academia is supposed to be the one teaching, innovating, and spreading the best ideas. But while professors vary in approach, in general academia is steeped in the same Romantic tenets of emotional primacy, absolute subjectivity, and subconscious genius. Professors tend to be less interested in studying natural principles of audience engagement and more interested in preaching realism. Ironically, while the Romantic notions they embrace were designed to thwart creative restrictions imposed by oppressive institutions, today’s academia is the oppressive institution.
If their instruction doesn’t help students write compelling works, professors can claim it’s the fault of the student for lacking inherent talent. Since academics are vetted by other academics, this culture can perpetuate itself without outside accountability.
While Romanticism may have sprung from the events in the 18th century, the parts that endured have done so because writers have chosen to perpetuate it for hundreds of years. For big names, it offers verification of their superiority and a shield against any type of criticism. For everyone else, it offers seductively beautiful ideas about the magic of inspiration and the poetic martyrdom of the suffering writer. But we don’t need this mysticism to be passionate about storytelling, and we’ll all be better off if we give it up.
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