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Dear Editor: What is "self-indulgent" writing?

Our "Dear Editor" series takes a question from the community on anything related to writing or art and offers analysis and advice. Readers should keep in mind that there's more than one way to skin a Xenomorph, however, and understand that alternate approaches to a question exist. Let us know if have any thoughts in the comments below, and feel free to send any questions for consideration via Twitter to @BastionSF, Facebook, or email, at editor@semioticstandard.com.

This week's question is taken from a post on the /r/writing subreddit, from user /u/QuirkySpiceBush. Check out the whole thread here.

Dear Editor,

What is “self-indulgent” writing? I like the sci-fi novel Dhalgren by Samuel Delany, and I recently read an old review that called the novel "self-indulgent."
What does this mean? I mean, I understand the phrase, but the more I try to nail down the meaning in a literary context, the less confident I feel in my interpretation.

 

Hi QuirkySpiceBush,

     There are already some decent responses in the thread, and I have no intention of restating what’s already been said on the subject, except to summarize: self-indulgent writing could loosely be explained as writing that has the primary purpose of being a showpiece for the author’s talent. When a piece of writing is self-indulgent, the author’s ego is on display at the expense of a meaningful or enjoyable story, sacrificing plot, character, setting, etc. 
     I was curious to see what the reviewer had to say exactly about Dhalgren, so I did a little digging. I’m not sure if I found the exact review in question, but I did find several responses on GoodReads that agreed the novel was self-indulgent: 

     “Overall, I thought it would have been a great novel for early in a career - in that it does some things brilliantly, but other things very badly, and shows a lot of promise. I was disappointed to discover that it's generally considered his masterpiece, because I think that writer could have written something much better than that. To be honest, I think the book is... self-indulgent? Narcissistic maybe even, perhaps?”

by Wastrel, Dec 23, 2014

and

     “I agree with you on the self-indulgent aspect--it seems to be it could have been edited down quite a bit.”

by Wanda, Dec 25, 2014

     Of the 5,862 ratings Dhalgren currently has, the book has a rating of 3.81 out of 5, so it seems to be regarded pretty well. I read through a few of the reviews and there were several references to the prose being challenging. While I could offer my own opinion of the text or further examine the reviews of others, that would defeat the entire purpose of the point I’ll be trying to make.
     To me, the more interesting question is this: is a piece of writing self-indulgent because someone says that it is? Reviews are, of course, just opinions. While I don’t at all subscribe to the thought that all opinions are created equal, when you’re looking at a collection of reviews on a body of work, typically the aggregate is enough to point you in the right direction. If six out of ten reviewers share a similar opinion, there may be some objective validity to that opinion.
     I read through the thread that inspired this post, and went through the comments of others around the Internet, and one of the most common themes I came across when defining self-indulgent writing was the use of vocabulary. Many people hold the opinion that self-indulgent writing can be identified by the use of bombastic language, or the employment of an obscure or esoteric vocabulary. There have been other prominent authors who’ve similarly cautioned against unnecessarily “showy” language. Take for instance George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language, which first appeared in 1946 in the April issue of the journal Horizon:

     “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

And in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style:

     “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

     They are, of course, exactly correct. Any first-year creative writing instructor would advise her students to write simply and concretely. But the really interesting question, in my mind, is what does that mean? Like many questions in fiction the answer can be endlessly debated, yet ultimately boils down to this: it depends. Everyone’s definition seems to vary a bit, but most of us agree that we know it when see it. 
     I won’t strictly define what is or what is not self-indulgent, as its subjective nature makes it tricky to identify. What I might consider self-indulgent you may not have a problem with. That said, anyone who defines self-indulgence by the density of a work’s vocabulary may be missing a greater point. The English language is a living thing and it evolves rapidly. Webster regularly adds new words to the dictionary, and many words that might have been commonplace years ago have since fallen out of style. Consider the following passage found on page 264 from Melville’s Moby-Dick:

     “Forced into familiarity, then, with such prodigies as these; and knowing that after repeated, intrepid assaults, the White Whale had escaped alive; it cannot be much matter of surprise that some whaleman should go still further in their supersitional declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time); that though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he would still swim away unharmed; or if indeed he should ever be made no spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; for again in unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen.”

     The passage is a bit of a mouthful, and the novice reader might take to the dictionary once or twice to get through. You probably won’t come across too much writing like this in modern fiction—Moby-Dick was published in 1851, after all. But could Melville’s work be considered self-indulgent? I don’t think so, even if he does go to tremendous lengths to educate the reader on the minutia of whales, their behavior, classification, etc. You might not consider this information necessary to the plot if all you cared about were the adventures of a brutally obsessed sea captain, but Melville's work is unquestionably a classic. If you were to try to write fiction like Moby-Dick today, you might be labeled as a self-indulgent writer. Writing styles and reader taste changes over time.
     What if we were to go the opposite direction? Here’s a selection of text from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, found on page 230:

     “American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes. 
     The idea was to hasten the end of the war.”

     Anyone familiar with Vonnegut’s work knows that it’s some of the most approachable text available in terms of vocabulary and sentence complexity . . . and yet, I’ve seen it referred to as self-indulgent (forget the why of that for now—it’s beyond the scope of this article, although that does reinforce my point that self-indulgent writing is hard to pin down). 
     Creative writing is, on some levels, a self-indulgent practice. Most of us write because we enjoy it. There’s a lot of pleasure derived from writing what you enjoy, forming that perfect metaphor, drawing that apt comparison, or painting that obscenely attractive setting. But if self-indulgent writing isn’t strictly reliant upon a fancy vocabulary or sentence structure, and if we can accept that most authors write because they find the endeavor enjoyable, then what does self-indulgence require?
     The key, I think, has something to do with intent as it relates to what is conveyed to the reader. If you’re writing something you intend for others to read and enjoy, then think about what your goals are. Never mind dumbing down your language—that’s something that can and has been written on endlessly, and I tend to think that a slight stretching of your reader’s vocabulary isn’t a bad thing. Pay attention instead to what the story requires, and your own motivation. Be honest with yourself. Are you mature enough to acknowledge when you’re writing to impress? If the story needs to have twenty thousand words dedicated to the classification of whales, then by all means, classify away, and use a narrative that meets the requirements of the story. But if something is superfluous to the plot, if the language begins to obscure your story (in its purpose, not its implementation), then you just might have a self-indulgent piece of writing on your hands.