Ruhlman Rebuttal

I like Michael Ruhlman. Hell, I recently bought two of his books.  However, I struggled with a recent Ruhlman blog post on the subject of food writing, and the applause in the comments. I am going to bypass the truisms (work hard, learn to write well, write often, write for an audience beyond yourself, don’t expect riches) and focus on the quotes that tripped me up, which lead each paragraph below in italics:

  • “Writing is not about the ‘me,’ it’s about the ‘not me.'” —  A pithy statement for sure, but riddled with confusion.  If one is talking about being mindful of the reader, then there is no argument from me, especially since much of food writing is a craft rather than an art. If one is talking about content, then the line between the two can get rather blurry.  Take Molly Wizenberg’s recent success, A Homemade Life.  I do not see how one can call this lovely book “not-me” without some philosophical pretzel-twists.  The same goes for cookbooks. Many authors, whether Bertolli in Cooking by Hand or Olney in Simple French Food, are not afraid to let the “me” shine through.  Actually, the “me” brings their books to life.
  • “It’s my belief  that there are too many cookbooks out there already and the unnecessary ones prevent the good ones from being seen.” — Dear Michael Ruhlman, how does someone who just published a new cookbook say such a thing?  And could you not make the same statement about any creative output?  It lays the foundation for a marvelously distopian setting: gothic street corner, hunkered masses, loudspeaker blaring: “This is a public service announcement to all artists, authors, producers and entertainers.  Cease and desist.  You are distracting the public from the True Quality.  If you are True Quality, you will know it because Enlightened Management will tell you that you are True Quality. Have an Obedient Day.”
  • “Blogs, of course, are still so new it’s hard to predict what they will look like in 10 years and who will be making money from them.  And, unlike any other form of engaging writing, they are almost always about the ‘me.'” — Back to the me/not-me issue.  Engaging writing?  I would argue that a huge amount of fiction is actually “me” highly disguised as “not-me” (and sometimes not so highly).  Nor do I think this surprising when many authors follow the advice “write what you know.”  Actually, I am coming to the conclusion that the terms me/not-me must mean different things to Michael Ruhlman and me, er wait, I mean “not-me”, or is that “him who is I”?
  • “Bottom line: don’t write if you can help it, and don’t write expecting to make money.  The only really good reason to write is because you have to.” — and hello curmudgeon Ruhlman!  I will grant that the odds are against having financial success as a writer (or most forms of creative expression). The odds are not impossible but they are tough.  I also have to grant that Ruhlman is probably talking about writing for a living, but I just cannot let such a sweeping statement go by.  The only good reason to write?! What stuff! Write if you love to! Write if you are determined to! Write if you want to improve your mind! Write if you want to express yourself! Write because you have the freedom to do so, and revel in that freedom! It has not always been so.

In the end, I suspect that some of Ruhlman’s comments are the result of people looking for shortcuts in a very tough, competitive, grueling profession (albeit not the only profession to deserve those descriptors).  Still, I prefer to applaud attempts to embrace the artistic.  A dose of realism is possible without trying to stamp a tender sapling into the ground.

  • Is there any way that you can return the Ruhlman book you just bought?
    I would.
    I write for me, and for whomever likes to read it along the way.
    I don’t expect riches, just maybe a free meal and some nice friends.
    My 2 cents has been put in.

  • Giff

    No no, I’ve read a bunch of his blog and he seems like a good guy. I thought he handled Elise’s highlighting of his new book on Simply Recipes very gracefully, and he does not seem to have an “old school publishing world” condescension (i.e. defensiveness) towards social media. And I think he personally responded when Claire asked him questions on a recipe in Charcuterie. So this isn’t about the man, but rather my belief that he holds a position of influence in the food world, and aspiring writers look up to him, so I wanted to counter what might have been a well-intentioned bludgeon.

  • Nice rebuttal. I read the same post and had a similar rather visceral reaction. You have summed up my issues with his comments quite nicely. I especially took offense to that last bit… ‘don’t write if you can help it.’ Fairly obnoxious on his part, and I’ve tried it (not writing) — turns out I HAVE to write. But also agree that his intentions are well-placed, and I’ll continue reading him.

  • ..just running past to say “Hi Giff!”
    I like Rhulman. He defended me once. Nice guy.
    And I like you too. You know that!
    But you have a good point..write if you want to. No other reason required.
    I like your style. Great writing here.

  • admin

    Hello Mary Ann! Thank you 🙂 I’m glad you had a great interaction with M.R. Confirms my impression!

  • nice job my friend. Personally, the more I am reading MR these days I am starting to see him as a touch arrogant, and I don’t like that. His Charcuterie cookbook has some large shortcomings. Sure there are lots of unnecessary cookbooks out there, but a lot of that is down to personal taste too.

  • Love the second bullet point Giff! And I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • I’ve gotten good cooking info from MR and am enjoying his new book, but do agree with you about the “unnecessary cookbooks” and writing statements. Everyone is free to buy or not, the market is open and I believe everyone who wants to write should do so, it can only help, if nothing more than to unload angst. I do it all the time, not expecting anything monetary.

  • Great post. I agree that the “me” gives a flavor to writing. However, if the “me” is trying too hard to be a money grab, that comes through in the writing. So does arrogance, which is a big turn-off.

  • I could not agree with you more Giff! Wonderful rebuttal. Keep writing, cooking, reading and buying those cookbooks!!!

  • Don

    While I do not own any of Ruhlman’s cook books, nor have I followed him at any length, I think that his blog on the subject of writing has been somewhat misconstrued. Though, I will concede that his statement about cookbooks is arrogant, his seeing his books potentially being eclipsed by bad ones. I also think his view of blogs is myopic. People have been putting word to web since the Internet came into being. The difference now is ease with which to publish online content and added collaborative functionally such as these comments.

    My take on the “not me” is his encouraging “fledgling writers” to be selfless. Writing in the third person, past passive, is indeed cold. Adding a personal dimension is engaging. At the same time, writers should be selfless and passionate, ignoring personal gain. This can produce well thought out and well researched ideas, be they deeply personal or otherwise. One of the characteristics that drove modernity is shared discourse. I think Ruhlman is trying to encourage quality discourse.

    Regarding the opening line of his concluding paragraph, “don’t write if you can help it”, I do not believe Ruhlman had any intention of discouraging people from writing. I think Ruhlman just wants writers to gage their convictions and put forth meaningful writing. Take for instance the sycophantic comments at the end of his blog. Most are short and uninformative. Very few, contribute to or develop the ideas he puts forward. Ruhlman seems to encourage the opposite; take the time to think critically; take the time to write critically.

    If anything, I surmise that Ruhlman is trying to pick a fight. He purposely chose his words to encourage visceral reaction. I’m glad that Giff’s Rebuttal responds. Kudos to you!

  • Giff

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Don and Shari, I did not think about the money grab / personal gain angle to the not-me/me issue, and that is a good point.

    Don, I agree with you that he chose his words to challenge the reader, and I am not one for coddling by any means. Still, it is hard not to feel that good writing is a fading art in our society, and so it is worth encouraging. With youth today, text messaging / IM culture has not helped. Or am I just getting old and that is a conclusion every generation has when looking at the next?!

  • Don

    Regarding writing, I have faith that function will beget form. If you are passionate about what you write, you want your readers to understand you. This means developing an effective writing style. After 11 years in information technology, the academic writing skills I developed as a sociology major have all but eroded. I am desperately trying to re-develop just basic writing skills.

    Though, I do agree with you. One of my dearest friends is an English teacher. Like her, I see text messaging and IM as blights on the English language. Adapting ourselves to a hyper-connected world has forced us down a slippery slope, producing acronym rich nonsense. However, I don’t think we are beyond redemption.

  • bee

    i like ruhlman too, but you are spot on. as for “don’t write more cookbooks”, maybe he should tell that to rachael 30-minute ray and the paula deen types. but they keep selling no matter how much crap they churn out. so he’s wrong about that too.

    i certainly have more cookbooks than i need, but i would love to see more cleverly and engagingly written books about food and nutrition. there are some blogs that do that.

  • My take, for what it’s worth, is that Ruhlman is talking principally about the profession of writing books rather than the hobby which is food blogging. I disagree with Ruhlman’s assertion that “only a handful[of food blogs] generate any income to speak of and those that do tend to offer useful information in an engaging way.” It seems to me that quite the reverse is true: many of the most popular food blogs – i.e. those with the most comments per post, are often those that require the least writing/ reading, have great photos and update daily or more. Reading and writing takes time and effort, and, to emphasize what I believe was Rulhman’s point, book format is often preferable for considered and careful writing since one’s attention span with online media is often so short. That’s not to say one is superior to the other, just that the skills and patience/effort required for the two formats are very different.

  • Giff

    I wonder — was he really referring to just books? I agree he was referring to professional, not hobbyist, writing, but it was the sweeping nature of the statements that bugged me, even if it was to exaggerate a point.

    I disagree that the most popular food blogs require less writing or thought than writing a book. Ignoring the photo sites, I think top bloggers like Smitten Kitchen or Pioneer Woman or Orangette spend a ton of time planning, writing, cooking, photographing, etc. Long form media does allow for more planning and considered content, I agree, but then cookbooks face the same challenge blogs do of have the most concise amount of text that is still engaging and useful. But sheer effort? Both are huge. In some ways you could argue that blogging is more unrelenting because you can’t go quiet for a while and make it up later.

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