Literary Chops and the Status Quo
Okay, so Hanging Chad hasn’t hung it up. Just gone through an identity crisis. Yes, another one. Who’s counting? But these internal tectonic shifts are somehow important. At least I’d like to think so. At least if I can keep my balance and redirect.
For the past three years I’ve been at work on three novels. Why not one at a time? Lots of reasons. Everything from feeling like one was ready and just in need of connecting with the right personnel, to exploring a new style (which sometimes didn’t work), to wanting to “just write” and complete a draft. I’ve completed some drafts. I have one market-ready novel. I have a marketing plan. I feel great about it. But I also am envisioning where I want to take the next steps forward. One challenging part of writing is the complete creative directing that comes into play. There is no creative production team–at least not at first. So, strategy comes into play. Strategic vision, you might say. David Shields has been making the point of writing relevant literature for many years now, and his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has been shaking my tree and challenging how I want to channel my energies.
So, I was talking about identity. I think part of the “problem” is developing an acute awareness of what is happening within the forms and definitions of literature itself, as much as seeking to tell the “truth,” to chart out some new territory, explore, dramatize some hidden dimension of life–to discover those things. I’m not here to pretend to resolve centuries old “issues” about the tensions and differences between writing for money and writing for the sake of “art.”
Writing for the larger market is a skill–whatever we may finally assess of it as art–and giving the readers what they want requires acumen, creativity and plain hard work. Writing what we call literature, what is interesting to me, what I want to say, challenging the status quo, interpreting culture and the definition of what is “literary,” is what also pushes the art to evolve. But if only other writers of the ever-diminishing tribe of literature read the work in question (at best), then what is the point? How different is it than singing in the shower or joining the Mutual Admiration Society?
I have a good friend who “cracked the code,” whose novel went international, who sold major rights deals, who was trying to write something smart and marketable but also literary. A major publisher signed him to a three-book deal for his first novel. I believe the novel sold well
in a few countries. Only after disappointing American sales on the second book, the publisher is now telling him the kinds of characters they’d like to see in the third. I guess that’s a good problem to have, but when the major publishers tell their authors the kind of characters they need to employ because they know how it will appeal to their intended market audience? I guess we can see who has the power in this relationship.
I’ve read and discussed and heard literally probably hundreds of discussions on related issues like “what is literary fiction,” and how you must always have an audience in mind, and how some say literature is dying because of the callow American culture. How far down has the culture really gone though? Only 1% of the population even graduated from college up until 1960. Is our culture really so under-educated in America? To me, it seems more of a re-directing of interest and energy. (And yes I think basic literacy is pretty poor, but that’s another topic.)
Overall, though, with the previously unimagined proliferation of information people now have access to, people are reading as much as ever before, probably MUCH more. It’s just that there are so many other kinds of discourse now. So many other dominant forms of entertainment. So many other forms of cultural boundary pushing that literature is left in the dust. Can you even remember the last bestseller that you felt had serious literary chops? So, I’m inspired by the likes of David Shields and others who are examining their fields from the inside out in order to write compelling literature that legitimately competes for our profoundly divided attention.
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