Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writerly Misconceptions: Writing for posterity

"I don't write for the popular press," the writer says. "I write for posterity!"

(And then strikes a pose, hand on heart, black beret cocked at a rakish angle to highlight her artistic features.)

I never figured out how this one was supposed to work. Though unread in her time, the writer's works would magically manifest in the canon a hundred years hence, blipped there by... time travelers? literary-minded aliens? antiquarians who found her complete oeuvre on an ancient data stick?

And yet this idea seems perfectly reasonable to anyone who's completed a high school English course. The stuff in the canon, the stuff that's supposed to be the Glories of the Ages, is nothing like what we enjoy reading now. Shakespeare had a fine way with words if you can read Elizabethan English, but his plots are crap. Austen had a fine way with plots, but her style is dry. Dickens is purple. Poe is purpler. Gilgamesh is just plain boring. The entirety of the English canon contains fewer than a score of books that would be walloping good reads to the average reader of today. The point is that although these books are written in outmoded styles, some element of their stories, writing, or historical significance makes them worth reading past their sell-by date; but it's an easy point to miss. People can be forgiven for thinking that one of the defining elements of a Good Book is that it's written unlike anything they'd want to spend an airplane trip with.

And yet all of the Good Books were popular in their day. Dracula and Frankenstein were cheap trash. Pride and Prejudice was a good light read. Dickens was the first modern literary superstar, not in spite of but because his early novels were sentimental garbage. Shakespeare's works were The Sopranos; Chaucer's were Desperate Housewives. Even the Good Books that weren't popular successes were literary successes. These works were passed down to later generations because people liked them. Ordinary people, the Waldenbooks shoppers, the library-reading-group-goers, and the airline travelers of their day.

So if you want your works to live on for the ages, you have to write for those same people. (And they are the same people. Folks is folks throughout the ages; there has never been a Golden Age of Literary Audiences.) You don't have to write lowest-common-denominator trash. You do have to write books that contain what current audiences are looking for--sharply defined characters, fresh takes on the world, and it never hurts to be witty--as well as containing all the weightier stuff you're trying to impart to Future Generations. You have a hundred genres and styles to choose from, so you're not penned into the Deep Literary Mode or the Sentimental Romance Mode or the Action-Packed Thriller Mode or whatever else you think the world is herding you toward; but you are penned into writing a book that modern audiences will want to read.

Good luck. Writing a book that will last through the ages means writing not only a popular book, but the most popular of the popular books. You're trying to win the ultimate literary popularity contest. It's a grand goal and a hard one; so take my well-wishes and all the good advice you've ever been given, and go into it knowing what you're really trying to do.

17 comments:

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Margot:

I read your comemnts at Fran's Whatever and wanted to let you know how strongly I agree. I chuckled when you wrote that she takes to criticism like a cat takes to a bath and how she'll still be posting about how writing has ruined her life (what life? - it is her life, such as it is) in 2017.

I've left similar comments there in the past, and was met with torrents of obscenities in large font sizes. In one of her responses, Fran analogized herself to Mozart and me to Salieri. She really does think she's an unrecognized genius. I find her site sad but her pathology fascinating.

BTW, I can almost guarantee she'll comment here or on her own site about my comment. I'm sure she's checking your blog out and will read this.

Margot said...

You got obscenities in large font sizes? I'm jealous. She hasn't changed font size once for me.

I'm not so sure she's reading this blog yet. She hasn't exploded over this post, although it's been up for quite a while in blog-time. Fran's reactions are immediate and extensive, so a lack of response is a guarantee that she hasn't visited while this post was up.

I find her site sad but her pathology fascinating.

I agree. She's particularly fascinating because unlike most people in her situation, she has a workable degree of competence in writing. It makes the gap between where she is now and where she thinks she is all the more obvious. If she would just stretch out her foot and step across the gap, she could have a career as a writer, but that would involve admitting that her writing isn't brilliant yet.

how she'll still be posting about how writing has ruined her life (what life? - it is her life, such as it is) in 2017.

I predict that in five years, Fran will:

* have five full years' worth of blog posts.

* write four more novels.

* publish one, either on her own or via a group like the ULA.

* be bitterly disappointed in the reception of her published novel. She'll cave and make a few perfunctory stabs at self-promotion, but undermine herself by complaining incessantly about how badly the novel is doing and how she's too talented for modern audiences to appreciate.

* remain convinced that Tao Lin is behind everyone who criticizes her.

I also predict that within a week, she'll make a new flurry of posts on her blog. Probably about me. I'll have expanded into an entire mob by then, which is daunting--so many shoes to fill.

Thanks for commenting. (You're the first commenter on this blog!) It's good to know that someone else sees what I see in Fran. I'd go to your blog and comment back, but it's late and I have a busy day tomorrow. The Literary Establishment is having a brunch meeting to blacklist all writers whose ideas are crisper than a damp dishcloth, and I'm in charge of bringing the dishcloth.

Ja mata,

Margot

Peter L. Winkler said...

Great response! I think we've diagnosed Fran well enough to develop an AI Fran's Whatever simulacra that would automatically generate blog posts indistinguishable from hers;).

Unfortunately, I disagree about Fran's writing. I read two of her short stories and part of one her novels quite a while ago. The shorts had decent premises - one was about a woman who gets an electrical shock, the other was about some "word powder" - but those and the beginning of the novel all devolved into sexual fantasies. She also has that horrible affinity for stringing words together with hyphens.

Please avail yourself of my blog. You needn't comment, though intelligent comments are always welcome.

Peter

Peter L. Winkler said...

Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but I see from the comments stream at Fran's that you are now making the same mistake I previously made: trying to engage Fran in a reasoned argument or discussion.

Bottom line: it's not possible when you are arguing with Fran. She's already descended to calling you an asshole, moron and someone with only two brain cells.

If you leave any more comments there, you will soon get the large font obscenities. I supppose that's some kind of badge of honor.

King said...

Your ideas are garbage. One can name many examples of artists, including writers, who were ignored in their time.
Have you not heard of William Blake? Of Van Gogh?
You willfully ignore the classist nature of this society, which shuts out good writers worthy of notice.People like you know nothing about your own country and probably won't until you're caught by suprise by people hung on lampposts.
A harsh remark, I know, but one can't have the kind of inquities which now exist in this society and have them continue. Unnoticed from your bubble world.
Re Fran. You read Fran with all her eccentricities because she's a human being. A living, passionate person. While you are an automaton and your mechanical writing, polished as it may be, reflects this.
Living art is what people want.
Re ULA Press. What's wrong with it? Have you read our books? Are you open-minded enough to try them? Or do you read only monopoly products? (Murdoch I guess needs more profits.)
I'm sure you're "liberal" in all realms but your own, literature, where you're as reactionary and stuck-in-the-ground, closed to the new, as any arch conservative.
have a good day.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear King:

"Have you not heard of William Blake? Of Van Gogh?
You willfully ignore the classist nature of this society, which shuts out good writers worthy of notice."

If your premise is that society systematically shut out artists, then how did we ever became aware of all the great artists throughout history?

I'm aware of many things, including Van Gogh's story. His plight was exceptional, and while he remained unrecognised in his lifetime by the public, his work was eventually recognized. If your premise is correct, his work should never have been recognized at all, for the same reasons it wasn't while he lived.

Clearly, logic is not your strong suit. And taking one's own failure and trying to globalise it as a critique of a system is a mistake.

Derelicts on skid row are outsiders too, but no one would automatically confer genius status on them for that.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear King:

Henry Darger was a true outsider artist.

You are not. You and the other ULA members have a web site, give interviews, etc. That's all an effort to achieve the recognition that has been denied you by the "system." You are just as success seeking as any of the "automatons" you denigrate, you just haven't achieved it yet.

Margot said...

King, I never said the ULA was no good. I said you, personally, were so strongly identified with being an undergrounder that you don't actually want to achieve the acceptance you claim you want. I came to that conclusion through reading your blogs. My opinion of the ULA is separate from my opinion of you.

As for the writers of the ULA, I've seen some of their work on the ULA site. Some is quite good, some isn't. The good-to-crap ratio is slightly better than at the average revolutionary press, so I commend you. You're doing something right there.

Living art is what people want.

In that case, it shouldn't be that hard to get attention for the ULA's art. We live in a society with free exchange of information and a fondness for entertainment; why do you need my approval when the kinds of books I like aren't free and, apparently, aren't what people want?

You willfully ignore the classist nature of this society, which shuts out good writers worthy of notice.

This is true. We live in a world where an unemployed teacher and secretary living on welfare could never get a book published, where a laundry worker would get laughed out of the editorial office, where a nurse or shop assistant with aspirations to be a full-time writer would be sneered clean out of New York City. It's sad.

King said...

Sorry, but your arguments are total crap.
What makes an outsider?
gee, I can't say fopr sure. All I know is I've felt like an outsider mymost of my life, possibly because my siblings and I were the poorest kids in our schools, wearing raggedy clothes, objects of scorn-- "There goes a Wenclas"-- and the lot of us fought everyone constantly when we weren't fighting ourselves.
Yet, there was a place for working class folks in this country at one point-- until this country started becoming de-industrialized and de-unionized 25 years ago.
Newsflash: I became a writer ASFTER witnessing what was happening with this society-- seeing strikers beaten up, for instance, up close.
No I didn't slum for a few years as an unemployed teacher or a Barbara Ehrenreich. I've worked shitty jobs for decades, nearly all my life, since I was fourteen years old. I don't write to play a role of "writer"-- but because I have things I want to talk about, subjects not being covered by the likes of you, whoever "you" are, "Margot."
You're the problem with literature today, Margot, not Fran, because of your arrogance and complacency.
Literature is becoming more marginalized in this society (despite reactionary successes like Harry Potter, whose appeal is to the top 10% of this country and that's all, with its prep school nonsense; hey, even General Motors builds a decent car now and then, despite its long-term downtrend). Literature is in a long-term downtrend, and you look at the very bad best sellers we have today, from very bad writers-- so inferior to previous best-sellers from the likes of Wilkie Collins or Frank Norris or Rex Beach, James Gould Cozzens, and on and on.
Your sneering remarks about Dickens say it all.. Dickens was a great writer because of his great SOUL, something you know nothing about., you machine-like monster without the character or integrity, or intellectual courage, to say who you are. So how good could you possibly be? You're not a writer in my book-- just one more yuppie recipient of paychecks with a false literature which is keeping the genuine article from getting to market.
Yes, we in the ULA are fighting for attention, for our writers, with virtually no resources, going against billion-dollar conglomerates dominated by, by and large, the most privileged members of this country.
I'm not an outsider from literature so much as an outsider from the entire society; one of those millions being crushed and squeezed, finding it harder and harder just keeping from being homeless. For most of my life I've had nothing to fall back on other than my own wits-- and I've been on the street on occasion, may be there again.
Your arguments are all fraudulent, because you know nothing about anything; just another bourgeois asshole in my book. Your knowledge even of literary history is terribly flawed. (They'd better do a better job of programming you next time, Robot.) It was purely by accident-- because of the existence of Maxwell Perkins-- that two canon writers, Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, were published at all. (Maybe throw James Jones into that category also.) In today's climate their unpolished work wouldn't be looked at.
But it's senseless talking to soulless robots. Just know this-- you represent the past. Your kind of literary art is as dead as your conscience. Writers of passion and conscience-- yes, like Fran-- are the future.
Sales? Perry Como had sales, just as the tidal wave of roots-based music in the form of rock n roll was about to knock him and his smooth kind over.
Watch out for the new wave of literature. It's coming; it's inevitable.

King said...

To Mr. Winkler:
If I'm a "failure," what makes you a success?
From what I can find, you're simply one more hack writer feeding on someone's corpse.
A crime writer? Are you a crime writer?
Yet your photo displays, forgive me, nothing but a candyass in a pricey restaurant. A boneless jellyfish; an invertebrate.
We know you're not an outsider-- but then, what are you?
A crime writer?
What do you know about the subject?
You look as if one punch or even a dirty look would kill you.
A Sam Spade tough guy at home, to his mirror.
Pardon the insults, but you're not a literary writer yourself; you mistake the size of the publishing machine with art; because you apparently live well in this mad country you believe that all is well.
But there are other kinds of people out here, living in dirty neighborhoods in dirty old cities, like mad dogs (which is how I lived in Detroit). With all our madness, we have stories to tell, about the real America. . . .
America's unofficial but true literature.
(Kudos for at least not being anonymous. You earn points for that.)

Margot said...

Watch out for the new wave of literature. It's coming; it's inevitable.

If that's so, how do you plan to compete with the large publishers? The usual cycle is:

Grassroots artistic movement starts to develop a mainstream following.

Mainstream media notices.

Mainstream media approaches the best artists with offers of national distribution, publicity budgets, and advances worth several times the amount the artist could hope to get from publishing with the underground press over the course of her entire lifetime.

Best artists sign on with the mainstream media, go national.

The work develops a national following. Mainstream media sign on more of the best artists as a result. The movement becomes a marketing genre, changing slightly to accommodate mainstream tastes.

"Underground" artists offer their work to the best-paying markets first, underground presses second. Underground presses cease to be THE place to find work in their style, and content themselves with showcasing new talent before the mainstream presses snap them up. They get to eat the crumbs at the party they started.

There are groups that avoided this trap and became powers in their own right, particularly in music, but they had a plan and staff with the experience to manage the transition from basement business to corporation. What's your plan?

King said...

Well let's see, I've discussed the ULA plan for seven years now.
Our original plan followed the Sun records model. Sam Phillips didn't have the kind of large staff you allude to.
What he had was access to great roots talent.
He sold Elvis to a major (RCA) for enough seed money to expand his business and promote other great talents like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Company.
The rock n roll explosion was a business revolution, in that the Big Four majors who had something like 85% of the market in 1955 lost HALF their market share virtually overnight, in a couple years, to hundreds of upstart DIY record companies.
This was what prodded the so-called payola hearings, which called entrepreneurs like Alan Freed and Dick Clark to testify.
Clark was humbled ("I dissolved forty corporations in a day"), Freed destroyed.
The monopolies one that battle because of their corrupt power.
It doesn't mean we give up the fight.
We had a Zeen Elvis, a writer of phenomenal charisma and talent, but her inner problems caused her to abandon the cause. She's wandering out there somewhere, occasionally posting under a name she's used before.
Now the ULA has a different plan. Excuse me if I don't give the details to our enemies.
When are you going to answer my questions?
Why are you hiding?
I'm tired of your ridiculous interrogation.

Margot said...

If you don't like me asking you questions, why are you on my blog?

King said...

Duh, read the post on my "Demi-Puppets" blog titled "I'm Okay, You're Okay."
Btw, a couple flaws in your presentation to me about what the monopolies can do.
You assume everybody is like you-- that all decisions are made according to how much money is involved. Most undergrounders value truth amd their own integrity above dollar signs-- maybe because we know how to live poor.
Bill Blackolive and Jack Saunders haven't been "mainstream" published because they've never compromised their art and they never will. The System demands obedience and compromise, as I'm sure you know. The bourgeois class is raised to compromise from birth in the interest of "getting ahead."
Your values and goals as a writer are very different from mine.
Part of going through a MFA program is proving that you can conform. That you'll virtually grovel across a floor in order to be allowed to hang with your "betters."
No real artist would go through this.
Only talentless whores do.
Further, if the monopolies are going to buy us out-- where are they? We have talent in this outfit (much better than "Dishwasher Pete" for instance). Frank Walsh is writing the strongest poetry seen since Rexroth.
Wred Fright, Crazy Carl, and James Nowlan have written some strong novels.
We've gotten much attention in NYC before-- including several big write-ups in Page Six.
So, again, where are they?
Could it be they already know we're a different kind of writer who won't play their game, won't let them mutilate our art?
In the ULA, the WRITER is in charge.
We have no hierarchy, no bosses, no Morgan Entrekins in skyscraper towers which writers have to crawl to.
For real writers, those to whom the art comes first, this is a big point,
as it's not for literary whores.
Your ideas are oatmeal, "Margot." You have arrogance but I don't see anything backing it up. By going anonymous you give yourself every advantage in this discussion and still you're floundering.
Think if we knew who you are, and could examine your writing, your choices, up close?
No wonder you hide.
You have to, because you can't compete with us on a level playing field.
What's more, you know it.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"A crime writer? Are you a crime writer?
Yet your photo displays, forgive me, nothing but a candyass in a pricey restaurant. A boneless jellyfish; an invertebrate."

I'm a freelance writer of nonfiction, as my author's biography makes patently obvious. But you wish to ignore that in favor of childish, petulant name calling. Now I know who's been leaving me annoymous comments on my blog consisting of abusive comments about my personal appearance.

My article about Nick Adams appears at a site called Crime Magazine. That doesn't make me a crime writer nor an investigative reporter. I don't pretend to be either. The article originally appeared in the magazine Filmfax, and when I criticized a similar article at Crime Magazine, the editor welcomed me to submit my article to him for online publication.

"Yet your photo displays, forgive me, nothing but a candyass in a pricey restaurant."

I admire your powers of deduction. Based merely on the fact that I am sitting in a restaurant, you have deduced that it is "pricey." Of course to you, accustomed to eating out of trash cans, which is also where you acquired your style of interpersonal communication, perhaps anything better is considered pricey, and therefore too bourgeous for you to sully yourself with by contact.

I bet you're a real tough guy. You eat your garbage without any condiments, then regurgitate it onto the web.

Margot said...

Further, if the monopolies are going to buy us out-- where are they? We have talent in this outfit (much better than "Dishwasher Pete" for instance). Frank Walsh is writing the strongest poetry seen since Rexroth.

What are your sales like?

King said...

I never leave anonymous comments-- I have no trouble standing behind what I say.
"Candyass" isn't an attack so much as a statement of fact. You're a very different animal from those who come from other segments of society.
The difference between a pampered domesticated house cat in blue ribbons and those howling on streetcorners.
The ULA likes to howl-- especially when we crash bourgeois readings.
Sales? Our sales are good when we can get our books placed in stores and get them publicity.
Curious such snobbery coming from someone who likely DOESN'T have personal experience selling. (Or are you in Murdoch's marketing department?)
The ULA's sales have traditionally been great.
When our zeens were carried by Tower Records they always moved quickly.
When we've had zeens at shows they've moved quickly.
Even at someone else's venue.
Example, a couple years ago ULAer Frank Walsh read along with other poets at a reading series at the main library at Philly. I put a stack of one of our zeens-- Literary fan Magazine-- on the table next to other authors books and chapbooks. LFM sold out in five minutes. The librarians were amazed. "We never sell many copies!" they told me, asking if I'd brought more of the zeen.
We know we CAN compete if given the opportunity. If we had any resources at all we'd do great.
Unfortunately, none of us was born
with a silver spoon in our mouth or silk bib around our neck, as your gentrified restaurant friend.
You've wasted my time, Margot-- you have even less on the ball than I anticipated.
Have a good life.