WRITING & SUBMITTING
I’m always a bit torn between keeping track of rejections and ignoring them. Rejection is a normal part of being a writer—something you have to toughen up and deal with. But, aside from keeping track of who I’ve submitted to in the past, I sometimes wonder what the point is to keeping that list around. I’ve occasionally used it as a marker, even publicly, of effort. The old “my novel was rejected fifty times before publisher X bought it” line. However, I always flash back on this piece of advice I read in someplace like Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, or maybe some book written by an agent on how to get an agent . . . Agents don’t want to hear how many times your manuscript was rejected before you sent it to them. That bit of advice was in relation to how to write query letters, but I wonder sometimes if it kind of applies in general to someplace like Twitter. Now, even though this old piece of advice seems like the literary business equivalent of the fragile boyfriend needing to believe that his new girlfriend hasn’t fucked other men (or even women) before, I do kind of get why it exists. The bigger that rejection number gets the wider the consensus is that it’s not very good, and in a sales driven environment the more people don’t seem to want to read something the less money it makes, etc. People love to trot out how many times Moby Dick was rejected and how it’s now a classic, but that’s usually the only example they have and, of course, no one knows anything about those novels that have been rejected even more than Moby Dick and were never published.
So, all that being said, the submissions of The Palace of Winds continue. Far Nineteen is on hold, but I may try sending it out again here soon, and I’m muddling about in the middle of the new project.
Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and Richard Brautigan’s Dreaming of Babylon were recently finished and will be discussed on the podcast. These were the lighter side of the detective, crime, noir genre. Up next is Lawrence Osborne’s Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel.
Outrider Live: Words & Music should be out later in September, and after recording the final episode the day after this post goes up, the Crime/Noir series will finished and we’ll (meaning me and Heather, my producer (!!)) start getting it ready. I hope to release episode 1 in October sometime. After that, I’ll be on a minor break as I work with Shawn Craver to organize the next live event with a writer and band.
Saw the 1944 version of Gaslight. Squeezed in Ant-man and the Wasp. Finished Ken Burns’ Vietnam Documentary. Still distracting myself with episodes of M*A*S*H when I should be reading or writing.
Near the end of August, the writer Timothy Schaffert posted a question on Facebook where it seems to be, aside from the podcast, the only place I have literary discussions. The question was “Are there sweeping, literature-altering literary “movements” anymore? Ones in which writers (somewhat) collectively speak in response to past movements, or in reaction to each other? Ala 19th-century Realism? 20th-century Modernism? Fin de siecle Decadence? (Asking for a friend.)” I sat down to write a quick response and it turned into the piece below. A lot of the responders to Schaffert’s post seemed to bring up Dystopian YA as a literary movement or they brought up the expanding awareness of readers and publishers of perviously marginalized voices as a literary movement. Anyway, there was so much to respond to a I couldn’t keep myself limited to a narrow scope.
I don’t think a literary movement can be contained within a single genre, like dystopian YA sci-fi, nor defined simply by the expansion of available voices to include more than old white guys – not if our reference points for defining a “movement” are things , like Modernism, the Beats, Post-Modernism, etc.
Literary movements are, fundamentally, centered on aesthetic concerns that address the way art of any variety is or should be philosophically perceived by the artist and how the artist uses those perceptions to challenge the status quo of the art form, correct? This is why literary movements are often intertwined with other art forms: Modernism wasn’t only literary, it covered visual art, music, theatre, and dance. Same with movements like Dadaism, the Beats, and Post-Modernism. Furthermore, even though those movements were dominated by white males, the aesthetic assumptions were available to be used by all artists – even if they were culturally marginalized and they had a hard time getting published. In this regard, “autofiction” isn’t really a literary movement (the combining of autobiography and fiction), and it’s hardly a new thing and, in fact, it has it’s roots in the Beat movement (Kerouac’s novels and a few of Burroughs early books fit into “autofiction”).
Dystopian YA sci-fi is more of an expression of social anxiety and not a new aesthetic approach to the literary art – even if the majority of “heroes” are now “heroines.” Also, simply expanding the variety of voices being read (a much needed thing, indeed) to include women of color, and other previously marginalized voices isn’t (necessarily) and aesthetic issue. In other words, genre and globalism aren’t by themselves, new ways of thinking about, perceiving, presenting, or refocusing the aesthetic underpinnings of an art form—although of the two, globalism is much more valuable in that it does expand the variety of interpretations of the prevailing aesthetic and could be the conduit by which a new aesthetic enters the literary landscape, but in and of itself, globalism isn’t an aesthetic and therefore not a literary movement but a social trend. Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan), Ornela Vorpsi (Albania), or Shahrnush Parsipur (Iran) are all fantastic additions to the American literary landscape that I’ve discovered in the last few years (although not “popular bestsellers”), but the aesthetic foundation of their work isn’t wildly different from, say, Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lanka via Canada), or Lawrence Durrell (England), or even, Italo Calvino (Italian).
I don’t see a lot of aesthetic experimentation going on in literature right now, but that’s not to say there isn’t any. It’s just not getting through the noise. This is, I suppose, where market forces come into play, but maybe not (more later). Experimentation, these days, doesn’t sell because we’ve over-homogenized literature and taught it badly in schools. The artist-originated movements of the 20th Century (movements that, I sometimes feel, drove homogenization and lended themselves well to being mis-taught) could, very well, have helped alienate the reading audience. If readers are rebelling against the literary establishment, then that’s a kind of movement that is a rejection of movements – a “non-movement-movement” if you want to call it that. I see it as the ultimate failure of Post-modernism: what started off as a rejection of Modernism and its tendency toward totalitarianism became a lowest-common-denominator democratization of artistic taste, it flattened everything via ironic self-reference. Henry Green became Kurt Vonnegut became Jonathan Franzen became fuck-it-all I’ll read whatever’s fun even if it’s not that well written (Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, E.L. James, all the dystopian YA Sci-Fi you’ve not yet heard of but is taking up space on the bookstore shelves). The reading public got tired of being handed a book by a white guy and told “this is great literature” and having it turn out to be slow, boring, over dependent on irony—and worse—condescendingly sarcastic.
As for the suppression or support that the market brings to bear on a literary movement, that might be the real question in relation to the life and reach that any kind of potential literary movement might have. Facing off against the Big 5 houses of Penguin Random House (Random Penguin or Penguin House), Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Harper Collins, all we have is a mass of small presses that are tenuously holding on to viability, and the dark netherworld of self-publishing. The Big 5 aren’t going to take the kind of deep risks needed to help launch a new literary movement. Even if by accident they do pick up a book by someone who is doing something aesthetically new or different or challenging—something that might shift the perspective or the philosophical concerns of the art form—they won’t stick with it if it fails to find a large enough audience. That writer will then be cast off into the abyss, and left to struggle to find a small press that won’t die, or spend their time dissipating their literary talents by having to learn how to be a book publicist and marketer for their self-published and hard to classify novel.
Then, because of the lack of review space, or more accurately because of the democratization of review space, there’s no longer a single, widely accepted “authority” that we trust to tell us what is good, or even what is new and interesting. Review spaces are now, more or less, extensions of the Big 5’s marketing departments, and so we can’t really trust things like the NY Times, or the NY Review of Books to tell us what is good because so many of the books they tell us are good, aren’t really as good as the reviewer says they are. The reviews are just marketing copy. And the stuff that does sell is even worse and it certainly isn’t going to take any kind of artistic or aesthetic risk. Also, the democratized review spaces, like Goodreads, are unreliable as well because we can’t really know who to trust. Is that 5 star review from a rando, or is it a friend of the author? And if it is a rando, how do we know this person actually has a good critical eye unless we track down their other reviews and, in an act of self-reference, compare that reviewer’s likes with our own? I want to read a good new book, not a ton of semi-readable reviews about a potentially good book.
Consequently, I think this is why brick and mortar indie bookstores are surging right now. When your indie bookstore reviews a book you can go in and talk to the bookseller that wrote it and develop a relationship and, as those booksellers get to know their customers, they can pad their inventory accordingly, which brings us back to the audience for books – the demand source of the whole literary endeavor.
We as readers know what we like, we know what entertains us, but the only reason some readers think “entertainment” is a novel idea these days is because a certain strain of Post-modernism won the battle to make the meaningless, plotless 500 page navel-gazing epic somehow meaningful and that alienated everyone from the first rule of good literature, which is the same as the first rule of good storytelling: be entertaining. Dystopian YA has got this down pat, which is why it’s popular even among grown-ass adults.
Perhaps entertainment is the new “movement,” and we’re not seeing how that is an aesthetic because it appears too simple and obvious to be an aesthetic. Of course the big problem with entertainment is that, by itself, it’s empty, and dangerous. Alone, entertainment is not an aesthetic. Jerking off can be highly entertaining, but is that really something you should spend all your energy and effort doing? It’s the epitome of self-referential navel gazing, which is what a lot of readers think big L- Literature is all about.
But entertainment is a Trojan Horse. It’s there and necessary to get in past our defenses of cynicism, suspicion, and ignorance. An empty Trojan Horse is a failure because, well, there’s nothing there except the reader, which forces an unhealthy self-reference in order to satisfy our subconscious need for meaning. A Trojan Horse filled with the wrong things (racism, hatred, greed, exclusion) is dangerous for all the wrong reasons (see Ayne Rand’s novels, the Left Behind series, or The Turner Diaries—all “entertaining” but which promote, respectively, economic dominance by a self-selected, cruel elite, Christian totalitarianism, and white nationalism). Put the right stuff in the entertaining Trojan Horse and then, maybe, you’ve got a movement, but it won’t be limited to a single genre, or even art form, nor will it be available only to previously marginalized groups.
But who really gives a shit about literary aesthetics anymore? Aren’t we all more concerned with survival, which is basically, the biggest “market factor” pressing down on all of us? If taking an artistic risk sets one up to be abandoned financially, are you going to take that artistic risk? The writer Brian Evenson once said to me that young, unpublished writers develop rigid aesthetics because that aesthetic is the only thing they have to justify their existence to their parents, but once they get published their aesthetic becomes less rigid. Well, how rigid is your aesthetic going to be if holding to it jeopardizes your ability to feed yourself? When I look back at the literary movements of the 20th Century, I see a host of writers who, even after they published, held fast to a rigid aesthetic, thus making a movement possible by insisting on the validity of their vision of literature. It isn’t until the American economy began to shift itself into ever expanding conglomeration, and the writer moved more and more into either academic shelters to sustain their artistic output or into competitive bestsellerdom that Evenson’s accurate observation about writers abandoning their aesthetic became the reality—and literary movements died.