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Utility Literature

        A couple of days ago I got myself in a pretty serious funk. Took myself right out of the rhythm I was in that had me thinking I was nearly done with this latest novel.

        Sad fact of working on any long project is the inevitable funk, followed by a dead end. At least for me. An emotional crash leads to the creative energy getting sapped, and then I write myself, seemingly, into a corner. So, here I am, taking a few mornings to write a one-off blog post that may or may not make it up on the blog. I need to move some words and get some thoughts down. If you’re reading this then success! I needed a success, such as it is.

        Everything gets questioned at times like this. Why have I spent so much of my life trying to be a writer? Why is it so hard for me to write query letters? Why can’t I just stop writing and be happy as a corporate automaton making “useful” or “utilitarian” things? Does living in Kansas hurt my chances of being taken seriously? Why is searching for an agent so much like searching an online dating site for a date?

        In the past, when I’ve trotted out concerns or insecurities about writing, I’ve had at least one person respond with the directive to self-publish. I wrote a long post about why that most likely won’t happen, and I won’t rehash that particular argument here or even give a link. It’s down there somewhere. But there have been some things related to the idea of self-publishing that have been creeping around the surface of my consciousness lately. which may have finally come to a point.

        During the first day of this funk, I listened to a podcast episode of the Wisconsin Public Radio show To The Best of Our Knowledge, which was about why people write fiction. They had Hugh Howey on to talk about self-publishing and his series Wool. He doesn’t bullshit about his choices, and I respect that. He also has, in some of his posts, stated that self-publishing isn’t right for everyone, just like traditional publishing isn’t right for everyone, and I agree with him on that, too. The big thing that has come up in listening to him and reading a couple of things he’s written about self publishing, especially his piece on author earnings back in 2014 (http://authorearnings.com/report/the-report/), is that he has a very . . . utilitarian view of what he’s doing.

        When I was last assaulted by the highly sensitive and defensive champions of self-publishing for attempting to explain why I, personally, will never self-publish, I read a number of comments that sounded an awful lot like Howey did in the TTBOOK interview. The primary thing being espoused was that a writer should write a book a year with the implication being, at least in the way it was, rather aggressively thrown at me from a darker corner of the self-publishing world, that if someone isn’t writing a book a year then they aren’t a “real” writer (at best) or, more pointedly, they’re a snobby pouty literary MFA princess who is stamping his feet because the world won’t admit his arty-farty brilliance (at worst).

        One thing I’ve come to dislike, and especially since grad school have tried to avoid, is making prescriptive statements about what a writer should do in order to be a writer. Really, the only thing a person needs to do to be a writer is to write. Now, if that’s too broad a postulation for those who want to think calling oneself a “writer” shouldn’t be so easy because then that makes a five year old who writes a six word email to grandma a writer, let’s go with this: A writer is one who practices writing whether they think of it as a hobby, an art, or a commodity. That’s it.

        Hugh Howey and I both “practice” writing. Now, maybe someone who has a view of writing that is more similar to Howey’s would say that I practice and Howey does since he has far more books out in the world being read at the moment than I do. But that’s just snark, at best, or, plain old counter elitist elitism at worst. Howey writes a book or two a year, maybe more, I don’t know for sure. I write a book every three years or so. Michael Ondaatje publishes a novel, on average, every six years. Ernest Hemingway, published novels, while he was alive, about every 4.5 years (he had 2 novels in 1926, and I’m not counting the story collections, nor the two posthumously published novels).

        I’ve never read Howey’s work, and I probably never will. I also think it’s safe to say that he’ll never read anything of mine, and that’s cool. I’m not really into series sci-fi anymore, and he’s probably not into quiet literary novels about emotional cripples. But I have, for years, read a series of post-apocalyptic sci-fi books called “Deathlands.” At the moment, I’ve got about 24 unread books from the series, and no plans to read them. Their stable of writers come out with a new one almost every three months, which might be part of the reason I’ve lost interest in reading them. Back when the series started, books came out erratically (sometimes two in one year, sometimes more), but it was under the control of one writer only for almost a decade. In 1996, though, the series made its first steps toward being a team-written story mill. Several writers have worked on the series since (see this list): some have been more skilled than others, and so the writing has become inconsistent to me. Of course the writing itself was never, shall we say, “artistic.” I used to say that it was solid and functional. The primary writer before 1996 was pretty good at what he was doing, the writing did its job of keeping me in the story, and it had some life to it. I could pretty easily slip into that imaginative space and be content. When they started rotating writers, and I got older and read more widely, I began to lose interest.

        It wasn’t that the writing got sloppy, exactly, or even awful, it simply became, I suppose, what best could be described as utilitarian. It had ceased to have any life to it and became mechanical and predictable. But it’s that word, that concept, utility, that has been on my mind a lot lately in relation to writing in general, and the profession of writing specifically.

        My day job is in the business and manufacturing world, and in the business and manufacturing world, everything is utilitarian: toilet paper, hammers, vacuum cleaners, fertilizer, watches, computers, cars, plungers, drugs, and so on – even dildos, to an extent, are utilitarian. If you need a roll of toilet paper, and usually you buy Charmin, but the store is out of Charmin, you’re not going to stop wiping your ass until they restock the Charmin. You’ll buy a few rolls of Northern to get by. Brand names are mostly meaningless in a world of utility anyway. The brand name painkiller Aleve is naproxen sodium, which comes in a cheaper, generic brand as well. There’s really very little difference between a hammer made by Stanley and one made by Black and Decker, and if you need a hammer, but wanted one made by Stanley that isn’t available, you’ll get the Black and Decker rather than wait to finish your roof until the there’s a Stanley hammer. Utilitarian things are interchangeable, that’s the whole point of utility.

        Utilitarian objects have an objective use. Any old hammer will drive in a nail, whether you mine and forge the materials to make the hammer yourself or buy the top-of-the-line model from Home Depot, and it’s within that scope that business and manufacturing try to differentiate themselves, knowing that, really, the only difference between them is the illusory “image” created by the company’s advertising. In this utilitarian approach, the company has a few simple requirements: 1) their object must do what it is supposed to do 2) it must be produced cheaply and quickly and in sufficient volume to satisfy the demand created by the advertising department’s mythology, and 3) it must turn a profit.

        That is a fine model for legitimately utilitarian objects. However, for a certain cadre of people it also applies to writing. James Patterson, Hugh Howey, the guys writing the Deathlands series, and those aggressively defensive self-publishing champions who tried to rip me a new one, seem to all be approaching writing in this utilitarian fashion. Or at least trying to by putting the production model into play, at least. They’ve found a niche (thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.), developed a production schedule and streamlined it, created a mythology they hope an audience will buy into and shell out money for the next installment, and they measure their success by their profits almost exclusively. In this utilitarian model, profit is the result of being a “good” writer in the same way that a hammer is judged to be good.

        For some people, I think, reading is something like an itch and any old thing will scratch it whether it’s the back of a cereal box or the 125th book in a well plowed series where each book follows the same basic rhythm. Escapist genre fiction can be fun, if it’s done well . . . but, of course, everyone’s definition of “writing done well” is different. Some people have a much lower bar than I do, and, of course, there’s no accounting for taste – as the saying goes.

        I read for pleasure, for edification, for escape and entertainment, for the chance to exercise and expand my empathy, to more deeply understand and relate to the world. I read to test my emotions, and to challenge my intellect. I read for the thrill and surprise that comes when a writer puts the right words in the right order and says something that shifts my view of the world into a new alignment. I write for a lot of the same reasons, and yes, I want to be read. The caveat there being that I don’t want to be read because I produced a utilitarian piece of fiction that simply entertains someone and, more or less, passes through them, like a candy bar, to be shit out the back end and forgotten. I want to be read because I’ve written something that resonates with the human experience. Rather quixotically, I write and want to be read with the hope of being remembered. For me literature is Art, not a utility that will buy me a yacht.

        To me, it’s a bit delusional to get into writing because you think it’ll make you rich. Of course, it’s also a bit delusional to get into writing because you think it’ll make you somehow immortal.

        One self-publishing champion told me that Stephanie Meyer’s books would be remembered longer than anything I’ll ever write. That may be true, if only by a few decades and by virtue of her books being made into popular movies. But that is the gamble one takes when they make art.

        As opposed to things of utility, art is, well, useless. I used to balk at that description of art. To me, art is incredibly useful. The problem with art though is that it’s very personal and subjective. If you’re in need of a hammer, any old hammer will do, but if you want to hang an original painting by Picasso in your home, and not a reproduction or facsimile, you’ll have to wait for one to go on sale, but in the interim, you’ll probably leave the wall blank instead of buying a the next available painting that might be by some artist you don’t like. Do you see where I’m going? If you’ve lost all your favorite albums by New Order, replacing them with Travis Tritt isn’t going to work. Sure it’s “music,” but it’s not music that touches you, or moves you, or resonates. It’s like that with books. I like Raymond Chandler, but he’s not writing anymore, obviously, but Sue Grafton isn’t an adequate substitute. And, I bet, there are people who love to read Hugh Howey, but if he stops writing, I doubt they’ll simply drop down to the next author in the alphabetical list and be as happy, right?

        A few years ago, Michael Korda wrote a book called Making the List where he looked at Publisher’s Weekly’s annual bestseller lists (you can see the lists here, but the book is enlightening and you can also access a more detailed list, including non-fiction bestsellers here). What I got from the books was that being on the bestseller list is not necessarily a sign of being a lasting writer. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is an important American novel, one of those definitive 20th Century books, but it never made the annual bestseller’s list. Only three of Hemingway’s novels ever made the annual bestseller’s list when he was alive (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Across the River and into the Trees, and The Old Man and The Sea), and the fourth made it after he died (Islands in the Stream, in 1970). Of the four, only For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea are classics. The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms, To Have and Have Not, The Torrents of Spring, and none of his story collections or non-fiction ever made the annual bestseller’s list when he was alive (A Moveable Feast was in 1964, and Papa died in 1961). Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World did not make the annual bestsellers list for 1932, the year it was published. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t sell enough books the year it was released to make the annual bestseller’s list, and neither did Animal Farm. On the other hand, Thomas Dixon, Jr. was a bestselling American writer in the early 20th Century, and now, no one reads his work except maybe white supremacists and those who study their history and psychology (Dixon wrote “The Clansman”).

         It’s an interesting form of anthropology to comb the lists and see who you recognize, who you’ve never heard of, and who isn’t there that you think should be there. It might be an interesting exercise to count up who had the most bestsellers in each decade, and see if the writer is one whose name we recognize and still read today.

        Even if we think of writing as a utilitarian thing, its basic subjective nature will win out when it gets into the hands of the reader. As a writer, we have this basic choice to make, and both cases involve that old cliche of catching lighting in a bottle if our goal – stated or secret – is to “make money.” We can approach our craft in a utilitarian model and hope that we’ve picked the right genre and built an interesting enough world that it will capture the imagination of the most people, or we can approach our craft as a singular act of art and hope that our expression resonates as true with those who read it.

                
        


Point of Direction by Rachel Weaver

If you haven’t read the book yet, or listened to Episode 19 of The Outrider Podcast, you should.


It’s Going To Be a Long Summer

The running app I’ve downloaded, and plan to start using, says I can be running for thirty minutes at a time by the middle of May. Considering my injury prone failures to this point, I’m skeptical.

I plan on supplementing my three running days a week with bike rides. It’s not like I have anything else to do.


The Outrider Podcast: Mini-break

I had originally planned to release Episode 8, my conversation with Colin Dickey on December 23rd; however, I just got word this Friday morning, that the iTunes podcast submission service will be down from December 21 to December 27. No matter how much I try to avoid Christmas, it just keeps intruding.

So, rather than rush to get the podcast out the evening of the December 20th, I’m postponing Episode 8 until December 30th.

Happy whatever it is you do.

P.S.: although the back catalog is small, you can always go back and pick up one you missed. Might I suggest Episode 4: Delia Tramontina. She’s one third of the poetry beast that is Poet As Radio.

The Outrider Podcast is available on iTunes and Stitcher.


A Very Long Road

Wow. Five months. So much for starting a new blog in the hopes of getting back into a routine.

Well, maybe it’s not as bad as all that. The most important thing is always the next story and since November I’ve been revising an old novel that I’d once consigned to the Black Hole File. I’d sent this novel (it’s still titled “By The Still, Still Water”) to my editor and he’d pointed out some pretty deep flaws and that it’d be best to move on to something else. So, I wrote “The Palace of Winds,” which is now . . . resting.

Since I needed something to do, and I wasn’t ready to write the follow-up to Palace, I went back to “By The Still, Still Water” out of . . . well . . . spite and frustration to begin with. However, as I’ve worked on it, I’ve come to an entirely different set of motivations.

For a writer like me, i.e. someone who failed at the resume building aspects of higher education (I didn’t take advantage of the pedagogy electives and the teaching assistantships, didn’t apply for the internships that could have landed me an editorial job, etc. (to explain the psychology of some of those self-rejecting decisions would be a post all by itself)), I have had to divide myself up into unequal parts ever since. The largest chunk of my time goes to a vampire job that serves no purpose but to feed my creditors (student debt until I’m 70 – yeehaw) and keep food in my belly. The rest of my time is split up between my personal life, and writing. That three-way divide, I’m beginning to realize, means that every story that gets finished is far too valuable to let slide away into that Black Hole File. Since my day job doesn’t feed nicely into my creative life, I have to fight to keep that creative space defined, and I have to come to grips with certain things I had once wanted but now must surrender.

It’s also forcing me to rejigger how I approach my habits and thinking about writing and revising.

In other words, “By The Still, Still Water” looks to be one of those novels that will take a decade or more to get right. Looking back, I think I had an idea that this book would sift out that way when I was writing the first draft. I seem to remember a journal entry where I speculated that the story was maybe a bit beyond my abilities at the time, that I simply hadn’t reached the right level of emotional maturity to effectively imagine the lives of the people I was writing about. Maybe I’m still not there because, in truth, over the last few months that I’ve been working on it, I’ve hit some snags that have really slowed me down and rattled my confidence in it. However, I simply can’t give up on it . . . at least not until I’ve finished this revision.

Of course some of the slowness I’ve felt could be coming from the never-ending tug of the larger chunk of my life pulling me inexorably into corporate drudgery.

I don’t like where this is leading. It’s not where I thought I was going.

I set out to write a quick post about how I’m resurrecting a novel I’d once decided to give up on, and about how I have another novel in the wings that I’m itching to get back to because of my reading of Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology, which has give me ideas for revising the one waiting in the wings . . . and here I am writing myself into the darker corner of the room. The dark corner I’m trying to ignore.

Let’s call it my mid-life crisis corner. Or the Abyss corner. Or the inevitable result of too many bad, desperate, falsely practical decisions corner.


Is This a Dead End? It Feels Like It

        According to the page count on the statistics page for my latest project, I had reached 120 pages. The problem with that is that I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that yesterday I looked at what I had going, and realized it wasn’t really working as a “story” so much.

        There are a lot of characters in this story I want to tell, and the story covers nearly 80 years in the life of a city. In all of that large field of time and space, the story was being pulled in a lot of different directions by a lot of different voices, but none of them were terribly strong. They weren’t that strong because either their personal stories were so tied in with the stories of the others so as to blur in my imagination, or because the person with the real drive to have this story told hadn’t come forward yet.

        I have a laundry list of distractions and vampire-like situations I see as contributing to this problem. I recently got an Xbox 360 so that I could continue to play some video games I’d become addicted to, but be able to remove the video game playing from my office and my computers. That was indeed a success. The video games have been deleted from my computers and the playing now takes place exclusively in the living room which is on the other end of the house away from my writing desk. But even allowing myself only an hour or so every few days to play seems to wipe my brain clean. The games are so visually stimulating that even the next morning, supposedly fresh and clear, I end up at my writing desk still imagining the world of Bioshock.

        That chain leads me to my day job, which has not normally disturbed me. I have not been so lucky as to land a coveted position as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing. There were decision made over the last twenty years, opportunities bypassed, that seemed good decisions at the time from certain practical standpoints, but, in hindsight, only moved me further away from where I hoped to be at this point in my life. Therefore, with student loans to pay back, bills to pay, and the simple desire to avoid being a 40-something year-old man living in his mother’s basement, I have come to a place that, creatively, feels as barren as the moon. There’s nothing quite as devastating, I think, to the imagination as having to spend ten hours a day at a computer (8 hours for the man so I can pay my bills, two hours for myself). That leaves very little time to fit in the occasional game, or fit in time with my girlfriend time, time reading, time with family, time just sitting and thinking, or – perhaps in the longer term most importantly – time exercising (I can’t get below 210lbs, when I should weight 190lbs, and I have high cholesterol). All of this deadens the mind, I think, and very little of it stimulates that part of my brain that imagines.

        Here’s how my day goes: I get up between 5 and 5:30am, make a chai, go to the bathroom and get to my writing desk. I sit there, try to focus on writing and not worry about bills, or money, or the deteriorating condition of the electrical system of my car (getting it repaired means a few days of getting up even earlier to get a ride to work from my mother because my girlfriend has let her car break down and rust in the driveway and let her driver’s license expire). Some days I write well, some days I don’t write much, and still some days the monkey mind rules and I can’t help but constantly check email or chase down some arcane bit of trivia that may or may not have to do with the story I’m writing. Then at 7am (sometimes later) I go take a shower and try to get to work by 8am. For 8 hours and 45 minutes I am alien to the world and work I really care about. By 5:10 pm I’m at home, unless I have to run errands, where I’m confronted with a series of decisions: do I force myself to try writing (or socializing online with other writers), which means adding to my already 10 hours facing a computer? do I take an hour and go for a walk (daydreaming of getting up to a steady job for more than two blocks), do I read (more time sitting), do I make dinner now, or wait and maybe eat dinner at 9pm, which is too fucking late to be eating dinner, or do I just say fuck it all and play Bioshock? Oh, and there’s the dishes that need to be done, the bathroom needs cleaning, and litter box that needs to be cleaned out . . and no, I don’t get help with those things.

        It sounds, and even feels, like I’m complaining, but really, this is just an attempt at a dispassionate accounting of my day. There are no writers in my daily life right now, no creative stimulation that I don’t self administer in tiny bursts when I can find the time. There are no writers I can have a beer with on a regular basis and talk with the way I did with my classmates in graduate school.

        In his recent chapbook “The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life” Dinty W. Moore shares a quote from Harry Crews that begins “You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently front the way the world wants you to live. That’s what I’ve discovered about writing. The world doesn’t want you to do a damn thing.” The quote goes on to address the fact that if you wait for the right time or the right situation to write, you’ll never end up writing. Mr. Moore then writes about that quote, beginning with “The world does seem to conspire against the writer.”

        What I’m saying, hopefully dispassionately and without any desire for sympathy and pats on my head (I wouldn’t mind some damn help, but if all you’re going to do is try to buck me up with some “it’ll get better, keep going/fighting” platitudes then well go suck an egg) is that the world seems to be conspiring particularly hard against my writing. I’m fighting it. I’ve always been fighting it. I still get up every morning, even on the weekends, plop myself down in front of the computer and do my best quiet the monkey mind and leap into a story. I still carry a book with me almost everywhere and try to read something new. I still carry notebooks (yes, several) with me almost everywhere I go and try to write in my journal, take notes, record observations, toss off a poem.

        But my punches are getting weaker. The walls are closing in. And the only person I have to talk to who gives a shit is sitting in front of my computer (i.e. me.).


It’s Not “Nice vs. Mean,” It’s About Having Confidence in Your Native Intelligence (now with links)

        Sometimes, it’s good to be tied up with other things. It gives a person time to think.

        A little while back, there was a dust-up between a few contributors to Slate, Salon, and the NY Times about the supposed hyper-niceness of book reviews. The critcs of the hyper-nice book review want to see blood in the water; they want to see writers spitting on other writers who write critical reviews, or writers shooting up the reviewer’s novel and mailing it to the reviewer, or, at the very least, to read or hear slighted authors offer up their best rejoinders to nasty critics as if the greatest parlor game in American letters is the Shakerspearian style artful insult. The supporters of the positive book review culture seem to want the literary world to put on a convivial face for the public and follow that old addage that “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

        Into this melee always gets inserted a little caveat here and there that these tempests over reviews, ultimately, don’t matter to the average reader because the average reader doesn’t “follow” literary writers, or even read reviews except when they’re desperate for a recommendation. However, one camp, it seems, beleives that if we increase the number of these tempests, the average reader will come see what all the fuss is about and then hang around to sample the items being argued over. The other camp, it seems, believes that having such public displays of nastiness will only drive readers further away, as if readers were children fleeing the living room when mom and dad argue, and that nice reviews at least make an attempt to lure the average reader into taking a chance on a book.

        To me, both arguments are weak, and do not go deep enough into the problem facing “literary” writing in America – a problem that isn’t going to be solved by rougher book reviews, or sweetness and light.

        The problem, in my view, isn’t one of a too-nice literary landscape. And, although I used to believe in the power of arguments, I no longer so firmly believe that a good literary dust-up is just the tonic to revive interest in literary fiction. You see, the problem isn’t in how writers and our critics interact – it’s that the general, non-writerly audience believes they aren’t intelligent enough to both participate in the discussion of books nor to stand behind and support their own opinions about the works being discussed. A literary dust-up between writers is useless if the people witness to the dust-up can’t understand what is being argued about (like a couple of Montana cowboys overhearing two Brits aruging about cricket). And a too nice book review will only reinforce the problem we currently have when the reader finishes the praised book and feels disappointed that their experience didn’t live up to the experience the critic had.

        For example: I have, at various stages in my writing life, shown my writing to an assortment of non-writer, non-literary friends and family and asked for their opinions, thoughts, and comments. I’ve made every effort to ask pointed, but open-ended questions that give them something specific to think about, but don’t lead them to a specific answer. I want their unvarnished responses afterall. However, in most cases, I get responses along the lines of “oh, I’m not smart enough to get it” or “That’s probably not what you wanted me to say.” It was as if these otherwise intelligent, confident people suddenly believed themselves to be stupid when confronted with a text that didn’t spoon feed them its intentions, or they were somehow afraid they wouldn’t provide the “correct” answer.

        It happened just enough that I began to think back to my own experience with literature and how I went from hating so-called “literary writers” (i.e. the dead white guys, members of the western canon) to loving those writers and, finally, attempting to join their ranks. For me, it all started in high school.

        First, let me say that my experience in high school English classes is not universal to every high school student in America. It’s not even universal to everyone I went to high school with. However, I think my experience is similar enough to a broad number of people’s experience to be useful in making my point.
        
         Like most people, I never took Advanced Placement Eglish classes (or what my high school later called “College Bound” English). I was always in the regular English classes (or Vocational English, I think is what my school later called it). In my English classes there was a lot of emphasis placed on grammar and identifying parts of speech because that was always a weakness for most of the students, and not much emphasis was placed on reading and thinking about literature. We read Shakespeare, of course, but most of our literature assignments came out of the Prentice Hall Literature textbooks. I think in four years of high school English I was only ever assigned to read an entire novel once.

        Now, I don’t want to be too critical of my high school English teachers, nor of teachers in general – teachers are vitally important and should be better paid and schools should be better funded (fund schools before armies and you will rarely need an army). Unfortunately, teachers are overwhelmed by crowded classes, by students with erratic skill levels and a distinct lack of focus. Because of that, in my English classes, our rare discussions of the stories we read out of our Prentice Hall anthologieswe were corralled toward one single right answer regarding “theme” or “meaning.” There were a number of times in class where I didn’t agree with the conclusion the class was being driven toward and my divergences were neither allowed to be discussed, nor encouraged when I chose to write about them. I was simply “wrong,” or at least counter-encouraged to conform my thinking to the teacher’s goal, which was derived from the “answers” in her teacher’s edition. For a lot of teachers, even the good ones, what goes on in a classroom is about reaching a kind of consensus of understanding so that the class can be moved along to the next spot in the lesson plan. Some students, I think, absorb the perception that they are “wrong” about a story and begin to believe they’re stupid. Some embrace a kind of ant-intellectual zeal. And still others disengage, harboring some secret suspicion that their thoughts and feelings about a story are just as valid as those opinions written in red ink in the teacher’s manual – but, of course, unless they end up majoring in English, never have that assumption of their failure challenged. They toddle off into the world with a kind of intellectual learned helplessness, and either never read literary fiction on their own again, or opt for easy to grasp genre fiction.

        I disengaged. My thinking was that if the so-called “important” works of literature only had one interpretation, only one lesson to be taught, and those interpretations and lessons were already figured out for us, then there was no point in reading them for myself – I simply had to take other people’s word for it; furthermore, since I didn’t think or feel the designated interpretation or lesson that I was told was there, then it had to mean I either wasn’t smart enough to get it, or the lesson wasn’t that important or as meaningful as the “lit professors” wanted us to believe. Those lit professors were, after all, just trying to justify their existence – right?

        That fall-back on rote, the pressure teachers and school boards are under to show “progress,” is, in my opinion, the problem with school: in an effort to make functional workers and citizens out of our children, to meet ridiculous test scores to get funding, what goes on in schools (both private and public) often wipes out people’s trust in their native intelligence. Not everyone is a Picasso, an Einstein, or a Shakespeare, but unless someone has a true mental or cognitive disability, they can read and engage with any kind of literature – as long as they trust and believe in their own ability learn and comprehend. Sometimes, school shames that ability out of people.

        Any decent and honest writer will admit that once a story has been finished and passed on to be read by someone else, that story and its “meaning” are no longer under the writer’s control. The act of reading is, itself, a form of authorship. The reader brings all their knowledge and experience in the world to the story they are reading and, in the act of traversing the text, they assign their own meaning to the story – and sometimes, that same reader can read the story at different stages in his life and come away with an entirely different meaning than the one they teased out the first time. Or, to spin it another way, no two people read exactly the same story, and a single person never reads exactly the same story twice.

        The knowledge that I was the author of my own reading experience was kept from me in high school. Literature was presented to me as a monolithic mass, as rigid and impenetrable to me as math, and which had a key to its comprehension that I didn’t have and couldn’t acquire. There were right and wrong answers and those answers simply didn’t fit with what happened in my head when I read those stories. And so, when I picked up books to read, I picked up books that weren’t presented as “important” and that didn’t have a phallanx of supporting documents behind them telling me what that story “meant.” I went for science fiction, horror, adventure, humor. I went for writers and books that I believed I was capable of understanding, rather than picking book I wanted to understand. I chose books where I knew no one would tell me that what I thought about a story was “wrong” or “off the mark,” or “a distraction.” Of course, I also read books simply for shock value (The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie turned some heads when I started carrying it around in high school – never mind it took me two tries before it finally clicked and made sense – but that, too, is an important thing to note).

        Then, I got to college and my constructed world of hate toward “literary” fiction, toward the old dead white guys, fell apart. Oddly enough, it all began because I was more afraid of math than literature. When I enrolled at Kansas State, my first inclination was to major in journalism. Then I looked at the requirements for a B.A. in journalism: Economics and College Algebra were on the list. I was panicked for about an hour, then I stumbled across the English/Creative Writing major, which only required a single 100 level math course that could be fulfilled by “Math, its Forms and Impacts” or, as it was more colloquially known, “Math for Dummies.” Now, I’d been writing short stories since the sixth grade and the fact that I could major in it was like finding out I could do cocaine and not have any of the negative side effects. So, I decided to major in English/Creative Writing and wage war against the old dead white guys in the Literature courses I would have to take (that seemed just as useless but easier than taking math because I at least knew how to argue).

        The old dead white guys won, however. They won the moment it was explained to me in my Introduction to Literary Studies course (Professor Carol Franco rocks) that there were no right or wrong answers in the study of literature. All that mattered was my ability to adequately and logically support my arguement about a piece of lterature. If I thought Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Fathers and Sons” was a pre-men’s movement critique of rigid masculine gender rolls, and I could provide strong enough arguments, along with support from other texts (like Sam Keen’s Fire In The Belly), then so be it: Hemingway was criticising gender roles. I wasn’t any more right or wrong than anyone else in the class. It was a complete, and total, spiritual revelation for me that literature was not a lecture, or a predetermined problem with a specific solution, but, in fact, a conversation. Even if the author was dead, there was still an ongoing conversation between that dead writer and me, and between me and other readers.

        The best writers, I’ve decided, are the ones who start conversations we can’t ignore and can’t stop rejiggering.

        In high school, I had hated Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and a host of other “classic” American writers because I felt that being able to think about them in a personally meaningful way for me was incorrect and that my inability to come up with an answer the teacher wanted was a sign of my ignorance and lack of intelligence. However, by the time I finished my BA, I had filled an entire shelf on my bookcase with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and was softening on the denser Faulkner. I had wandered into the Beats, especially Kerouac, and I’d found a love for poetry that had been dormant after being bored to death by one too many “concrete poems” about swimming, or trees.

        So, from my point of veiw, the problem with American letters isn’t the tone of our book reviews. As both sides in the argument seem to acknowledge, the average reader doesn’t read a lot of book reviews, if any at all. Therefore it doesn’t really matter if we in the literary community put on a happy face or a frowny face. We’re doing it in a vaccuum, or, at its worst, we’re that obnoxious couple in a restaurant that’s either overdoing the public-displays-of-affection, or having a nonesense argument at a full-tilt, screaming volume.
        
        As a writer, and as someone practiced in the codified discussion of literature among literati, a good or bad review of a novel isn’t going to sway me one way or another, so I guess it doesn’t even matter in an insular sense whether book reviews lean toward nice or nasty.

         Positive or vicious, the problem with our book reviews – and our literary culture in general – is that it is a conversation among initiates who misunderstand the reason why the “average” reader isn’t reading certain books. I’ve read postive book reviews that get into the metafiction qualities of the book being reviewed. “Oh, this novel is about the way we approach novels in modern society,” went the last book review I read. Wow. Really? My romance novel loving aunt would read that “review” (read: micro-master’s thesis) and tell herself that she wasn’t smart enough to understand a novel about that kind of thing, much less enjoy its surface story – whatever it was (I honestly can’t remember). The average reader, beaten down by an education system that is good at teaching mechanical and technical matters but not always very good at teaching the subtler, personal notions that surround the interpretation of art, is never going to be persuaded to read a piece of “literary fiction” that is promoted or denigrated as being a commetary on the place of novels in society, or a novel about “the way we live now” as Jonathan Franzen and Tom Wolfe are often billed. My romance novel reading aunt doesn’t need to be told “how she lives now” because she is living . . . now. She’ll probably never pick up James Joyce, or Jack Kerouac, or even Susan Sontag or Joyce Carol Oates, and that’s fine, but she shouldn’t avoid picking them up because she thinks she’s too dumb to get what those authors have put down.

        Listen, literary ficiton is always going to lose out, in the short term, to fluffier fiction. The Dan Browns of the world will always outsell the Philip Roths of the the world in any given year. Literary novels, even those with excellent stories and fast-paced plots, will aways be more “difficult” than so-called “popular” plot-driven, stereotype filled novels. But because the “difficult” literary novels will always start the best conversations, they’ll hang around longer. Therefore, in my opinion, we don’t need to get meaner or nicer . . . we need to get more accessible and talk about books in a way that gives the average reader the confidence in their native intelligence to engage in the conversation.