So, once again, I haven’t been writing. I got bored with the “twitter novel” (I'm just not the 140 character type) There’s been no happy news about ‘The Breast of Everything’. And in my actual paycheck job, I’ve learned some new and incredibly discouraging things about Search Engine Optimization and have spent most of the last two work weeks churning out what amounts to spam (in aid of a corporate initiative tied to the aforementioned SEO). This is a pretty soul-killing task. I could rattle off a chain of comparisons, but as imagination isn’t much in vogue and as I don’t know who might read this post and therefore can’t guess which would hit the requisite “just like me!” note, I won’t bother.
All in all, it’s difficult to dredge up the energy to forge ahead with ‘Chasing Fireflies’, a book I very much want to write but which I assume (also very much) will be unlikely to ever find a publishing home. Then today I opened up the NY Times Book Review section.
Dear Reader, if you are a reader-reader, you’re now waiting for me to say that this issue completely changed my perspective and that I am now full to the brim with boundless enthusiasm and will be plunging into Fireflies with a hearty will to complete it by New Year’s Eve. That’s the literary conceit behind the way in which the last two paragraphs were set up, isn’t it?
Well, I’m tossing the conceit on its ear, which is the only sensible thing to do considering that there very soon won’t be any readers who would expect or understand such conceits. No, it’s not me being the voice of doom (for a change). It’s the June 5, 2010 NY Times Book Review.
Jonathan Franzen’s article ‘A Strindberg Family Robinson: Rereading ‘The Man Who Loved Children’‘ opens with the following gambit. “…haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers, and are going the way of newspapers, only faster? ...novels are a curious moral case, in that we feel guilty about not reading more of them but also guilty about doing something as frivolous as reading them; and wouldn’t we all be better off with one less frivolous thing in the world to feel guilty about?”
He goes on to make everyone want to read the book, but by way of making it an exception. Franzen, who was quoted earlier this year in The Guardian as believing “It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction” apparently has extended that to apply to reading good fiction. An interesting stance for a man who has a new novel coming out this fall. And a grim prognosis for those of us who, unlike Franzen, can’t guarantee a publisher an audience cultivated over 20+ years to buy this now marginal form of writing from him.
Danielle Trussoni’s review of ‘The Same River Twice’, by Ted Mooney considers that “… readers must often choose between ‘literary fiction,’ understood to be works of well-written but meandering prose about the ‘real world’ of human relationships, and ‘commercial fiction,’ fast-paced novels in which plot is everything. The literary is assumed to be cerebral and artistic, the commercial mindless and entertaining. One suspects that nobody is completely happy with this divide. So it is a joy to discover, every once and a while, a writer whose prose and plotting take something from both camps.”
Trussoni goes on to give a joyfully positive review of this book, bolstering the possibility that a book can fall outside the market divisions and succeed (I wish she’d given a big thumbs up to Knopf for daring to publish such a shocking hybrid). This should have made me cheer. The inability to be easily categorized has long stood in the way of my own work (I’m not ‘commercial’ and, to quote at least one editor, I’m “not poetic enough” to be considered ‘literary’). For multiple generations, our citizens have been carefully trained to accept only that which can be understood of one of an easily identifiable group. A nation built on the myth of individualism now absolutely requires typing and labeling in every avenue of life. In positing that this might not be the happiest state of affairs in the neighborhood of fiction, Trussoni is waving a brave little handkerchief from behind the barricades. But her comments speak to the scope of issue. What she doesn’t note is that even when one of these slippery creations succeeds in the market the publishers, producers, etc. don’t take it as a sign to open the doors to more idiosyncratic products. Instead, they turn all their energies into finding copies of the first, because profit isn’t profit unless it’s a blockbuster (thank you, stock market). A “maverick” may have once meant an unbranded range animal, but now it’s one of the most Identifiable brands on the market.
For those outdated enough to care, this is the point where a well-written article is supposed to have a conclusion. This isn’t a well-written essay, it’s a rant. I know I share my frustration with thousands who love fiction, readers and writers alike. If the only new fiction being published comes in a can, readers at least can turn to 200 years of unique minds and voices, but what’s a writer to do except stop.