I’m not at all sorry I didn’t join the local commercial fiction writers’ group. I have no interest in conforming to their interpretation of what constitutes a marketable literary product, and I’m sure I’d have come home from each meeting more irritated than inspired. On the other hand, the group members do make the commitment to get together once a week for 2+ hours in order to read and comment on each others’ work. There’s something sort of touching about listening to a scifi-fantasy writer offering detailed constructive criticism to the writer of a pulp romance novel. And I believe the desire to bring something to the group, to be read by a few people anyway, keeps these writers writing week in and week out.
Last night I attended the second “Open Mic” public reading session of the writers’ group’s parent organization, the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW). This time I went strictly as an audience member rather than as a participant. I’d gone in hopes of hearing one excerpt that showed flashes of bending whatever genre it occupied, thinking maybe I could sit down and talk with this writer about the trade-offs between marketability and creative freedom. I left at the end of the night disappointed but not really surprised. This time I was struck even more forcefully by these writers’ inability or unwillingness to take risks, even by those who exhibited undeniable technical prowess. Their stories don’t seem to be about anything other than entertainment. I can see why fiction is dying: who would want to read this stuff when you can watch it on television? And yet, and yet… some of them get published, some win awards, though based on the excerpts I can’t for the life of me figure out why. But then again I can’t figure out why people watch most TV shows either.
Where are the writers who struggle to resist this well-worn path to success, or who aren’t even remotely tempted to follow it? And where are the people who want to read what they write? Most new literary fiction bores me, well-crafted though it may be. Most genre fiction is even worse: trite, repetitive, entirely predictable. One of the readers last night, a retired sportswriter for Denver’s oldest newspaper, presented excerpts from articles he discovered while researching the 150 years since the paper was first published. While some of the prose was archaically florid, you could hear the sheer pleasure these long-dead reporters experienced in describing the most mundane events as colorfully as they could. Maybe I should have sat down with this guy. Even though he didn’t present any of his own work, I could sense his admiration for a kind of literary journalism that’s nearly disappeared. I wonder if he regrets having devoted a journalistic career conforming to the tastes of a more pragmatic, less imaginative age? He’s a member of the RMFW: I wonder if he hopes to do something different now, something better? Not having talked with him I can retain the fantasy of the old jaded sportswriter devoting himself to writing one true and beautiful and important thing before he dies, even if no one ever reads it.
Now that I think about it, I vaguely recall this guy saying he’d been working on a crime novel when he got called back to work by the newspaper to pull this retrospective historical review together. April marks the paper’s sesquicentennial, but it’s far from certain that it will still be in business by then.