16 January 2009

More Navel Gazing

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:06 am

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.



  1. Geez, Doc, you sure are a tough audience. But I welcome it.

    I do concur with you on several levels. The retired sportswriter, by the way, according to the story he told me, got into his profession more for his love of sports than the love of written word. So, your dreams of him being that hero–the last hope to save the dying literary movement–may have been out there a little bit. But I certainly give you points for romanticism! His first novel, alluring in it’s demonstration of his command of language, was a river rafting mystery.

    He is definitely a deep thinker, though. I adored his contribution to Open Mic. I want to see more “risks” like that as you put it.

    Incidentally, I am intending to write something totally from the heart…maybe about the recession or my angst with technology, and reading it, but it’s merely a matter of fitting in the time to create it with passion.

    As a contention to your observation about the general public and how it could watch TV to get the same flash rather than read a commercial style book, I must say the issue is more complex than that. Most television is about voyeurism in this day and age. This seems to suggest that the average attention span isn’t even long enough to stick with a plot anymore. And that’s a problem that dwarfs the dwindling appreciation for profound writing.


    Comment by Dave — 18 January 2009 @ 10:54 am

  2. Well Dave, this Thursday night I’m attending a public reading event here in Boulder, where each presenter is limited to 2 minutes. I’ll let you know if I hear anything different there. I suppose I should celebrate any writing that goes beyond the production of advertising copy. Based on the small turnouts at the Open Mic events, I’d say they function as either a kind of “vanity press” ego-stroke for the presenters or as a way for fellow writers to hear one another’s work.

    TV is another kind of commercial fiction, wouldn’t you say? “Show don’t tell” is a mantra for how one is supposed to write, but an actual visual image can always show something more successfully than a series of words printed on a page. I just checked the Nielsen ratings, and last week’s installment of a TV series called The Mentalist had 19 million viewers last week. If the show does as well next week it will have equaled in two weeks the cumulative sales of The Da Vinci Code.

    So, based on the averages for such things, let’s say that an hour-long episode of The Mentalist consists of 44 minutes of actual program and 16 minutes of commercials. Because it’s a high-viewership program, let’s say a 30-second commercial slot is priced at $600K — again, based on industry averages. So that’s $600K X 16 X 2 = $20 million per week in revenue from commercials being earned by that one TV series. Now that’s commercial fiction. I thought that once viewers had to pay for the TV transmission that advertising would go away. But no: there’s the monthly cable bill on top of the attention the viewer must pay in watching the advertisements.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 January 2009 @ 12:01 am

  3. I think there really are people who, when they look into their souls or express themselves from the heart, will spontaneously produce stuff that mass audiences want to buy. In a sense these are the lucky ones, the natural-born pop stars. On the other hand, my daughter just told me about a recommendation from her pal not to take the creative writing class at the high school. She said that the teacher tries to get all the students to write the same way, according to a formula for “good” writing, rather than helping each kid learn to discover unique truths and to express him/herself in a distinctive way. It’s a shame that literary aspiration faces such stiff resistance even at such a young age, and even in the hothouse for nurturing blooming flowers that Boulder supposedly is.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 January 2009 @ 1:28 am

  4. On UK radio recently, there was a news item about a new project trying to get boys to read. Boys generally think reading is square; more than girls apparently. So this expensive project used computer “interactivity” (how I hate that word!), PowerPoint slides etc to visualise the story for them and to put them in the story. This news depressed me a great deal. Perhaps it will work for a while and get a few more boys reading books. But it will fade away. Why? Because it is actually telling children that reading is boring, that we must use all these other media and devices to make it more exciting.

    So why is it boring? I think it’s certainly takes more intellectual effort to read a book than to watch a television programme, even a challenging one. Television is passive. I watch a lot of it myself.

    We’re like kids fed only on candy. Eat it because it’s what you want, you know you want it – apparently. After a while, it’s all we know. Who wants challenging novels when they can have another Da Vinci Code? Of course, eventually the formula, which as you know is where all the money goes, runs out of steam. Something else comes along. Something else replaces Harry Potter but the simpler the better usually and then more and more of the same thing. Art as the latest craze. Well, we know how capitalism works.

    I think the last real movement in US/Western European literature, one that really tried to mix things up, tear them down etc, but most of all do something NEW with words, was the Beats. That was a quite a long time ago now. Ginsberg and Burroughs are ten years dead. Ballard (not really a Beat, I know) writes the odd article about how much he enjoys CSI. God, what an atrocity.

    Formula is death to form – the sculpting of artifice to show the world. The best genre writers knew that. Writers are full of compromises and need to make a buck. But the best also know how to say no.

    Dear Ms Highsmith, do you think you could make your Ripley a little more like Hannibal Lecter? All the best, signed the idiots.

    Training is fine as far as it goes. I’ve been on writing classes and found them helpful. Perhaps your daughter should try and see what the class is like. Teenagers often feel that any training and criticism is trying to mould them into conformity, man, but there might be some benefits from the class. If it is as her friend says then she can say no and walk away with pride!


    Comment by faustuskelly — 20 January 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  5. Now I respect genre more than I did before I started hanging out virtually with you, Faustus, and others who occupy the world of blogs. A genre is a sort of fictional macroreality in which each individual book or movie stakes out a locality within this reality along with pathways linking it to other local implementations. The foundational works in a genre are like big cities, functioning as nexuses for transportation and communication, attracting new residents who collectively comprise an ever-expanding metropolitan zone. A genre fan can move relatively smoothly through this lumpy striated reality, exploring new roads and discovering new sites without ever feeling like they’re in danger of falling off the edge of the world.

    Some of the genre-benders are trying to build roads linking one fictional reality to another, in hopes of setting up a tollway for people who want to investigate this new link. So you get somebody touting his book as Da Vinci Code meets CSI or some such thing: its a popular move of global capitalism to create a new niche by merging two existing niches. Then there are other genre-benders who seem to tunnel into the ground or build a platform out over the abyss at the edge of the world: they extend the genre in weird ways without ever leaving that world. And of course there are those who disregard genre boundaries altogether, travelers who aren’t looking for places to build but for secret passageways to explore that cut across all territories.

    The advantages to a writer who occupies a genre are multiple. The sense of an underlying security that might actually facilitate risk-taking. The fellowship of neighbors who share your commitment to occupying this particular world. The sense that the roads traversing the terrain carry a reasonable amount of traffic between the writers and the readers, so there’s reason to believe you can set up a little shop on a busy intersection and customers might actually show up at your door. But at some point it becomes evident that all the shops are selling pretty much the same wares, and you start longing to see something show up in one of these shops that doesn’t fit with the other things on display. But if you’re an itinerant merchant bringing some unusual object for the shopkeeper to consider, can the shopkeeper actually assign any sort of value to it when the marketplace hasn’t already implicitly decided its value ahead of time? Will the shopkeeper value this unusual thing above all other things in his shop, or will he disregard it entirely?

    I’m blathering away here, Faustus. Regarding your last paragraph about the value of training, you may have previously seen evidence on this blog that our daughter is quite an accomplished artist. For the longest time she refused to take any art classes. Even before she could articulate the reasons for her resistance, it was clear: she didn’t want to be taught until she already knew something of her own. I think this is true for her regarding the writing and also filmmaking: she’d rather have the teachers help her hone her craft to her own specifications rather than to theirs. This approach seems to work quite well for her, and I suspect that at some point she’ll be ready to enjoy a writing class just as she now enjoys art classes.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 January 2009 @ 6:37 am

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