not commercial, not literary—what, then?

What do writers do with their time?

I can’t speak for others; indeed, I can barely speak for myself, for I wonder where all the time goes. Partly this is an artifact of age, sure (I’m 58), but really it has always been this way for me. My method, if I can call it that, or my way of being, is not such as to produce a lot of output. This is due to some combination of:

  • divided focus
  • caution
  • project-switching
  • aversion to boredom
  • perfectionism

My wife Kimmie is currently immersed in reading Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake vampire-slaying novels. Ms. Hamilton is hugely successful as writers go, and has a massive audience for her work. She is also prolific. However, while my wife is a big fan of her work, I myself have no interest in vampire books, either as a reader or a writer. Indeed, I don’t really have any interest in any commercial genre of fiction. If I try to read those things I just get bored.

So I must be a reader of “literary” fiction then. Not really! Most of the fiction offered as “literary” (or, in Orson Scott Card’s designation, “literary/academic”) also is of no interest to me. Indeed, it’s usually of less interest to me, in so far as it tends to ignore the principles of storytelling. Storytelling is generally a concern of commercial fiction.

Maybe then I just don’t like fiction. Why bother with something that I don’t even enjoy? If I must read, shouldn’t I just stick to nonfiction?

No, I do like fiction. I can be swept up in a narrative work as much as anyone can, and I think maybe more. People who turn to fiction writing as a career are strongly affected by the art; otherwise they—we—would never suffer the indignities and inconveniences that generally attend a life in the arts. Saul Bellow said that a writer is just a reader who feels moved to emulation. You need to be moved pretty far to start emulating.

I know I still like fiction because I do find stories—books, movies—that excite me and move me. I recently finished reading, for the second time, the novel Arundel by Kenneth Roberts, published in 1929. It’s a historical novel and an adventure story about the real-life expedition led by Benedict Arnold to recapture Quebec City from the British in 1775. The story is narrated by one Steven Nason, a Maine woodsman who serves as one of the guides of the expedition. The journey is personal for him, for a French officer has kidnapped the girl that Steven loves, is holed up in Quebec, and Steven wants to rescue this girl and marry her. I’ve already reviewed the book, so I won’t go into further details, except to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again, and got even more out of the narrative this time. I also found more things to criticize, things that I might have tried to improve or do differently if I were the one writing this story. But, in all, I felt my time reading it was well spent, and I looked forward to my reading session each day.

This time I read past the end of the book to see the list of sources Roberts used to research his work. I was impressed, and felt I was looking on the work of a kindred spirit, for I too have accumulated a significant array of research works. This is where the authority of a work comes from: how well the author knows what he’s writing about. Research takes time and effort, and, as with gardening, you can’t really rush it.

I also appreciated anew the epic dimension of Arundel. Influenced by the arguments in the excellent book The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums (and which I also reviewed here), I see epic as the genre of the birth and transformation of societies, and Arundel tells the story of a key event in the struggle that was to give birth to the United States of America. Within that broader story we see the interaction and clash of smaller, component cultures: the Maine dwellers of European descent, the various Indian nations who lived nearby, the British, the French, and even the other proto-states, who were all viewed as very distinct societies (and the worst of them all: New Yorkers). All of this is handled vividly and well; but it is a labor-intensive approach to storytelling, for creating all these different kinds of characters takes work.

So there are good stories out there—good, that is, in my estimation, which is that of a fussy, critical, and demanding reader. And since a key directive in writing is to write the kind of thing you want to read, then I have my work cut out. In this I am not different from Laurell K. Hamilton, for she says that she writes exactly what she wants to read (whether editors and publishers can be coaxed into accepting it or not). She also says that she writes long stretches of prose with ease, and finds writing a short piece comparatively hard. Here we part company, for, although I find writing to be fairly easy, the thing that I’m trying to write is just too big, complex, and mysterious for me to crack it off in a few sittings. It has absorbed my sustained attention over the years, and continues to do so.

This is why so little of my time is spent “writing.” I think of a story about Samuel Goldwyn (or maybe it was a different Hollywood mogul) walking past the offices of the writers on the studio lot: he wanted to hear typewriters clacking, and if he didn’t, he would give the writers hell. Like most nonwriters (and many writers), he had no idea how writing is actually done. The biggest and hardest part about writing, I find, is problem solving, and you can’t really solve problems by typing. You might do some typing while working on the problem, but mainly you’re just worrying at it, chewing on it, trying different ideas until something seems to click.

So: I’m not trying to be commercial, and still less am I trying to be “literary/academic.” But like a commercial writer, I’m striving to tell a story; and like a literary/academic writer, I’m trying to create a work of art. My actions are saying that I think the best literary art lies between the alternatives of “commercial” and “literary/academic.” The Buddha taught the middle way between all extremes, and it appears that I am trying to carry his advice into the realm of literary creation.

Share this post—why not?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone
This entry was posted in thoughts, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.