by Sara Artists
Taking a look at the 21st century literary climate in the Amazon jungle, aseptic institutional corridors and beyond with the advent of publishing’s liberation.
A Writer’s Passion Cannot Be Faked Like When Harry Met Sally
Was it Good for You? Do You Smoke After Reading?
“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves.” ― E.M. Forster
Great writing was once the product of a great life, the finely distilled essence of an existence spent following the intellect wherever the quest led, be it extreme beauty or the darkest, meanest sewers the world had to offer.
Literary legends include Orwell slugging it down and out in the streets of Paris and London, Burroughs wasting away in a Tangiers flophouse, Thompson throwing beatings with the Hell’s Angels and Hemingway tossing hand grenades off the prow of his yacht as part of the wartime naval Auxiliary. The legends include poets and writers who pioneered inner territory also, often at the risk of popularity and livelihoods, preferring to create work that would speak with the thundering voice of truth, regardless of its market potential.
Today, however, our icons of literature come from a vastly different place. The toils of writing no longer pay favoritism to the bold individual with an iridescent particular perspective. Rather, we exist in an over-fed milieu of blatant and anticipated mediocrity that occurs via strategically marketed literary “product”. Much of it is carefully placed on publisher-purchased retail shelf-space, in supermarkets and bookstores, selling demographically groomed authors specifically to known target segments of the book-buying public. Author personas are even fabricated (demographically) and groomed for launch by savvy publishing house marketing teams.
When Henry David Thoreau wrote, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live?” he was distilling the very purpose and value that writing serves society. Fine words and impeccable grammar mean nothing if they don’t speak from the vanguard of experience. How can a writer be expected to say anything of merit when he or she has not had the courage to live freely, as a righteous individual? So what does “write what you know” become? Keyword-heavy amalgams of lowest-common-denominator popular culture references, all interspersed with cross-market branding opportunities?
Perhaps this is another sign of spiritual rot endemic in our secularized western culture. A recent article in a middle-eastern men’s magazine, which outlined the region’s most dangerous professions, listed ‘Poet’ in number one slot. This was followed closely by ‘Novelist’ at number two, and “Journalist” at number three. The true measure of a writer’s social potential is still visible in some places, where individuals worthy of the title “Poet” possess the distinguishing ability to stir high emotion and passion. As Van Morrison sang: “It moved me, to my soul…”
When did the USA last have a dangerous poet? The later part of the 20th and the 21st century saw poetry institutions serving up little more than PhD poets pedigreed within their own academia. Many of them are technically skillful and clever, and even pleasant in their metaphoric acrobatics and cultural weavings, but missing something. They are read among their own circles, they win prizes, they are written up by peers, and they review and laud one another’s work. Could it be they are missing the essential truth of life, the passion for rugged exploration? Does their work truly qualify as a vocation, or has it been reduced to yet another cloying and irrelevant academic exercise?
Any poet sitting down to work out cerebral linguistics is merely playing pantomime of Virginia Woolf’s immortal words: “He is limp and damp and milder than the breath of a cow.”
If anything, the rebellious stature once ascribed to the poets has been subsumed by rock stars in our society’s present state. While reveling in the syncopated beats and saccharin lines of their pedantic choruses, they rarely reach the lyrical heights white Ovid and Yeats once soared. Our modern poetry institutions, the proclaimed bastions of literary culture, are championing an intellectual breed of “literati” that is cerebrally isolated and removed from the raw pulse of life. They celebrate poets who can intellectually entwine literary devices, but who haven’t had any life experiences worth the time it takes to relate them through the written word. At best, they are pedantic; at worst they adopt the tropes of the common “bad boy” or “bad girl,” indulging in expletives and intensifiers and maintaining an aloof, hip detachment. They are not standing up to live beyond trending hashtags; for what do they push away from their desks?
In the 1920s, readings by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay would attract the fervent throng of audiences that performances by a Madonna or Lady Gaga do today. Less than 100 years ago, Millay was one of the most famous women in the United States; not for the quality of her poetry and plays, but for her subversive lifestyle and how effectively they documented and promulgated it. She was a bohemian who predated the 1970’s sexual revolution and feminism by half a century, and the country loved her.
As we’ve developed the simple technology for rapidly addressing the entire planet, we’ve simultaneously condoned monetizing the lowest common denominator. Whereas Millay was writing to elucidate, our modern process seeks a far different goal: monetization. Writing, in the modern sense, becomes about assembling the most effective string of simplified, keyword-dense prose specifically coordinated with search engine optimization objectives. Wizards. Vampires. Freakish Sex.
Money talks its own language
The all-consuming desire expressed by writers in past ages—to live an examined life and document it—has been commercially replaced by the manipulative prediction of consumer trends, the mad lust for more readership of any denomination. Gone is the impulse to move the internal frontiers of a reader’s own mind, replaced with little more than the desire to for another sale. Modern publishers couldn’t care less if their books, once sold, are never even read, and play hardball to engender a similar detachment ion their authors. Unfortunately, plodding through the latest anthology of random shock value antics is just not quite the same as having one’s mind truly blown. These relentless adolescent ploys for attention have a “desensitizing” effect on audiences, a far cry from the specific, sensitizing goal of espoused by revolutionary writers in ages past. How deeply can one be moved by a work that has all the depth of a person sitting next to you and repeatedly trying to poke you painfully in the eye? What great intellectual awakening could such a work serve to produce, beyond the inevitable “reading is a waste of my time”?
Readers and authors in this age are further isolated from one another by class and economic disparity. There are huge economies of scale involved in modern mega-publishing, and these create an immediately insulating cocoon around the life of any writer to become suddenly successful. Replete with tiny payments from innumerable myriads of bored and distracted morons, a writer can contentedly prattle on for years, in considerable creature comfort, by simply producing new titles containing the same collections of trigger words and formula fiction which first lit the fuse on their rocket-like ascendancy to the position of literary luminary.
The courage to stand up and live, the danger of adventurous physical exploits and transgressive thoughts and ideas, is not lauded in America as it once was. Safety sells, mollycoddling the reader with works that rehash the tired roles from other franchises. Celebrities widely indulge in this talentless, factory-made fame, with a focus on clothes, nudity and whom they happen to be dating. The literary icon, the poet, the author; these have become endangered species, their boundary-shattering work discarded in favor of poorly crafted but money-making dross.
In June of this year, four of the top-five selling titles on Amazon’s Kindle platform were poorly-re-imagined fan fiction composed on a cell phone by a salaried worker, during her daily commute on public transport. With her thumbs.
We used to want to live (and read) the lives of writers, not because they were rich and untouchable or selling off every grocery store shelf, but because they were real and irascible. Jack Kerouac (whose seminal work, On the Road, is belatedly becoming a movie this year) described the ideal writer thus:
“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
Instead of books constructed to better our understanding and appreciation of the world in which we live, major publishing houses now produce, almost exclusively, books that don’t delve into much beyond formula plot templates. They cloud reality or, at best, merely pass the time. Where are the publishers who recognized the Errol Flynn breed of writer? Can they not recognize that their infatuation with high-profit, high-turnover titles is a glaring Achilles heel?
What literature would Emily Dickinson embrace today if she were a contemporary? Her thermometer for a book was, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Hunter S. Thompson, after years in literature’s trenches, gave insight into the labors of constant vigilance and putting it into written works. “I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work,” he opines in The Great Shark Hunt. When amateurs can get paid millions of dollars losing their authorial virginity, is there really any reason for a writer to live dangerously anymore?
George Orwell observed that “for a creative writer possession of the ‘truth’ is less important than emotional sincerity.” Perhaps the veracity of life experience, the soul-searing process of emotional self-honesty, is simply not a height to which our society based on three-second media distractions aspires.
We are faced, unfortunately, by a new breed of writers who don’t even want to be writers. Instead, infatuated by stories of overnight eBook success, they plot careers by taking advantage of the 21st century paradigm shift in power publishing. Thanks to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, writers are their own “gatekeepers” now. However, as the gates swing unvetted, one of the results is the thick slush pile that sluices through in an unending torrent of monetized awful through which readers have to wade.
We can only hope that the driven, genuine writers will be as determined to go through the additional efforts of publishing. Even if their works aren’t immediately popularized by savvy keyword-crafting, it seems reasonable to rely on some universal law at work, with the cream exhibiting a natural tendency to rise to the top, as literature uncannily has done for ages. If this is the not case, what will this age of literature leave future generations? Vampires and sexual acrobatics?
The year that Moby Dick was published, the bestseller was a little remembered or obsolete book titled…what, exactly? Everyone had heard of it back then. Now it’s little more than a footnote curio.
Best Seller or real value?
The term best seller is a classic example of American verbiage. It is a characteristic feature of modern industrial-scale American publishing, and it is commonly agreed by book historians that it was coined in 1895. It is rooted in the publication of the list of the six “New Books, in the order of demand,” published in the inaugural issue of The Bookman, a New York periodical. From that day forward, the notion of a well-selling book has been quietly and completely divorced from the notion of true literary value. With the development of the Internet and its associated social media, there are many new factors that make the phenomenon of this divide ever more prevalent and, for the aspiring author, disheartening. The market for books is more complex than most.
Unfortunately, none of this is as new as it seems. Moby Dick, for example, sold only 3,715 copies during Melville’s lifetime. It wasn’t until after World War I that what began as splashes of acceptance, became a tsunami of praise. Despite the occasional naysayer (Joseph Conrad ridiculed the book as romantic, overblown prose), the vast majority who encountered the book were deeply affected. Writers were stunned by how Melville conveyed the specifics of a past world and what it is like, in any age, to be alive. In this case, what market success required was space. There is a cultural distance required, in which themes can resonate and become a timeless source of meaning.
It remains to be seen if this process, of a book finding its time and people, can be as manipulated as current title sales are today.
By and large, there is little to no marketing support of disruptive outside voices anymore. Gone is sanction of the larger-than-life iconic figure of the romanticized novelist and poet. As published titles grow, the majority of trends appear to reflect that monetary interests cater to the “freedom” to choose among five different brands of safe pabulum, but time has yet to reveal what will rise.
Last year there were 211,269 self-published titles according to Bowker, which provides the numeric book identifiers known as ISBN numbers–up from 133,036 in 2010.
In this unprecedented money-driven instant-author press, there is no doubt that we are still blessed with writers who are more than aspiring celebrities, armchair intellectuals, professors and unleashed authors in training on Amazon. The process of finding them among exponentially increasing titles in print may appear complicated by the increase of items from which to choose. However, it may ultimately make it easier than ever to find impassioned genuine (driven by inspiration and courage) writers as in legendary dares of not too distant yore. We have only to recognize that their praises may be fewer and far between than the mega-sensations that the media spoon-feeds us daily.
Consider the American novelist Vanna Bonta, who coined the term and set precedents for the new literary genre ‘quantum fiction.’ She was too busy riding camels in the desert, eschewing Hollywood for colorful Florentine literary salons, slugging vodka with Russian astronauts and designing and testing specialized space-suits for interstellar intercourse to get dragged down into the taxonomical pissing war that her literary technique and excited fans inspired. Or Wilson Harris, the quantum novelist, who earned his knighthood as much for surviving colonized Africa as for eulogizing it. His work remains completely his own frontier, a unique examination of the human condition and our frail mortality in the face of possibilities that include limitless in other dimensions.
As the adage for art collectors states, buy what you love. Don’t sell yourself short, or let others sell you a keyword with no roots. Every age has the real deal, the abysmal and, worse, the mediocre. While the masses have always flocked to their coliseums for distraction, they need the milk of true literature to sustain them.
What Virginia Woolf described is still true today, perhaps in increasing numbers, “We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.” Whether digital is more or less eternal than paper and ink is a subject unto itself, but the theme that seems central and necessary and ultimately unstoppable in the human being is passion. Eventually, it always gives us the best products—be it novels, food, music, or missions to Mars.
You will know when you find the genuine writer, or when you, as a writer, are standing up to live and letting it flow yourself.
Contributors: Owen Ferguson, Randall Hayes