On Friday night, with a few drinks and snacks nearby us, my wife and I were discussing the states of our artforms. (Yeah, this is what we do on weekend nights.) For my wife it is dance and she struggles between the world of dance you see on TV and the artistry and importance of modern dance (she writes a lot about this on her own blog- educatingdancers.com). For me, it is the state of writing and books.
My wife has heard these arguments before (and I love her more each time she doesn’t yawn) as I continue to wonder where my artform is going and why there seems to be such a thick and foreboding wall between the pop writing you see filling the stores and the more literary creations you see winning the acclaim.
See, for me it feels unnatural that some books are written solely for entertainment and others are considered more important, but can be an endeavor to read even for us educated readers. What many don’t know is that this line, this equator, wasn’t always around and there is a way to create novels that do both.
On this night, my wife laughed and said, “You know who you are? In your posts and on your site? All those articles about books and writing? You, hubby, are the Great Mediator.”
The Great Mediator? Yup, that’s me. And I guess that makes me the lamest member of the Justice League (I’m assuming my chest plate would be the image of a perfectly-balanced scale). I’ve also been probably known to say after a battle with bad guys, “Wait, dudes, let’s hear the Legion of Doom out on this one first before we jump to judgement.” I’m the action figure no kids wants to play with.
Whatever the case, as the world of books gets more and more fractured into different genres and accessibility, I want to bring everything back together. Yes, I am calling an artistic intervention! Pull all the readers and writers into the same room and say, “Let’s find another way to do this.” For it is my opinion, if we don’t find a plan to succeed together, making books truly a unique storytelling medium that can NOT be duplicated, we will see less and less special books being made, and more books published that are simply stepping stones for the inevitable movie or TV show.
Yes, my fellow writers and readers, the Great Mediator is stepping forward onto the equator and I am declaring that it is time to rethink how we look at our novels for the sake of our art and its future. And to start we can make a difference if we each do just these three things in our future books.
1. Embrace the Legacy
When a person decides to take up the mantle of storyteller they join a club, not spanning decades, but thousands of years. They take on a tradition and a practice, reaching back to Gilgamesh, Homer, and the creative souls that gave us the myths of Hercules and the odd story of Jonah and the Whale.
Stories have always been to inspire, to let the listener (or reader) put the human experience into context, excite and teach. So to think of oneself’s as only a genre writer, for example, is to do a disservice to not just the artform but to the story that you are attempting to write.
Frankly, if you limit your perception and importance of your story, you limit the tale itself. Our legacy, our ancestry, gives our better books soul, puts them in the context of not just the local library and classrooms but also into the full history of our art.
So when I meet with new writers, usually one of my big pieces of advice I always give first is to read, read everything. Your work will flourish and, as an added bonus, you will find your writing easier since your brain has soaked up a bunch of possibilities.
People sometimes pooh-poo this advice but the fact is this is a truth throughout the world of art. Do you want an example? Something big and important?
Let’s talk The Beatles.
One of my obsessions is The Beatles and I am a walking dictionary, annoying or possibly delighting the people I meet. (Yes, I have been known to correct people at parties; I’m that guy.) For those that don’t know, when The Beatles started they were a cover band playing for over eight hours straight at a strip club in Germany nightly. It sounds seedy and questionable (and it was), but playing these classic and popular rock songs that came before them over and over again not only educated them in their art but also gave them the basis for creating some of the most important music of the last century. You can see those classic influences in the covers they performed in their BBC recordings, their early albums, and influencing/inspiring songs throughout their catalog.
And The Beatles didn’t just embrace rock! They also embraced other styles and artists from jazz to standards to Broadway. (Heck, Paul performed a song from The Music Man on the Ed Sullivan Show!)
If you want to do something that great, that revolutionary, be the John Lennon of literature, you need to take on the legacy of your art as well. They are the first masters you should turn to for learning the craft.
Read everything and you will see your stories and writing flourish.
2 Be Daring
Art needs to breath, it needs to grow.
What that means for books is that if you want to do something important, something that will test the years, your work needs to standout like a bright tack on a map. A new location discovered.
Your book can not be another simple genre work, it needs to stand on its own, be unique from everything else around it. Frankly, and I’ve said it before, the works we remember from any genre and study are the ones that did something new, broke the mold.
I have come to the opinion over the last few years that we are in a new movement in literature. I haven’t put my finger on it, but it is much more simple, less experimental than modernism and post-modernism. While we have maybe gone too far over the edge in post-modernism, we shouldn’t turn away from the creativity in it. And while I love the idea of making books more accessible to everyone (thank you Kindles and eBook readers), I’d still would want us to find a way to have something different in the recipe beyond a typical cookie cutter work.
So if you are beginning a book that sounds like something already done… seriously consider why you are starting that book beyond the possible dollar sign. I know for many, especially those that make a living just pumping out genre works, this is a form of heresy. But for me, my most rewarding experiences as a novelist have always been those moments when I challenged myself, tested myself. Yes, this is a personal reaction to writing, but it is so rewarding when I hold a book and know it is hard to place. Something new has been born.
Of my three points this is the one I have to say the less about. See, you as a writer need to find that new thing for yourself, it has to be unique to you. If I tell you what that new thing… well… then it would be my new thing.
You will know the “new,” trust me. Seize it!
3. Entertain Us!
When cavemen first circled around a fire awaiting a tale by the camp’s storyteller they were not hoping to hear some groundbreaking artist. They were not looking for William Burroughs to emerge from a cave and read Naked Lunch for example (but I love the image of that idea).
They wanted a story that entertained AND gave a lesson that they could take away. Like, for example, don’t try to sit on a mammoth or surprise a sleeping leopard or something.
Entertaining is important and I have always attempted to do that in my own work by surprising my readers. In my newest novel, A Jane Austen Daydream I am (1.) embracing the legacy of classic literature, including, obviously, Jane Austen’s novels. Also in the book, I am (2.) doing something new and daring in it because there is quite a big twist in it which I won’t ruin here. So yes, I do the art, but I put on the fun show as well (3.).
The fact is if we want more and more readers to read books we need to give our audiences a unique and entertaining experience that they can not get anywhere else! Not in a film, not on a stage and not on TV! Audiences can no longer say “I’ll wait for the movie version.”
If you want your story to be a film, skip the book and write the screenplay. Books are its own storytelling medium and deserve that respect.
Embrace book writing first!
There is a chance I am crazy. Like the doomsayer screaming on a street corner (Of course I would be wearing a cape).
The end of literature is upon us!
Our art is going away… or maybe…
There has always been “pop” literature, but if history has taught us anything it is that these books and authors disappear in time, no matter how big they were during their heyday. So if you want your name as an author to survive beyond its present sales on Amazon, you need to think about the three points I made above as a starting point… or your books might end up on the clearance sales rack of your local library.
Yes, this post is my call to arms, my moment on the wall between the two sides of the globe, and pointing straight ahead, hoping other writers follow me.
Or maybe, even more bold, this is the moment when I become a superhero for literature.
Joseph Campbell eat your heart out.
If you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or Doors and Megan as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!
One of my aims with my last book was to write a literary piece masquerading as a genre one, and I think I managed to pull something off with the tone of the former and context of the latter. Though I have no doubt that those who have planted themselves firmly in one camp of favor would be quick to dismiss it as belonging to the other. (>^-‘)>
But I’m all for pushing genre lines. Much of what we have today is because someone thought to mash its components up back when, and whatever new territory we venture off into today, should it be well-received, stands a good chance of becoming the seed of a genre for the future.
Cheers and good luck with that book!
I too am trying to straddle the line between commercial and literary fiction. It’s partly a marketing problem, I think it’s just a lot harder to find the readers who will enjoy stories that entertain, inspire, and stimulate yet don’t fit into a neat little genre or marketing niche. Literary fiction often sells poorly even from the large houses, but there is a prestige factor that makes it worthwhile. However, I think the bestseller lists look a lot better than they did 20 years ago or so.
Maybe it comes down more to education, teaching readers to be better readers, more picky.
I don’t know about the best sellers being better. Even some on the list classified as literary can be debatable. Like most things, there are highs and lows and art is subjective.
Thanks for the great post, Scott. And I think that you are spot on about the need to learn everything you can about what came before you if you want to generate something new and exciting. Science does it, musicians do it, artists do it. At least the greats of those fields do it… And the Beatles example is perfect. I have actually used that scenario with my music students during our Beatles unit. Well done!
And I love your latest! I can definitely see how you pay homage to the past while spinning it in a new and different way.
Thanks! I’m so glad you are enjoying my daydream.
Beatles unit? Awesome!
Glad you liked the post.