Monday, February 2, 2015

Prosodies, Threnodies, And Maladies

Well, it’s another snowy day here on Long Island, and I find I have both the time and the inclination to write, but – apart from the depressing way the Super Bowl ended – nothing newsworthy to write about. You know what that means, don’t you, Gentle Reader?

The indie-writers movement is a thing of great internal variety. Indeed, the one thing we have in common is that we publish our own crap. However, our offerings do display some differences, statistically at least, from the drivel that Pub World puts out. In particular, Pub World fiction puts more emphasis on style than does indie fiction. Indies tend to emphasize plot and excitement.

That cleavage probably derives, at least in part, from the reason we write: the kinds of stories that thrilled us as readers have become rare among Pub World offerings. That’s certainly part of my motive power: at one point before I decided to try my hand at fiction, I felt I’d gone a whole year without encountering a hero-protagonist I could wholeheartedly admire and root for – and I read 150 to 200 novels per year.

But just as tedious is the prevalent demotion of plot in favor of just about anything else. Were it not for murder mysteries and the Clancyesque military thriller subgenre, Pub World fiction would lack plot almost completely. It’s as if Ayn Rand’s caricature of a writer from Atlas Shrugged – the one who opined that “plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature” – had taken over the publishing industry.

Ponder the sentiments of one such denigrator of plot:

Eva Brann cares.

Brann teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis, where the curriculum is driven by the classics and professors are known as tutors.

Years ago she read one of Stephen King's books. She was greatly disappointed. "It was mere plot," she says. "Everything was geared to stimulation by way of action."

Asked if she could recall the name of the King novel, she says, "It left no impression. It left no impression whatsoever." That, she says, is a characteristic of popular fiction.

"There's a pornography of sex and a pornography of the nerves," she continues. The No-Stylists, she says, are penning the latter type of porn. "Things happen -- crude, wild, exciting things. They have no human depth. They're just occurrences."

A derisive, backhanded dismissal of one of the most gifted storytellers of our time! This Brann babe must have some chops of her own, wouldn’t you think? Yet an Amazon search turns up no fiction published under her name. Maybe she publishes under a pseudonym. At any rate, that would help her to avoid having her stories contrasted with King’s. Whatever the case, it’s plain that Miss Brann is very sad about the state of modern fiction.

I don’t write to please the Eva Branns of the world. No indie of my acquaintance does.

The point of storytelling is...well, let’s not go there, as there’s more than one answer. But the principal requirement of storytelling is to entertain the reader. Style fails to address that requirement.

One of the happy discoveries I’ve made since embarking on this adventure is that a writer’s personal style becomes distinctive as he writes, even if his sole aim is to tell a particular story, eschewing stylistic considerations of any sort.

I didn’t set out to coin a style of my own, as if I were composing a signature by which the reader would immediately know he was consuming a genuine FWP product. I had stories to tell. I told them in as straightforward a fashion as I knew how. That’s all I know how to do. But have a gander at the following email I received shortly after I self-pubbed Which Art In Hope, Chosen One, and On Broken Wings:

I greatly enjoy your op-eds, and always look forward to new ones, but your fiction blows me away. But something puzzles me. When you write about fiction writing, which I hope you'll do more of, you always seem to be running down style as a factor in good fiction. Yet you have one of the most unique styles I've come across in all my years (don't ask how many) of reading. What gives?

I read that email in a state of bewilderment. I couldn’t get a grip on what my correspondent was talking about. I just tell the stories as my characters relate them to me. If anyone was responsible for the “style,” whatever it is, of those books, it would be their protagonists, through whose eyes the story is told. I was just the typist.

I had to come back to those books much later, to read them as if they’d been written by someone else, before I could get any sense of the thing. There is a consistent character to the prose of those novels. It screams that all three were written by the same person. That’s what’s usually meant by a writer’s style. I didn’t intend any such thing...but it happened even so.

This seems to be the pattern among the indies whose works I’ve read.

So in one corner we have indie writers, happily churning out the sorts of tales they most love to read, while in the opposite corner are the writers beloved of Pub World, the majority of whom spin plot-deprived non-stories about antiheroes and victims of fate who spend most of their time lamenting their lots in life. Who’s ahead on points? Hard to say, as Pub World houses tend to keep sales figures confidential from everyone outside their orbit. But if Amazon is a gauge, there are more indie writers than ever before, and they’re producing books at a really impressive rate. Some of them are even good.

One of the recent critical “responses” to developments in contemporary fiction went like this:

    The central question driving literary aesthetics in the age of the iPad is no longer "How should novels be?" but "Why write novels at all?"...
    The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is—the novel very much included—the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in [sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's] analysis, the only real value that "refined" tastes have.
    It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this riposte to the aesthetics of "transcendence" must have seemed 30 years ago....
    We who curate our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls understand that at least part of what we're doing publicly, "like"-ing what we like, is trying to separate ourselves from the herd....
    Writers since at least the heyday of Gore Vidal have bemoaned their audience's defection to other forms of entertainment. But pop-Bourdieuvianism deprives them of the sense of high-canonical purity with which they've traditionally consoled themselves....
    To hell with style, then; the novelist now has to confront the larger problem of what the novel is even for—assuming it’s not just another cultural widget....
    This is where "The Marriage Plot"'s titular enjambment of literature and love—those two beleaguered institutions—is so clarifying....
    This isn’t to say that, measured in terms of cultural capital or sheer entertainment, the delights to which most contemporary "literary fiction" aims to treat us aren’t an awful lot. It's just that, if the art is to endure, they won't be quite enough.

If you’re an indie writer, as I am, the above should elicit approximately the following reaction:

“What the BLEEP! is he talking about?
Did he go off his meds?”

It should also reassure you that the “critics” no longer matter to any substantial degree.

Tell your stories and let the chips fall where they may. Trust your readers to let you know whether you’re getting the job done. Mine always do.


lelnet said...

I'm sure that when you handle an object, you don't _intend_ that the fingerprints you leave behind on it be uniquely and identifiably yours, either. And yet, there they are.

It matters not, to the question of "style", from whose viewpoint the story is told. You are not, presumably, merely taking dictation from these creatures in your are telling their story. _You_ are. If I were to see the same events happening, and attempt to convey them to a reader with the same honesty you do, I would nevertheless still not write them quite the same way, because I am not you.

And only the sort of person who's reacting against the widespread over-obsession with "style" could possibly be surprised by that.

The problem with the style obsessives is not that style isn't actually important, it's that they're basically trying to push on the rope. An interesting story can be ruined by being poorly-told...but all the "style" in the world won't rescue someone who has nothing interesting to offer.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha it sounds like the literary critic, by way of criticism, is claiming that literature is no longer relevant, thus proving with his criticism, that it is still relevant. Now if he had said nothing...that would have been a bad sign.

GamegetterII said...

I agree about the unique style ,you do have a very unique style,it's kind of hard to explain to others-for me anyhow.
All of your books are what I call easy to read fiction,as they are hard to put down,because as the story moves along,you just want to keep reading.
There's very little of what I call "filler material"-pages of stuff only vaguely related to the storyline,used to stretch out the page count of the book.
I do notice way more filler material in books published by the bigger mainstream publishers.
Anyhow-I hope you keep writing for many years to come-I'm especially looking forward to more of the Onteora county books-Polymath kicked ass,thanks again for the opportunity to read the draft.