This post went through a lot of titles, including “Let Yourself Go” and “Working On What’s Been Spoiled By The Father” also “Be The Tall Poppy.”
I realize by now I’ve confused you more than you were by that title. So be it. I’ve found I write these posts the same way I write books. I have a vague idea of the question, and then I have a lot of impressions and thoughts, of poetry and images and feelings which I feel are in some way related to the question. Writing posts and stories is like assembling all those bits and pieces, so that in the end it stands complete and I see the picture. And hopefully so do my readers.
The question here started with an excellent series of posts Serdar Yegulalp has been doing over here, each of them his unpacking/unfolding and his own counterpoint of my Human Wave Post. It’s an excellent series of posts, and I urge everyone to read them.
The particular point he was spinning from was this: You will write in language that can be understood. You will have an idea of what your story is about, or at least of its beginning, middle and end. And so will your reader, once he reads it.
And a brutal summarization of his counterpoint – which like a translation is always betraying a little – is that while he believes you should write to reach an audience, he doesn’t think any writer deliberately sets out not to. (He hasn’t gone to the same writer gatherings I have, but never mind.) In the middle of making this point, he says something about the thrill of wanting to try new forms, not wanting to tell stories in the same hackneyed way.
Something about his post bothered me, at a sub-rational level, just like a minuscule pebble under your sock bothers you, though you’re not even quite sure you feel something. But other than commenting on the fact I’d heard writers express the idea that not to be understood by themselves or others was their goal, I left it alone. There was more than that, though. However, it was a moving dot upon the page, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Throw into that the Reiner Kunze poem, which again I’m going to quote from my memory of (translated) and therefore probably not faithful, but I can’t find it on the net: “The trees grow, top on top ….. to the wind they all whisper the same.” In the middle is phrasing I won’t attempt to reproduce because I don’t remember it with any exactness. Something about filtering the sun and the rain in exact amounts, so none knows the cruelty of thirst. It applied to his situation – a poem against communism – but not so much to this one. What I quoted does — that last haunting line in particular “to the wind they all whisper the same.” Which we’ll agree is the very definition of “establishment publishing.”
Also, last night we watched Prince of Egypt, and my older son, halfway through it, said “why don’t thy just walk out one by one?” Which, of course, was right. They could have. Why “Let my people go” till Egypt was on its knees, the innocent with the guilty alike? And then I thought, “but one on one, they’re just runaway slaves, hunted down into the desert and most of them dying there. They’re not a people. They’re not a movement.”
And then, because I was already in a biblical mood, the story of Esau selling his birthright for a mess of pottage came to mind. At this point I was starting to get glimmers of what bothered me about Serdar’s post. It was followed by a recollection of a line that often seems to come up in the I-Ching (don’t ask. I have a friend who will do I-Ching readings at the drop of a hat) “Work On what has been spoiled by the Father; No blame.”
This morning I found myself singing Leonard Cohen’s song “Show me the place” and struck by the lines “Show me the place; I’ve Forgotten, I don’t Know.”
At which point what bothered me about Serdar’s post came to mind. He talks of the inscrutable, precious exercises in “literature” – which, yes, I too can enjoy if I’m in the right mood – as being a reaction against the “hackneyed” and “easy” way of telling things.
This – with due apologies – makes as much sense as high school kids today talking about being multi-tattooed and wearing their pants falling off their butt as a reaction against the “suit and tie” establishment. Are there still people who wear suits and ties? Sure, mostly stock traders, strictly while at work. But they’re not in any way a “block” or an establishment. I bet even there inroads have been made and there are establishments that operate in slacks and unbuttoned shirts. Everywhere else, casual has won the day. Don’t believe me? Go to your doctor, see how he’s dressed. Likely in jeans and t-shirt. And my older son has managed to get quite a rise out of his jean-and-t-shirt clad professors by wearing shirt, tie and slacks to class.
So, in effect, these kids are rebelling against an establishment that no longer exists – and which they know only from the movies, which in turn are made by people who are the establishment – by adopting the extreme forms of the establishment today and the “de rigeur” rebellion to be taken seriously by today’s establishment.
In the same way, talking about popular literature that follows some “hackneyed” pattern is curiously dislocated in time. Oh, sure, some popular authors have a formula. This falls under “if it works, keep doing it” – but is their formula universal or the way to be successful? Even more importantly, is it enforced by “the establishment” and are you given perks for it?
Hardly. Romance is a different thing, to an extent, though even then, until new-publishing came in and woke up publishing, the real establishment was trying to drag romance the way of other genres.
I submit to you that there was a time in which experimenting with new ways of telling stories was refreshing and liberating. There was a time when starting with a shocking or scatological scene was fresh.
This is no longer so. Go look at “highly acclaimed” science fiction and find one that isn’t “experimenting” or doesn’t “break the conventions”[ that no longer exist.]
The transgressive is now the norm. Even Hunger Games straddles the fine line between conventional teen romance and what the establishment enforces. To succeed, to be pushed, it HAD to bring in social injustice (which tags it as worthy of promotion) and children killing children (which tags it as “transgressive.”)
The exceptions had to be smashing hits in Britain before the Americans were allowed to buy them. Harry Potter and of course Pratchett. And for a course on what the establishment is and how hard it holds the line, listen to Pratchett tell of all the years when he was a mega blockbuster bestseller in England and was lucky to sell five thousand copies a book here. I was a fan of his back then, and I want to tell you, finding his books required devotion and patience. (Pre-Amazon.)
This is where we are now.
Inventing ever more outre forms of telling a story might give you some sort of satisfaction – it might even get you promoted by the establishment. But remember the establishment, though still very strong, is having to cope with reality, and with the fact that the choices they made over all these years, choices often made against the market (hence the falling circulation rates) are becoming more and more apparent as competition surfaces. Also, realize that at this point metaphorically speaking just wearing a mini-skirt to school is not going to be viewed as the approved rebellion. You’ll need at least the style of lip piercing that resembles “boar tusks” and which in turn will make it hard for you to get a job when school is over. Or it will make it hard for you to sell to those people out there, in the street, beyond the group think of the establishment. (Again the falling circulation rates.)
The problem as I see it is this: we sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. Instead of keeping the best of the story telling tradition built up since the Iliad, we went searching in the wilderness for the rebellion, the startling and the shocking. This is fine in moderation. It’s how literature grows and changes. The outre becomes integrated and accepted and moves the establishment in another direction. But for the last five decades we’ve been engaged in something quite different – an orgy of tearing down and chewing to pieces, that proposed nothing but chaos as an alternative.
The rebels who became the establishment were not — it turns out — pushing an alternate way of doing things. Just the continuous tearing down of the old way. They brought no trowels or spades, only wrecking balls.
Literature is how people think of themselves. Mystery is how we think through problems of justice and order. Romance is how we think of the relationship between the genders. Science fiction is our dreams of the future. Fantasy is our dreams of the unseen and the supernatural.
Of these romance and fantasy lost their way perhaps the least. But the others have been – now – thoroughly torn down. Kicking the fragments to pieces takes no daring and it achieves nothing except rubble.
So am I proposing to go back to the way it was before the great unlearning? No. We’re not the same people. Heck, when the rebels started getting hold of the seats of power, I was learning to speak and walk. Without the tear down, things would have evolved, but now there’s nothing left of them, and we’re different. We’re like a sixteen year old who hasn’t read anything since kindergarten and picture books and must now find something that speaks to him, only it doesn’t exist so he must invent it/write it.
Writing another “transgressive” piece is easy. We’ve read hundreds of them. Writing a piece that will actually appeal to people without the massive promotion and push that used to be brought to bear (and still is – coff – Hunger Games) by the establishment is difficult. We’re working on what has been spoiled by the metaphorical father, and while there might be no blame, we also don’t have a lot to work with. Some people manage it, and become bestsellers on Amazon, but they’re still flukes. A literature with broad appeal has yet to be invented. We sold our birthright for a mess of (transgressive) pottage, and now we must create another, letter by letter, word by word, book by book.
The new establishment is losing power by the moment, and it’s possible to “let yourself go” – it has to be done that way, anyway, one by one, writer by writer. But we’ll still be only voices crying in the desert, unless we’re all sort of pointed in the same direction – the direction here being appealing to the largest possible number of people and telling them who they are. More importantly, telling them who they can be. All without attempts to drag them down into the mud, or tear down what they need to live day by day.
It’s not easy. We have no templates, really. A few, perhaps. Pratchett is a rather large beacon. But there are few others, working today, and most aren’t taken seriously.
And – pardon me, but on the weekend of Passover and Easter allow me to say this – we might very well wander for a generation in the desert.
But I believe it’s an endeavor worth trying. A civilization unable to think about itself without putting itself down and demeaning its individual members – or hating humanity in general (there’s a whole subgenre I call human-extinction porn) is by definition ill. No, healing it is not the job of literature – but literature is PART of that job. Working on that is a worthy endeavor – or at least it seems so to me, and I refuse to believe I am alone.
And again, given what weekend this is, forgive me for quoting Leonard Cohen again in this way: “Show me the place; Help me roll away the stone; Show me the place; I can’t move this thing alone.”