Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It is possible I do not really write "literary fiction"

I have staunchly resisted the conclusion in the title for a long time. I have a Master's degree in English (not "English Light"--I specifically sought an M.A. instead of an M.F.A. because I took literature so effing seriously). I haven't read every work in the canon, but I've read a lot. I scored high on my Lit GRE. I know freaking THEORY, for Christ's sake. I must write lit fic.

If we're just using the definition of lit fic provided by the almighty and infallible Wikipedia, then maybe I am writing--or trying to write--literary fiction:
Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.
I hope that what I'm writing is doing that. But then again, a lot of works that aren't really thought to be "literary fiction" do that. There's no shortage of political and social commentary in Harry Potter, as well as exploration of the individual against a (sometimes surprisingly dark) human reality.

In practice, "literary fiction" isn't synonymous with "good fiction," and this is where I have been kidding myself. Writing is considered lit fic if it tends, in an oft-quoted line from James Joyce, to not simply be "about" something, but to be the thing itself. It does not simply use words to make a story that is about something, the words themselves, and the form they take, becomes the story.

Not all that is called lit fic is Ulysses, of course. One literary agent wrote about a "sweet spot" that publishing companies like it lit fic, a sweet spot that has at least enough of a plot to keep readers reading, but also has enough smart stuff to make it different from reading pulp. It's meant to appeal to good readers.

By any standard, I am a good reader, but I wanted nothing to do with writing for a long time. One reason, I think, was because I read so much literary fiction in college, and felt that #1: something must be wrong with me, because I didn't like a lot of it and didn't even "get" some of it, and #2: I couldn't write like that.

I started writing again after five years of reading "young adult" literature with my son. We've read a lot of the books you'd expect (although he's very young for some of these, not being ten yet). Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, the Tolkien canon, Lemony Snicket, that kind of thing. None of these are great books in the sense that they do anything new and unusual with language. In fact, in some of them, the language is a little bit unimaginative, and in the Percy Jackson series, it's just pretty bad. But that doesn't mean there wasn't greatness in these books. There was "a focus on the individual to explore some larger part of the human condition."

I try to write stories that are full of merit and maybe greatness, but I am not a virtuoso with language. Not that I can't hit a beautiful note here and there, but I'm kind of a puncher with words rather than a graceful pugilist. I take a Hercules approach--I prefer to progress by brute force when I can, and I only use my head if I get to a point where I have to.

But I wonder if trying to get published by journals that specialize in "literary fiction" isn't a losing proposal for me. I'm not sure I write it. I might be doing myself a disservice by insisting that because I think what I write is "good" that it is "literary fiction."

Accepting this would greatly alter my "game plan." I've been trying to publish short stories with the hope of accruing enough credits to find someone to take a novel. But if I drop the whole idea of writing literary fiction, I could skip right ahead to the novel. Commercial fiction doesn't require a long understudy period in short fiction for journals like lit fic does. 

When I took up writing again, the short story was a way to improve how I wrote and to gain credits. I think I have done enough of the first that if I really am not writing lit fic, I could just stop caring about the second.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tellitslant's submission service and the "encouraging rejection"

I got my second "rejection with feedback" in a week yesterday. I was amused to find that tellitslant, the poor cousin of Submittable in the family of submission tools, has "encouraging rejection" as a status category. Seems a bit presumptuous. Seems like the question of whether it was "encouraging" is up to me. I haven't decided yet whether I like these "no with a note" responses better or worse than no response. Would I rather lose a game by a lot or lose a nail-biter in a heartbreaking last second play? Do I want to know that I almost made the cut?

 Yeah, I guess I do. It's harder to take at first, but easier to take a week later, I think. Okay, "encouraging rejection" status granted.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Man up or give up, Weber

Got some nice feedback on my writing and this blog yesterday:
If I have any advice for you it would be this: don't take the rejection so hard. I've been reading your blog and I wonder if what is making you doubt yourself is writing about the doubt and the rejection, which is something you have no control over (and seems counter productive). Rejection, more than anything else for a writer (save solitary confinement at the keyboard) is the one constant. You will always hear no and you'll hear it often, but you also have many publications ahead of you because you are a fine writer, Jake, and I think you should put your energy into creative writing instead of questioning editorial decisions and the stories that are being published today. You are now a voice among them, and I think as soon as you accept that rejection will always be there, you will enter a new and productive period of writing that is solely focused on your work. The bookshelf is large and journals abound and all of it is so damn subjective, but as long as you don't give up you'll keep seeing your work out in the world where readers will find you. I felt compelled to offer you this ra-ra speech after reading one hell of a story. Keep going, and focus on the positives and the things you are absolutely in control of, which is your own writing practice. The marketplace will/has found you, so keep going and forget about the rest.
In the Marine Corps, folks would have put this less diplomatically, and asked if a part of my anatomy that I do not actually have because I am not a woman had gotten sand in it. Quit bitching about what people publish or don't publish, about you not getting published, and just write stories already, if that's what you want to do.

There is undeniable wisdom is this kind of no-excuses advice. (I'm talking about my imaginary advice I'm putting in the mouth of imaginary people, not the much nicer advice I got from this person.) I've been thinking of putting the blog on hold to get back to more fiction writing for a while now. (There was already a blog gap in September when I wrote non-stop to make a deadline.) But first, here's why I do this blog.

First of all, I think graduate school in writing was a giant waste of time and money, and want to make sure I leave that message to the world to help others not make the same mistake. Seriously, if you really want to make 22K a year teaching four comp classes, then get an advanced degree in English. If you want to write, though, learn to do something that pays reasonably well and that you don't hate. Then, buy some writing books, get someone to critique you whose taste you respect, and write.

Secondly, I don't want to write if nobody is going to ever read what I write (other than family and a few friends who feel compelled to). I don't think there's any value in that. If I knew that nothing I wrote from this moment on would find an audience, I'd stop writing this instant. So I want to work through the question of how realistic it is that I will find an audience.

Like a lot of writers, I do feel some sense of compulsion to write that is independent of the audience question. But the audience is there in my mind at an early stage. I think one important reason I write has to do with wanting to have more stories that I like to read out there. Nobody else is going to write them, so I have to write them. When I write something and accomplish my goal in writing it, I like it. But if I can't find others to agree, what does that say about me? Or about them? Either way, it makes writing seem futile.

If I can write stories and they can find an audience and those stories help make the lives of others better in some way, then writing is utterly worth it. If not, it's worth nothing.

That's where I've been for a long time. But my adviser is right--there really are no guarantees. I hate "faith," which I take to mean "thinking you know something that you don't really know." But I have some admiration for hope, which I interpret as "acting as though something matters when you have no idea if it really does." So I'll get back to it and quit bitching.

But not without limits. I put writing away for a decade so I could raise a family (and quit mooching off mine). I'm going to keep writing and sending off until the end of the year, then I'm putting it away again for a while. C.S. Lewis said that "the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world," and while I don't share his faith, I do think that I would trade a Nobel for a loaf of bread if that loaf of bread would be of more use than all my writing could.

Monday, November 3, 2014

My Puritanism and my deep doubts about literature

Say what you will about it, Hell is story-friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned. The mechanisms of hell are nicely attuned to the mechanisms of narrative. Not so the pleasures of Paradise. Paradise is not a story. It's about what happens when the stories are over.
-Charles Baxter

I remember vividly one afternoon in the library at University of Illinois-Chicago in my second semester of graduate school. It was an ugly concrete box of a building on a campus full of ugly concrete boxes. The bathroom had a hole in the wall separating two toilets, and graffiti that was neighbor to that hole invited me to place my dick in that hole at midnight. 

I had just endured a three hour class with a rather nasty professor who had an annoying habit of rephrasing every answer to every question given by grad students in order to make it seem that she knew an answer that was slightly more correct than the one given. I was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion, one that I could not quite express, that there was something wrong with literature as a profession.

If there was ever a time that God intervened in this agnostic's life, it was that afternoon, because I found a book quite at random that changed my life. It was the now-hard-to-find book Why Literature is Bad for You by Peter Thorpe.  It isn't a terribly closely reasoned book, but it does present some arguments about why reading literature might not always be a healthy activity that pass an initial common sense test. One of them has overtones of Augustine. Augustine critiqued literature for causing fake emotion: you would cry for the downtrodden in a story, and this would make you not realize how much you ignored the downtrodden in the real world. 

Thorpe's argument is in that family. Although literature can be quite good at opening our imagination to other consciousnesses and making us see the other as something both alien and familiar, it can also trick us into accepting something we know is wrong. For example, we can be led to sympathize with Mersault in Camus's The Stranger, although if we were jurors, I hope we would find him guilty. 

I don't think that literature really means to make us feel sympathy with sinners. However much the last 20 years has seen a shift toward deeply, deeply flawed protagonists, we are usually meant to either find at the end that the hero has made some small but profound (for the hero, at least) change toward something affirming, or we are meant to find some sort of cautionary tale in the failure to change. But even so, this never-ending glut of stories about sinners, investigating the many sides of sin, the many ways to sin, the oh-so-fascinating narrative friendliness of hell can begin to take a toll on a person's psyche. I wonder if this might not be in some ways a more profound influence than that of violent video games or television. A character like Tyler Durden or Milton's Lucifer is so beguiling, that even once the lawyer withdraws the argument, its influence is already there on the jury. We allow compelling bastards deep into our consciousness in a way we might not with Master Chief blowing endless holes in aliens in the Halo series.

Stories are never going to go away. Mark Turner's The Literary Mind showed that humans naturally think in stories, even in our everyday language. "The economy is stagnant" implies a picture of the economy as a body of water (which of course it isn't). It's a story. But this essential narrative nature of humanity makes me wonder if we are sometimes too casual with the content we make.

That doesn't mean we should intentionally set out to make characters who are better than real life, or who don't make the kinds of mistakes we don't think are "edifying" for readers. But we can't treat fiction as though it were a wholly different class of writing from non-fiction. Fiction is a vehicle to say something that is best told in a story rather than in a persuasive non-fiction format. You can do that by starting with the thing you want to say and finding the story to tell it, or you can do it by imagining a story and divining what it might be telling you. But you can't just dream up characters for readers to believe in and empathize with and that's it. That's making your readers into Augustine's corrupt literary consumers, enjoying the pleasure of vicarious feelings as though they were a fine wine.