Sunday, July 6, 2014

Musings on the purpose of writing (and reading)

WARNING TO THOSE WHO PREFER SUCCINCT STUFF: LONG POST. (Serves you right for putting me on the official Oak Tree Blog Next hotseat.)

"Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die: sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death premature."

Homer's first line. Wonder whether the blind poet ever suspected his work would last as it has? Was he aiming for posterity's honor, or was he one of those people who can't help themselves--they just want to write . . . of course we know that by "Homer" we really mean all the bards who sang these stories and passed them down until some poet (or poets) put them down in writing. There may or may not have been one actual Homer who wrote the poems.

Let's try one of our Victorian colleagues who definitely did exist.

"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade." Charles Dickens reportedly wrote for the masses (and was paid by the word) and is now part of the Western canon.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought Sherlock Holmes was just ephemeral, while the books very few people read nowadays are the ones he wanted to last, the ones he did for posterity. (Of course, the 'net works two ways: we are able to rediscover many works that the Powers That Be consider(ed) minor, small voices who had something to say to the rest of civilization, and therefore all is not lost. Right?)

Sigh.

At the beginning of spring, I was gung-ho with the garden, out buying potting soil and baskets hanging with Wave petunias and pots of herbs. We planted a few pots and filled the flowerbeds with color. Everything seemed promising.

But now it all seems futile and meaningless. The flowers are still there, albeit a bit bedraggled from the heat, and the earth has awakened to produce a sea of greenery in our area. Why am I so blue?

Some of it stems from the frustration I have with what I have considered my life's work. The likelihood that I will ever see anything I publish reach a largish audience is very small. Even though I do promote my books (and am probably considered obnoxious by the time I've finished pressing my bookmarks and business cards with website on people), and I have done various Amazon promos, I am still really obscure. I've investigated all forms of advertising, but to be on a Kindle Daily Deal you have to pay quite a lot for a promo package, and I'll never have a TV commercial like James Patterson's new one (you know, with the junior high kids holding up signs and chanting). Sure, I'm doing talks and public appearances and so forth, and I give books to every doctor I go to (they seem happy enough to get them) and every person I do business with if there's any interest, but I'm not getting the word of mouth that I need. My family and circle of acquaintances simply ain't (ha) interested in passing the word, doing Amazon reviews, or even mentioning to their friends and colleagues that I am a writer AT ALL. I try not to dwell on this, because there's nothing I can do about it.

Publishing has changed in ways we never anticipated in my youth. Back when my teachers and parents said, "There'll be plenty of time to write and publish; the wisdom of a few years will give you fodder for stories that aren't silly like your little tales of today, and many authors don't write their best books until late," I believed it. Today, when I read the summaries of many books, they are far more "silly" and comic-book sounding than anything I ever turned in to Mrs. Mischen. ("A girl discovers she can read minds by kissing people"; "Girls discover that when they take a particular drug, they can read minds"; "A circle of friends passes around a pair of magical bluejeans." Hmm, really original stuff.)

Even the very concept of a book has changed, IMHO, and physical books may be on their way out. Back then, my teachers said, "Our words endure. Lincoln's words endure. Shakespeare and the Bible endure. Civil War diaries and Anne Frank's diary stick around to teach us how things were and to warn us of our foibles. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it--and our history is written in our poetry and fiction as well as in plays and journals."

Will this still be true after physical copies of writings are trashed and everything's only a data archive that can be deleted or manipulated by the Cloudbearers (eventually)? It occurs to me that data can be so easily corrupted or changed. Once there is a central depository of digital history, for example, it will be the work of a few minutes to change history. After the last people who lived through whatever it was or studied the source materials for the event--the Gulf War, the Civil War, the War of 1812 even--have passed, all we will have to rely on is the documentary record, and that will be vulnerable. Will the truth endure? It always has, so far--it seems--but now I worry.

Is it worth continuing to write, aside from the psychological fulfillment and the possible therapy of seeing your words in print or on Kindles, if you're not writing the bestseller fodder (serial killer, parent dying who is writing a thing for their child to read later, vampire who is really not such a bad guy despite renouncing salvation in order to live forever in the flesh and who is interested in vapid young teen girls) and don't do the type of work that would sell widely anyway?

Why bother to write?

"For words have wings; they mount up to the heavenly heights and they endure for eternity." (Rabbi Nahum Yanchiker)

"A misspelled word marches up to the throne of God and demands justice." (Anon)

What was I taught? A writer is supposed to illuminate the human condition in a way that helps people figure out how to live, decide why we are here, find their moral compass. And a writer had better be sure he or she is being precise and eloquent (I was told), for their words live on after them forever,

My lifelong dream was to publish novels that would live on after me on library shelves and endure so as to speak to people whom I never could speak to during my lifetime. Books were, once upon a time, mostly written to endure. Yes, to entertain, always to entertain; but there was a seriousness about the undertaking that seems mostly gone now. Now a book is written to be far more ephemeral, I think. People only aim at their own time and their own generation. They are satisfied to simply provide a bit of amusement and then have readers move on, unchanged. For the most part, the books I've read recently left me unsatisfied. I wasn't looking for The Moral of the Story, or for Lessons Passed Down, necessarily, but I expected to feel some sense of closure and be convinced that my hours spent reading were not for nothing. Ideally, a novel (or any story) resonates; it speaks to the universal human condition, and when you finish it you don't feel, say, slightly disappointed. I always think that the author(s) could have done more for their readers.

(I find a higher percentage of Oak Tree Press books DO make this sort of sense and bring me closure, BTW. I'm not talking about my cohorts here, but about the entire multifaceted slushpile that is the Amazon/B&N market of today.)

I spent part of Saturday reading three highly recommended YA novels, and I found them sadly lacking. As I closed the books, I felt cheated. I hadn't learned even one tidbit or factoid (most readers report that they love to learn a little something when they read fiction); I hadn't felt anything but annoyance at most of the characters.

"This one was touted as having a main character with a great inner life, but he didn't have an inner life at all by my definition; the other two were loaded with clunky prose and references to current pop stars and trends that won't make any sense within a couple of years, even. I had a lot of trouble visualizing some of the settings because there was so little sensory description, and so many vague terms like 'hottie' instead of a telling detail. None of them had a larger view than outside the high school or their characters' own bellybuttons. Maybe that's the way it is for kids today, but it wasn't for us. Was it?" I said to Hubby.

He didn't answer, seeing as how he was defending Fort Spaceball from the evil invaders and couldn't look up from his screen.

I know that my books aren't Shakespeare or Dickens or Harper Lee or even Kurt Vonnegut. But I always find that they have a philosophical bent, and the characters have thoughts that might be considered deep or thoughtful. Are the works "great" in the sense of the Great Books as defined by the University of Chicago project? Probably not. But at least I'm striving to not only tell a good story and let readers see through the eyes of a charming stranger (my character) for a while, but also to pass along some grain of knowledge or wisdom so that the hours spent reading were not lost to pure amusement.

When I was in the Great Books Program back in school, we talked about four characteristics that define a Great Book:
•Its focus on worthy and lasting themes such as love, courage, and patriotism, through the characters' striving, and showing the unconquerable human spirit and a sense of adventure or wonder
•Its composition in noble language (that is, a style without howlers, typos, awkwardness, or idiocy)
•Its ability to speak to readers across the ages
•Its ability to speak to readers not as groups, but as individuals (as if the text were addressed solely to us)

A great book joins The Great Conversation that authors have with one another and with their readers. One of my teachers (in middle school) used to refer to The Never-Ending Story of Literature, and although the kids snickered behind his back, I think he had something there. Books and poems and essays from the "Western canon" (if you will) are largely intertextual. William Blake's simple bit, "O Earth, O Earth return," for instance, contains no fewer than seven allusions to the King James Bible that Blake would have had at his elbow. It used to be that everyone watched "I Love Lucy" or Ed Sullivan's show, and the next day people would be discussing it at school or at work. Now everything's fragmented, and you can't assume everyone has watched the same shows or read the same texts or even listened to the same music on the radio. Allusions fly overhead and references mystify audiences. What is cultural literacy now? We're so fragmented.

Literature that has endured has done so because it:
• speaks to the universal human condition
• continually asks the question of what it means to be human and explores fundamental human themes
• gives us a fresh perspective on the past and on ourselves
• contains elevated language, subtext, cultural or literary allusions and references, complexities, and basically a second layer that can be understood by those who are aware of what it's referring to

Books have a theme statement, whether the author is aware of it or not. Some books just say, "Have fun," or "What is moral and acceptable is whatever you can get away with." Sometimes they SEEM to be saying that because the author is using irony, reflecting life in order to tell a cautionary tale. Sometimes the author is clueless. (LOL)

Worthy theme statements, to me, are things like:
• the unexamined life is not worth living
• what does it mean to be an honorable (wo)man in a less than honorable world?
• does love really conquer all, or is effort required to maintain relationships?

We are becoming ever more self-centered and self-focused. Narcissism has become mainstream, and perhaps even the norm in this "never hurt someone's self-esteem, and give everyone a trophy" culture. One website notes: "[At the time of the book's publication,] Madame Bovary was seen as a pitiable character, driven by a weak vanity and a wild disregard for others. Now she would be viewed as a role model for young girls eager to have it all." Up until the point at which her self-esteem began to fall, that is. Many characters in current books reflect this "have it all" attitude and the sense of entitlement that so many people seem to have.

Maybe that's why those books that I didn't care for sold. The world is different now. I'm sure those authors (and their editors) felt they had spoken important truths. I dismissed them as lacking in depth, but they were writing from the heart, and believed they had something significant to say. (Perhaps that you should be materialistic like everyone else, and that random is good.) Whatever they wrote, it worked. Truth sneaked in anyway and enchanted the readers. This made the readers go tell others to read the books--which is what I am missing out on, apparently. Perhaps soon I shall be shown the error of my ways.

But I probably won't notice the message, because I'll be immersed in writing yet another book to add to my barbaric yawp.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ tear here ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

DENISE WEEKS writes mystery/suspense, chick lit, and mainstream books, while her alter ego Shalanna Collins produces YA fantasy/adventure. Her Oak Tree Press debut, NICE WORK, was the Dark Oak contest winner in 2010. The contest is accepting entries right now! Look at the rules and send your best mysteries!

Her website is http://shalanna.wix.com/aprilmaybejune and her own blog is at http://deniseweeks.blogspot.com. Come visit!

10 comments:

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Ah, Shalanna, yes, it was long--bug as always interesting.

Doug Seaver said...

Great blog! Thanks.

Doug
The Forth Rule
Coming October 2014

Billie Johnson said...

Good post, Denise! Sometimes a fulsome blog is just the ticket! Thanks for your work!!

Billie

Holli Castillo said...

In a world of sound bytes, snap chat, short hand texting, and a world wide web where a retired farmer in Kansas can learn of a missing toddler in China a few minutes after it happens, I think fewer people are worried about reading the next great novel than they are with being entertained immediately (hence Kindle's popularity), especially when you're looking at young adults, teens, and middle schoolers. My girls are magnet school students, both with a gpa of over 4.0, and yet they speak in initials and shorthand code. I think the world has definitely changed with technology.

I also think there are still readers out there looking for great novels, but googling the latest disease of the week is hard to compete with.

The world being what it is, I'm happy to have those handful of readers I reach who tell me they cried at the end of my book or they can't wait for the next one to see what happens to my characters. If I don't get rich or ever write a Hemingway, I can deal with it. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying, though.

BTW, I enjoy long blogs. It's more like having a conversation with the author than a few sentences.

Shalanna said...

Thank you, Marilyn and Doug! I am always happy to see that someone reads and appreciates my blathers.

Billie--thank you even more, because it's all your fault for putting me on the list (LOL!) You can always count on me to pull something professorial out of my, er, hat. Always got those questions simmering under the surface.

Shalanna said...

Holli--thank you!! I need to be reminded sometime that SOMEONE out there reads our sort of books, is in our audience. I also believe that we have a core audience of readers who grew up, like the girl in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," hiding out in the window seat reading rather than playing a video game or watching TV. Video tires me after a while, no matter WHAT it is that we're trying to watch, but I can read until I physically can't stand to have my eyes open any more. That's just a function of the way my visual/input processing was molded as I grew up, I'm afraid, so that's why the opposite is true of those raised on "Angry Birds" on a tablet computer.

"I'm happy to have those handful of readers I reach who tell me they cried at the end of my book or they can't wait for the next one to see what happens to my characters."

I'm so glad to hear that you have heard from readers! That is definitely motivating. We want to touch them and get their emotions going, and you have done that successfully.

"So we beat on, boats against the current. . . ."

Thanks for the comment.

Joseph Chiba said...

I can't think of any other reason for writing than wanting to touch people with our words. Now and long after we're gone. It saddens me to think that the book will one day disappear into the Cloud, and what we are, as a people, a nation, a world, could be corrupted. I guess all we can do is just keep writing from our hearts, and hope we get those few (maybe many, if we are lucky) who hope to cry at the endings of our stories. Long does win out over short, sometimes, even when we aren't paid by the word. Thanks for moving me with yours today.

Amy Bennett said...

Despite the great response I've gotten from many of my relatively few readers, I feel destined to remain largely unread by the general public. I've made my peace with this in that 1) being published is a dream come true in and of itself and 2) those readers truly care about the characters I created whom I care about. Those characters are my family, they are a part of me. When I get discouraged that not more people know my "family", I think about the families that ARE well-known in today's culture (like the Kardashians) and think that relative obscurity is high praise indeed.

But as Holli said, we're going to keep trying!

Bonnie A Kelly said...

Shalanna,
Long or short?
Whatever it takes to hold the reader long enough to get your point across would be the proper length.
Found it interesting.
Bonnie Kelly

Nancy LiPetri said...

I agree with Bonnie's comment that the length doesn't matter as much as holding the reader's attention. I always liked John Irving's style while others say he's way too wordy. Perhaps we narrow our audience to more skilled readers when we write "longer." In my first novel, I fought the urge to get wordy, figuring many of today's readers are getting too used to Patterson-style chapters and quick gratification, but as I build writing skill and confidence I guarantee I'll get wordier. Loved your blog post!