Thursday, December 5, 2013

Penquins or Literary Fame?

The original title of this post was “In Praise of the 20-Year Novel”, inspired by recent accolades for “Sea of Hooks”, a moving tale with gorgeously executed craftsmanship that took the author two decades to write. Starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly aren’t easy to come by, ditto for sweeping literary praise. 

 Some novels, like some authors, need space, reflection, and time. Years of time. 

And then there’s the rest of us caught up in this crazy digital publishing race of more is more.

But is it really more?

Fifteen years ago the idea of finishing a novel, any novel, seemed as foreign and exciting to me as a penguin-counting expedition in Antarctica. Could I finish a novel? I persisted and what I once thought impossible became semi-routine. There is no question in my mind now that finishing a novel is entirely possible. However, that original question has been replaced by something far more exotic, perhaps something truly elusive, and more daunting than tallying breeding pairs of Emporers on Taylor’s Glacier: 

In my lifetime, could I pen something truly memorable, something of lasting value with lovingly turned prose and exquisitely crafted imagery? A story capable of making readers pause and perhaps reexamine the scope of human life and what it means to be human in this day and age? 

I’m talking big-picture values and lofty aspirations. Issues I’m not even sure I possess the talent, or possibly even the time (decades?), to tackle in a meaningful way. Should my literary inspirations be shuffled off to the mental closet marked maybe in my next lifetime?

Each of us have issues gnawing their way out of our souls. Do mine belong on the page? Once exposed to the light of day, will they be of any help or comfort to others? Maybe it’s just not me. I love writing mainstream fiction. I love entertaining my readers without delving into the dark night of our existence. While I love and admire literary fiction, sometimes counting penguins is good enough.




Paty Jager said...

I think every genre author dips their toe into the idea of writing something that would become a classic or win a Pulitzer. I've had an idea for a while now, but I don't think I have the writing chops or the patience to see it through. I like writing what I write and entertaining the masses.

But maybe, when I need to slow down and finally feel confident enough to pen the literary novel in my thoughts, it will happen. Or I may just let it dissolve away like so many other ideas that have come and gone.

Good post!

terri patrick said...

When I first asked what is the difference between literary novels and commercial ones, the answer was - "you're only literary after you're dead."

That's why I feel the point is not to get "caught up in this crazy digital publishing race of more is more." But to take the time to craft our genre fiction so it is well written and entertaining. Literary merit and prizes are fleeting and come from readers so all we can do is be worth reading.

Anonymous said...

This is a powerful post and I'm sorry I didn't read it earlier. I think that writing is a very self-centered occupation. It has to be in order to get emotion on the page. The question is for each writer to determine why she writes? What is the goal? And then how can you best get to that goal?

IMO those who need to explore issues in bone-crushing detail are writing as a type of catharsis or therapy. That is a truly wonderful goal and for those writers I can see it taking a decade or more because therapy is a long-term process. (Some say forever) However, that writing goal does not have a primary purpose of wide distribution nor of making a living from the book(s).

Though a therapeutic or cathartic novel may win many awards or may even make the bestseller list because it strikes a universal chord with those who buy it, the purpose was not to do that.

For me, I write to have a voice. Because I am a natural introvert I don't feel comfortable telling people what I think and believe unless they ask and are truly interested. My stories instead reflect those beliefs couched in the milieu and choices of characters. If I only sell a few copies I am very disappointed because I want more people to hear my voice. Consequently, I strive to sell my books and to find that balance between my message and entertainment that will allow the message to be heard by hundreds of thousands.

Also, I do not agree that fast writing means bad writing. I think each writer has different capabilities for speed, nuance, and production. Those who value and work hard on "lovingly turned prose" may create a work of high literary merit as judged by a few--and consequently accessible by a few. However, that same prose is completely missed by thousands of others and may even obscure the underlying meaning.

Again, it is all about you. What is important? Who are you writing for? Once you answer that question, you will know where to spend your time.

jamie said...

Thank you for the comments -- Paty, Terri and Maggie!
This topic might need more exploration. In the meantime, I think I'm between manistream and theraputic. Tend to write the same books over and over, same issues. Hmmmmm.