Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction’

Mocking_Bird_Argument

Mocking bird kerfuffle. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The kerfuffle

By now, if you vaguely follow news of the writing world, and perhaps even if you don’t, you will have become aware of the kerfuffle around Jonathan Franzen’s latest curmudgeonly diatribe, published in The Guardian last week, in which he waxes eloquent, in 39 paragraphs, no less, on much that is wrong with modern life, especially the plethora of phenomena (such as Twitter), companies (such as Apple) and people (such as Jeff Bezos) who in his view exemplify the general shallowness of society.

Nestled in his commentary, there are some nuggets of what many will recognize as truth. It is too bad that they are dissimulated in an overwhelming salvo of irritation and general grumpiness regarding “yakkers and Tweeters and braggers” and the likes of Jeff Bezos of Amazon who “may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” (For an amusing read on the horror of agreeing with Franzen, read this.) On the very same day that the Guardian piece came out, there was a response which some viewed as spot on, while others, including a very well-spoken commenter using the handle “Ivan,” pointed to as precisely embodying Franzen’s critique. “Ivan” comments that “Franzen writes the type of unabashedly old-school creative literary/cultural critique that many of today’s smart folks ‘don’t have the time’ to read anymore because they’re too busy backstroking through the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs. Wrapping his argument in a thoughtful historical comparison, he maligns the speed, form, instant gratification, and coolness embodied by our technoconsumerism– a germane topic.” One could argue with the part about “the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs,” but Ivan goes on to ask quite validly whether the article’s writer has “even had time to process, or if is he “actually being paid to be pithy, sardonic, digestible and prolific at the expense of being thoughtful, astute and fair.”

Scathing denunciations

But enough already about Franzen. He is of course not the first “literary” writer (we’ll get back to the reason for those quotation marks later) to issue scathing denunciations of technology or social media (which of course were wildly propagated to thousands, if not millions, of people–or should I say users?– among those selfsame media). Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford, in his tremendously popular blog, wrote in Feb 2012 a post titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” in response to a spate of articles and interviews on this topic. In this post, he mentions, among others:

Jonathan_FranzenJonathan Franzen’s (I guess not enough of Franzen quite yet) statement that ebooks are damaging society and that “serious” readers read print.

(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.)

 

 

 

Jennifer_EganPulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan complaining about social networking “Who cares that we can connect? What’s the big deal? I think Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks exactly the same.” (Interestingly, or perhaps not, Jennifer Egan has a Twitter account, with over 8,000 followers despite only 8 Tweets.)

(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Zadie_SmithZadie Smith writing of Facebook: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.” (Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Ray_BradburyRay Bradbury’s 2009 response to the suggestion of an ebook version of Fahrenheit 451: “To Hell with you and to Hell with the Internet.” (And lo! Two years later, the ebook came out. One could argue about whether Ray Bradbury is a “literary” writer or not, but he’s certainly part of The Canon.

(Photo by Alan Light, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Each of these outbursts prompted much discussion, commentary and writing. The most beautiful of which (at least among the pieces I encountered) was Alexis Madrigal’s response to Zadie Smith, delving deeply into the intersection of technology, communication and relationships. If there is one link you click on with the intent of reading it fully, make it this one.

These statements, while they spark interesting debate and prompt many to exercise their writing muscle, do a disservice to today’s new “literary” writers.

(Now I address the use of quotation marks, before getting rid of them. There is a massive and ongoing debate regarding what “literary” actual means. The debate is thought-provoking, fascinating, exhausting and, I think, essentially pointless. Some say the word “literary” denotes a lack of plot, that it is writing for the sake of beautiful words strung together. Some say it is idea-driven, not character-driven. It is “serious” writing. It is undefinable, but you’ll know it when you see it. Etc. To me, it is simply writing that makes one think, writing where the choice of words matters, writing that has an aesthetic value beyond the story itself, but that nonetheless can–and often does–have a wonderful story, memorable characters, a surprising yet inevitable arc. The writer April Line aptly points out that what one thinks about the literary fiction world is where one sits in relation to it.)

Here is a fact: Literary writers in the 25-45 year age bracket have come of age, at least career-wise, in a new era, when opportunities for seeing one’s work published by “traditional” publishers (and getting paid for it) have slimmed to almost nothingness, and when the dollars put forward by publishers for marketing and promotion of one’s work, even with a publishing contract, have dwindled drastically. An anonymous comment on Nathan Bransford’s post hits the nail on the head: “I love Franzen, but he writes a book a decade and laughs all the way to the bank. Who on earth has that kind of a sweet deal? If I were him, or John Iriving, or any other of those authors who’ve found a great thing and have milked it for years, I’d be against technology, too.” (I don’t think the term “milked it” here is fair, given the true greatness of these authors’  writing. Franzen is a wizard with words. I may not have liked any of the characters in The Corrections, but every single sentence in that book sings. It’s writing at a very, very high level. Nonetheless, I agree with the commenter’s general sentiment. Such opportunities are far from available for the vast majority of good, strong, worthy writing that is produced now.)

The aloof, disconnected literary writer

The pontifications or blustery explosions of established literary writers, no matter how well-written and based on kernels of hard truth, solidify the image of such writers as aloof and disconnected from the general population, from the realities of day to day life of the general population (which is ironic given that much of their work focuses on the very human experiences of the average person.) They propagate the notion that literary writers craft their Great Work–full of gorgeous writing, searing imagery, stunning insight into the human condition, true art–from up above in an isolated ivory tower, that they are ethereal, evanescent, a collection of ideas. And therefore they risk solidifying the publishing industry’s prejudice against unknown or debut literary writers because they illustrate the lack of “platform” or “reader engagement” which these days, whether one likes it or not, are two of the things that publishers look for to drive book sales for new authors. To the publishing industry, then, “literary” becomes equivalent to “un-sellable.” At least, I clarify again, in the case of new authors.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

So what are upcoming literary writers to make of all this?

Those who have come of age, at least with regard to their literary development, at a time of intense proliferation of social media, when many if not most of their friends are active on a minimum of two or three platforms. An age in which blogs offer a means to get one’s work “out there” without depending on the one-in-ten-thousand chance that their essays might end up being purchased (yes, for money) by an established publication with a wide readership. Would such writers discredit themselves by having a social media presence and (gulp!) engaging with people through blog posts, Twitter, Facebook and Google+? Are they then not truly literary? Will they never be accepted by the circle of authors who routinely review each other’s works in the New York Times Book Review? Are they wasting precious time that could be spent on our own Great Work?

Here is what I fear: that because literary writers are not on social media, the assumption will be that any writer on social media is not literary.

A friend of mine whom I met when our older children were tiny is a well-reviewed literary writer. She is lovely, smart, funny. She and I have had conversations, while the children smooshed Play Doh together, during which we laughed, saw eye to eye on many topics, generally “connected” well. She is someone who would no doubt post interesting links, have thoughtful observations and commentary to share on social media. Except she is not there. Even her web site is outdated. She has two published books. I don’t. Coincidence? It does make a girl wonder.

In this, as in many things, I am a hybrid. Several agents and editors have termed my first novel “literary.” And yet, I confess: I enjoy social media. I see where it has value. I use Facebook to maintain a connection with friends around the globe, and I use Twitter both to keep abreast of topics of interest to me, and to connect with others doing the same. For me it is about community, and finding a comfortable place in it. I find great satisfaction in conversations with strangers about topics close to my heart. It gives me energy to hap upon someone–a person out there in the great wild world, someone I would otherwise never encounter–who makes me laugh, or sees something the same way I do, or points me to a beautiful piece of writing or an artist’s photography. I like to write occasionally in a conversational style, or to write about un-literary, mundane things such as food or children, things that resonate on a simple level with many people. I like to post photographs. I embrace the term “literary” but refuse to be bound to it or by it.

Perhaps we are turning a corner, one in which there can be a happy medium, in which one can be a hybrid, a writer of literary fiction who is also known and liked as a person, who has an active online presence and whose writing has a far reach. Not that he is a shining example of an author who is well liked as a person, but Salman Rushdie’s response to Franzen’s “disappointment when a novelist who [he believes] ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter” was encouraging. Rushdie tweeted “Dear #Franzen: @MargaretAtwood @JoyceCarolOates @nycnovel @NathanEnglander @Shteyngart and I are fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower.” But I am not sure we are there yet. Rushdie names a handful of literary writers, and there are some others (Erica Jong, Sherman Alexie, Teju Cole) who engage in social media. Teju Cole, in fact, has a wonderful “small fates” series that he posts on Twitter, using the constraint of 140 characters to storytelling advantage. (Click here for a useful piece on why Twitter is good for writers, which lists several reasons without even going into the whole connect-with-your-readers bit.) However, these are established writers of literary fiction, who can afford to engage minimally with people via social media, who can have 48,000 followers but only follow 50 people. (I suspect they might just not have time for more, being busy teaching, giving keynote addresses and of course writing.)

Making art and feeling fine

What gives me hope for myself is that there appears to be a new wave of literary writers who are very active in social media. The writer Cathy Day points to it in the course of an interesting discussion on April Line’s post: “The independent literary community is BOOMING with energy, seriousness-of-purpose, and plenty of entrepreneurship–and it thrives and is sustained almost completely BECAUSE of social media. These literary writers need no support group. Over the last few years, I’ve taken my cues from them: Roxane Gay, Sean Lovelace, Dan Wickett and the folks at Dzanc Books, Matt Bell, Amelia Gray, Kyle Minor, Chad Simpson, Amber Sparks, Bryan Furuness, Chris Newgent. And Kelly Link, who runs her own press, is in this community, too. (…) The indie community is decidedly and proudly literary, often experimental, but until there’s more room for them at the tippy-top of the literary pyramid, they are happily ensconced somewhere in the middle, making art and feeling fine.

Have you heard of any of them? Perhaps, perhaps not. They all have books out, they all write thoughtfully, they are all committed to their craft. They’re feeling fine, and I’ll take my cue from them, too. But it sure would help if some of those at the helm of the literary writing world didn’t issue disparaging statements regarding the practices of those who are still trying to make it.

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What kind of sales should I expect of my debut novel if I go the indie route? This is what I am asking myself these days, today in particular as I draw up a balance sheet of estimated expenses and revenues, to help me decide whether or not to launch into independently publishing Faint Promise of Rain. Of course, part of me feels like it would be the natural thing to do, in keeping with the whole being-the-people thing, but I still need to understand the nitty gritty of it all.

With enough poking around, I was able to obtain some concrete numbers on the expenses side such as the per copy cost of printing if I do a short-print run, the shipping costs for online sales, the standard retailer wholesale discount (which I was shocked to learn is 55%) and other such data points. For other expenses, the Internet is providing me with enough examples for me to make some informed guesses, such as how much to spend on a publicist, and what editorial services should cost for a manuscript which, my agent tells me, is in good shape.

But when it came to what to expect for revenue, the Internet became my enemy . Not only because I cannot find much in the way of concrete examples of debut literary fiction sales figures, but because I am finding posting after posting filled with depressing predictions. Apparently, if I am to believe what the doom-and-gloom folks out there are saying under the guise of bracing indie hopefuls such as myself for misery, I would be lucky to sell 5,000 copies of my book. In total. Not in one year. Not in five years. EVER.

And this is where turning to the Internet can be so destructive. It’s like allowing yourself to drown in a sea of information regarding an illness, and all its possible horrible ramifications, and how it could, it just might, ruin your life, and how in some cases it will cripple you, and how there are support groups to help you cope because otherwise you might just want to end it all now. You read the discussion forums of those who are suffering and while your heart goes out the them, you quake at the prospect of ending up like them. Ok, perhaps this is an exaggeration, but I see it this way: I could choose to throw in the towel and declare that there’s no point for just 5,000 copies, or I could stand tall and say: 5,000 is nothing to sneeze at, and in any case, I can easily beat that. (And the illness metaphor is not totally gratuitous, as I’ve had some experience in that realm.) The darn thing is, I do believe I can beat that. Five thousand copies? That seems like nothing to me! I think of the connections I have in the dance world, in the Indian community, all the people I know who revel in literary fiction, the fact that India is, for good reason, a popular setting and topic in fiction, I think of all the people who have told me my manuscript is beautiful (thank you!), the fun ideas I have for promotion, and 5,000 seems more than feasible.

And yet. Those glum predictions hang over my head, because now that I have read them, I can’t un-read them. Despite feeling confident in my manuscript and my marketing ideas, there is a voice in the back of my head asking me why I have the hubris to dismiss the cautions of people who purport to know more than I do about the ins and outs of publishing. But then, in the nick of time, the Internet comes to my rescue. Because therein is the beauty of the Internet: it can, in one day, in one hour, mete out despair and hope in equal measure. One of my go-to sites for realistic, supportive advice and ideas regarding publishing, Grub Street, posted this entry just today by Terri Giuliano Long entitled “Indie success: hold on to your dreams.” In it this writer takes us back to when she was, essentially, in my shoes, believing 5,000 copies would be her ideal, through her indie publishing experience, and her sales of 120,000 copies in the past twelve months. And that is when I knew to stop trawling the web for information. I’d found what I wanted.

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I questioned for a while whether to write about this on my blog. Would editors to whom I am, via my agent, submitting my manuscript be put off by my discussion of literary fiction and technology? By pondering aloud whether to pursue an e-book route or not would I be pushing potential publishers away?  But I think not. It is just a discussion. I have made no decisions. There are far too many factors and unknowns, and more than anything right now the question of how to get my story out into the world, given all the possible channels and structures, is more confusing than anything else.

Nathan Bransford, blogger and former literary agent, put up a thought provoking post a few days ago titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” He cites a number of literary writers’ comments—ranging from musings to rants—regarding ebooks, social media and the Internet. Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith are among those he mentions. His post elicited 69 (to date) responses, some of which are quite insightful and raise the notions of fear of change, academia, generational differences, mass culture, use of time, distraction, complacency and all kinds of other elements that may be contributing to the divide that seems to exist between writers of “literary” fiction and the adoption of new technologies.

I would love to see my book in print, a physical object, with a beautiful glossy cover and satisfyingly papery pages. Something I can bring to dance and writing events, pull out of my bag and leave in high traffic areas, sign and hand over to a friend or colleague or stranger. Something that a person can read on a subway and flip over to show the title to the person next to her who asked what she is reading. But I know this is not the only way to share my story, and I care immensely about getting it out to as many readers as possible. Thus I’ve been trying to educate myself on the various options that exist, the various publishing mechanisms that might be appropriate for distributing the story.

As a part of this effort, I attended a multi-hour session on ebooks, offered by Grub Street, the fantastic Boston-based center for creative writing. And while I entered the room with the notion that I could easily embrace the ebook thing, I left wondering if that is indeed the case. Two things happened to me during those hours: 1) I learned the nitty gritty of turning a manuscript into an ePub file, including the disheartening fact that one has to strip the manuscript of virtually all formatting, including any paragraph breaks not related to chapter breaks, any tabs or intendations, any centering of quotes or poems or other material not presented in simple paragraphs of prose. Talk about reducing the aesthetics of a book! Does this make me old-fashioned? I truly wonder.

The second thing was that I ran into a straight-talking, honest and successful agent who has been kind enough to read some of my chapters in the past, and when she found out which workshop I was attending, she said, verbatim: “Don’t do an ebook except as a last resort. Your book is too good. Your manuscript has only been on submission for 5 months? That’s nothing. Give it at least two years.” Wow. There is so much to parse out of that statement. I don’t even know where to begin.

One: an ebook as a last resort. This at a time when the blogosphere is rife with examples of writers, some of them already successfully published traditionally, who are choosing to go straight to ebooks for their next work. What to make of this?

Two: “Your book is too good.” Well, that is very flattering, for sure, but what does it mean? And what about trying to find a way to have an ebook AND a print book simultaneously? Surely that shouldn’t be a “last resort?” What was the agent really saying? Was she echoeing the phenomenon that Nathan Bransford was highlighting, of “literary” fiction—and presumably readers of such—not being aligned with technology?

Three: “Give it at least two years.” Well, this I can undersatnd. I’m willing to wait until I find what I feel is the right method to release my book. It took me eight years to complete, why should I rush now? And that gives me time to work on the next one, so there can be less of a gap between the publication of the two. (Yes, I’m ever the optimist.) This is the one part of the statement that resonates with me.

These are truly interesting times, my friends, in which to try to publish. And on an ending note: my mentor and one-time professor and employer, Paul Levy, most recently the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, put out his own book via CreateSpace just a few days ago. It’s a print book, not an ebook, but he has self-published it. In his words: “Entitled Goal Play! Leadership lessons from the Soccer Field, the book presents insights from sports, health care, business and government to help leaders get better outcomes.” Paul Levy is an unequaled leader with an illustrious career, including positions such as Director of the Arkansas Department of Energy, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and Executive Dean for Administration at the Harvard Medical School. One would think that he would easily get a deal from a traditional publishing house. He certainly has the proverbial “platform,” including a widely-read blog. (http://runningahospital.blogspot.com/) And yet, when asked why he didn’t choose that route, he says: “Publishers offer me nothing. They expect me to do all the publicity.  I have my own outreach arms.”

If this is true for non-fiction, why such a perceived difference for literary fiction?

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Today I am proud to report my first official rejection from an editor at a major publisher. It reads: “Thank you for sending me FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN by Anjali Mitter Duva. Ms. Duva is a beautiful writer – her prose is evocative, and her descriptions are riveting. There is such haunting atmosphere in these pages, and she truly has created an entire world that I know many readers will love getting lost in. But at the end of the day, this simply felt too literary for us at [pulisher name], and I unfortunately don’t see us being the right home for the novel. With that in mind, I’m going to be stepping aside.”

“Too literary.” What does that even mean? And “too literary” for what? I ask this not out of anger at all, but out of genuine curiosity. (In fact, I found this to be a tremendously encouraging rejection.) If my work is too literary, how does one define some of the far more esoteric, languid, artistic works out there?

The supposed definition on Wikipedia is anything but. Which is funny, when you think about it, because who out there felt enough of an urge to put in an entry without actually having anything substantial to say, whether factual or opinion-based?

A common differentiation is made like so: literary fiction as opposed to commercial fiction. I.e., fiction for the purpose of being “writerly” as opposed to selling well. (And by well, the implication is: money-making.) So then, is something that sells well automatically excluded from being literary? Of course not. Then there’s the definition of literary fiction as being that which is not genre fiction, i.e. not romance, not science fiction, not chick lit, not horror, etc. What, then, of historical fiction? That is most definitely a genre, one with with ardent devotees and clubs and societies, but surely fiction set in another time, aligned with historical events and mores, can be literary?

Former agent extraordinaire Nathan Bransford offers his own definition, which I quite like: “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” (Although by this definition, mine is not literary fiction. Not to give anything away, but stuff does happen. Plottish stuff. People do bad things, heroic things, destructive things.) This ties into another school of thought, that genre fiction is plot-based whereas literary fiction is character-based. Hmm. Maybe literary fiction leads the reader to some kind of realization about life or the world in addition to entertaining him/her with a story?

The one characteristic of literary fiction that is consistent regardless of the definition is that it is increasingly hard to place for publication. And I wonder, how much of this can we attribute to the shortening of the public’s attention span, the desire for instant gratification without expenditure of much effort, the frenzy of activities that threatens our ability to curl up onto a couch and spend some serious time with a book, and how much of it is due to the publishing and media industries not yet having found the ways to present and promote and enrich literary fiction through innovative methods that are more connected to how people spend their leisure time and source their media now. And how much of the onus of the latter lies on the publisher as opposed to the author? And so I embrace the challenge of pushing my “too literary” novel, FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN—and the related artistic products it may inspire—to be something “successful” in today’s media and entertainment world. Call it hubris, naiveté, hopeless optimism, whatever you’d like, but I have to see this as an opportunity for creativity.

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