Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Literature and Entertainment

Debby here, thinking about entertainment. Rick’s right—people want to be entertained. Of course, entertainment differs from person to person, so let’s look at books, since that's our interest, and big-selling writers: Dan Brown, Harry Potter, and Stephenie Meyer come to mind.

I don’t think any of these authors is “literary,” but what is literary? Which gets me thinking about the one of the panels I did for the upcoming Poisoned Pen Webcon a few days ago on Blog Talk Radio. (Yes, Vicki, when are we supposed to be writing our books? I’m having trouble with this, too.) One of my co-panelists, Mysti Berry, who had a lot of interesting things to say, made the comment, “I confess that I have an MFA, but most students in MFA programs would love to be writing mysteries and getting paid for them.” I’ve paraphrased a bit here, and Mysti, if you read this and want to correct me, please jump in. We’d love to hear what you have to say about it.

What I see happening is a big problem in publishing. I know, not new news, but what can readers and writers do about it? The above authors get gazillions, big publishing houses hold their breaths for their next books, and new or mid-list authors get no respect. As in no promo, very little money, fewer and fewer wide-reaching reviews (failing newspapers is a contributing problem).

As you remember, Rick began this literary vs. mystery topic when he heard Laura Crozier and Michael Enright on a CBC broadcast. Crozier, who admitted she read “bad books,” i.e., mysteries, is a poet. How many books is she selling? I’d put money on not many. Does anyone else think this kind of envy adds to the “mine is better than yours” sniping that’s going on? It’s like a junior high schoolyard.

I’ve been told there were once great editors at publishing houses, back when they weren’t under corporate umbrellas, who developed writers and encouraged them. I’d like to get back to that, as a reader and as a writer. I’m sure many editors would, too. A lot of great talent is staying in drawers, or computer hard drives. Smaller publishers are stepping in to fill the gaps (hooray), but the distribution isn’t always great and a reader has to be searching for stimulating reads in lists other than the home paper’s Best Seller lists, which lists the same authors again and again.

So what can we writers do? Stick together, for one thing. Encourage readers to pick up new authors when we have the chance. I don’t see myself as competing with other writers. Sure, someone might rather read Charles’s or Donis’s books over mine, but good readers are voracious and love finding new authors. I hope if someone loves one of Vicki’s books, he or she might think, “Hey, I’ll pick up this author, too.”

1 comment:

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Hi Debby,

It was a pleasure being on the panel with you!

If any writer in my program could bang out a mystery a year and sell 10,000 copies, they'd do it. But they don't know how. Most of them struggled mightily with plot. Mysteries, or an even more tightly-constrained genre, screenplays, will teach you plenty about effective plotting.

But there are important differences between literary fiction, mainstream fiction, and dead-center genre books of mystery or science fiction (for example). You put your finger on it -- the goals are different. But the readers' goals are different even between subgenres in mystery -- cozy readers are not looking for the same thing hard boiled fans (or soft boiled fans!) are looking for. None of the goals are better or worse than the others!

I forgive the poet for using the phrase "bad books," she probably meant "guilty pleasure." I'm sure the writers of the television show Forensic Files work just as hard as the writers of 30 Rock, but the limitations of the former make it a "guilty pleasure" for me.

There is a level of craft in, say, Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain," that is absent in Robert Parker's best Spencer. Does that mean Wolff is "good" and Parker "bad"? No! There is a level of empathy, comfort, vicarious experience in Parker that you don't get from Wolff; different goals are served by different attributes in a piece.
But people often use labels as shortcuts.

It can be helpful to think of literary fiction as fiction about fiction, or fiction about language. It requires experimentation in form. In genre fiction, form experiments are often rejected by readers at first. Because the goal isn't to discover what language can do, it's to tell a ripping good story.

I can't help if people want to put value judgments on one goal over the other. It's like saying ice cream is not as good as a pot roast. They just serve different appetites, and we all hunger for something new from time to time.

I have a theory that more bad mystery fiction is published than bad literary fiction simply because there's a bigger appetite for mystery, so they run out of the good stuff pretty early. Another friend has a theory that nearly all literary fiction is bad, and therefore there's far more good mystery fiction by percentage :)

I agree with you that being published is not a zero-sum game -- when my Sisters in SinCNorCal are published, I'm ecstatic, because it means there's still a market. Sophie Littlefield doesn't tell the same stories I do, nor does Rebecca Cantrell or your kind self, Debby. So power to us ALL, for feeding the imaginations of the world. We can use all the new dreams we can get in this day and age, I believe.

I've gone on too long, but I did want to say that never in two years did any writer or instructor-writer denigrate another form the way people seem to think they are being denigrated. I suppose it happens, but I've heard it suspected a million more times than I've heard it said. So I think everyone should give up worrying about what they think writers in other genres think about them, and just keep supporting the writers whose works you enjoy. Just like Debby said!