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Saturday, Sep. 24, 2016

Then and Now

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Confessions and/or apologies of a novelist

Publishing, above all of fiction, can have the feel of disrobing in public. It's embarrassing! One almost wants to apologize for the indelicacy. Who am I anyway, one asks himself, to inflict yet another self-revelation on the world, above all on one's friends?

And above all such a one. Those who know me only as a writer of modest historical literature may be disappointed, as well as surprised, that my newest effort is a novel, "historical" perhaps, but still fiction; that my "true love" is literature in the larger sense.

The publication of "The Saber and the Ring," courtesy of the Vernon County Historical Society, prompts the perpetrator to look back and puzzle how it all happened.

As an aspirant writer, I misspent a bit of my youth living in New York, almost in Greenwich Village. I even had a literary agent. Whether she was any good or not, she did manage to get my efforts before editors at prestigious publishing houses.

The trouble was, in those days I had nothing worthwhile to offer. And whether the agent or editors knew it or not, I did. It was about then that I read the words of Cyril Connolly: "The function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece." And yet writers who admit it, he says, go right on cranking out "iridescent mediocrities" toadying to the demands of the market, or those agents and editors who supposedly reflect the reading public's demands.

It's nice to sell and be popular, of course. Still, "Better to have a self and no public," as Connolly says elsewhere, "than a public and no self."

Whether the reasons were quite that idealistic or no, my literary life did do a 180-degree turnaround. I came home, resigned myself to just writing, not "being a writer." I stopped trying to write for the market. I stopped listening to "literary" advice. I heeded only writers, the few I admired, and had personal contact with. And they all confirmed my gut-feeling: Pay no mind to the "experts," they admonished. Listen only to your muse.

Unfortunately, by the time I'd written a work or two I regarded as worthy, the publishing scene had changed radically. Editors willing to take risks for the love of literature had given way to hirelings of massive conglomerates with eyes only for the bottom line.

And widespread prosperity, leisure, and "education" was swamping publishers, and even agents, with manuscripts of problematical quality.

As an ancient cuneiform tablet bemoans, as a sure sign of worldly decadence, "Everybody wants to write a book." In self-defense, publishers ceased to accept manuscripts save through agents. Agents too became harder to get. And scam-artists swarmed. Typically today's novice writer hears from an agent something like: "Your work has promise. It just needs professional polishing. And we'll gladly supply it, or some nice pals of ours will," for a mere $600 or so.
Some will even submit free samples of what they'll do for (or to) your work. In my own experience the "improvements" are either undetectable or actually changes for the worse. Worst of all, the words are no longer yours. The gall of these folks, proposing to charge you to tell you not just how to say it, but what it is you really want to say, what you think!

In the "scam" category I put even those "writing courses" that have become such a fixture of would-be higher learning institutions.

In my lone personal experience, the victims agreed: It was a swindle. The big-name writer touted in the promotions seldom showed up. The "course" was "taught" by a nobody who made up in arrogance what he lacked in visible qualifications that might have distinguished him from those he proposed to enlighten.

Such courses may benefit those whose ambition is to chum out "iridescent mediocrities" for the market, to get paid little sums for filling a demand. A form of "vanity-publishing," if not literary prostitution. Certainly nothing to do with Connollyesque serious writing.

The mantra of "creative writing" today is "Show, not tell!" Meaning: pages of stacks of dialogue; short sentences or half-sentences in quotation marks, with a minimum of narrative, of descriptive prose. Readers, they tell us, just don't want to read description. How they came to this conclusion isn't revealed. I like narrative, the meatier the merrier. I don't like those stacks of adolescent dialogue. And I can't believe I'm alone. Literature's masterpieces, all heavy with narrative, wouldn't make it past today's self-appointed censors.

Another "establishment" objection I've met: "You're mixing genres!" They fail to see I don't deal in "genres" at all. Readers expecting a "war story," a "historical novel," a "romance" will be let down by my effort. The novelist's duty (even as the historian's) is "to tell the story." And there's only one story: "the human heart in conflict with itself," as Faulkner put it.

The big-publisher industry is no longer in a condition to tell the reading public where to get off. While the old New York firms sink or merge, new small firms are springing up all over the country. And more and more serious writers are "self-publishing."

Actually, self-publishing is a return to what once was the norm, before the rise of centralized publishing. A writer hunts up a printer, and takes it from there.

A quality work will survive such a modest beginning. Many great works of the past were self-published.

Happily, as with my past, historical works, I had the Vernon County Historical Society to "front" as technically my publisher. In return for the proceeds, if any.

For not since my innocent, New York days have I thought of writing as a way of making money. And oddly, publication brings me no other satisfaction either. Whether it's a column or a book, all I can see is how it could and should have been done better.

Of course, an author normally suffers a reaction, even an aversion, once his work appears. The last time I reread "The Saber and the Ring," I was appalled. Is it really as sentimental, even maudlin, as suddenly it seemed? I had to remind myself: Civil War times just were sentimental. And it was my intent to be true to the words and ways of that time, not ours.

Perhaps my readers (again, if any) will tell me whether the effort's a success or a failure.