Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Expiration Date for Literature - Like Milk, Books Go Sour

First, a terrible admission: I don't read enough.  It isn't that I dislike literature on principle, it's just that it's very hard for me to find books which hold my attention.  And it's grown worse over time - it might be that I'm easily distracted, or it could just be that I don't have the patience of my younger years.  The Once and Future King, even, when I reread it, simply wasn't as riveting at 29 as it had been when I was 15.  And it's even worse when I go to the bookstore.  I might spend hours in the science fiction section (my genre of choice) and not find a single book that I really want to read, the kind of book where you're eager to invest the ten or twelve hours it might take to go through each page.
No go back a couple decades - or, tougher still, a century - to the days when books were even more wordy than they are today.  Pushing my way through Henry James is like getting a buy-one-get-one-free on root canals.  And Henry James is a great author - The Turn of the Screw is the classic example of a novel that literally thrives on deconstruction and "spook-factor."  I've read the book twice for class, and it fully deserves the literary reputation it's built over the years, just as it's earned the reputation for terrifying boredom.  I think I can safely say I'm not alone in my visceral desire to avoid reading this book.  Yet I also own three copies - again, a result of studying literature.  It's a testament to the quality of the work that professors are still assigning this work as required reading for many, many higher-level literature courses.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this loyalty many hold toward the canon of classical literature.  Anyone who's read a riveting novel - Harry Potter, for example, or The Silence of the Lambs - and then tried writing a story realizes that the styles of other authors will bleed over into your own.  You can unwittingly find yourself trying to write like J.K. Rowling or Thomas Harris, losing your own unique voice to their mastery of the language.  And this isn't entirely a bad thing - this is actually how we learn to write well.  Just as children learn to speak from hearing the spoken word, we pick up the essential techniques of writing from our reading.

The problem is that many writers end up reading too much of the wrong books.  For me, if I spent all my days reading trashy science fiction, I would eventually write only trashy novels.  And - disturbing as this declaration may be - too much great literature has the potential to pollute your writing with an obsolete style.  If you simply read The Turn of the Screw, you'll know that the book would never sell on the bestseller racks at the grocery story today - it's great literature, sure, but very few in the general public would find it worth the investment.  Yet the literary writers of today - anyone in an MFA program, for example - are reading disproportionate quantities of old-fashioned literature.  To me, it'd like trying to make science fiction movies if the only experience you've had comes from watching Star Trek's Captain Kirk "boldly go where no man has gone before."  Yes, it's crucial viewing if you want to understand the science fiction tradition, but Captain Kirk and Buck Rogers alone wouldn't be inspiration enough if you wanted to produce something as edgy and modern as Battlestar Galactica.

By reading classic literature exclusively - by ignoring the new (and unproven) novels of the past ten-to-twenty years - writers may fail to absorb the changing face of literature.  And let's face it - the novel has changed a lot over the past fifty years.  Direct, clean prose has mostly triumphed over the older, wordier narratives of Dickens and Hawthorne.  It's a reflection of the modern era.  Today's readers, racing to keep up with Facebook, Twitter, and cell phone bills simply don't have the time to slog through fifty pages of text without a clear conflict in sight.  Sure, we can argue that people should make time for "good" literature, but the great books of the past aren't competing with just the pulp racks at the supermarket - they face stiff competition from ten-dollar blockbusters and the instant gratification of YouTube.  Then we have Netflix - why spend twenty-five dollars and a hundred hours of your time to slog through six or seven classical reads when you can take in maybe fifty movies for eight bucks a month?

As modern writers, we have to be careful that we don't condemn our selves to the "classics" pile before we've even published.  Never mind that agents and editors are looking for modern material with an edge - if you want to make a living selling novels, then you'll need to attract an audience that keeps coming back.  You need to target the individuals who are harried by the stress of modern life - you need to attract them with something new enough and entertaining enough to keep them fastened to their seats, eyes glued to Amazon waiting for your next book.

This requires that we keep abreast of not just modern books, but the new language of these books.  I hate reading lines like "in my estimation" and "as a subscriber to the local magazine" in stories written by students and classmates during the past month - phrases like this may not be dead, but they're obsolete. They carry the kind of impact one gets from quoting Shakespeare over the course of a dinner date - wordy, pretentious, overdone.  Trying to attract steady readers with phrases like this is like trying to build a successful car company using Henry Ford's original assembly line - unless you're selling to a crowd that really, really likes the Model T, you'll be struggling to break even.

So as you choose your reading, make sure to throw in good books of the modern era.  Cormac McCarthy's The Road or even Stephenie Meyer's Twilight will reveal the turns-of-phrase and plotting which have held millions of readers in their seats for hours at a time.  Neither book is perfect, I know (many sentences in Twilight read like an ivy shrub - tangled and growing).  At the same time, you'll need to read authors who are not yet well known.  Nascent talents will write the literature of tomorrow, and you'll want to learn from them if you want to keep up - Syne Mitchell's science fiction is a fine example, or Evie Shockley's poetry (both are great writers who are well-known in their own right, but not yet household names).

This involves taking some risks, of course.  You may purchase books with incredible opening chapters which lead nowhere (I hate posting this link, but here's a book I wanted to return after reading it: Old Man's War.  If you want to read the more timeless classics from which John Scalzi pulled his story, check out Starship Troopers or The Forever War.)  You might end up with books you can't finish.  Or you may even pollute your writing with the ills of the modern style: misplaced colloquialisms, blunt-force metaphors, and similes which cause your liver to bleed out into your spleen like a dank moldy sponge.  But that's okay.  Because, armed with knowledge, you'll watch out for these problems in your own writing.

And, of course, because you're a writer, you'll ignore half my article and keep reading the classics anyway - as you most very well should.

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