Books Aren’t Cadavers

Two blog posts in two days. Pretty wild, huh?

Yesterday I wrote the first new post since January, about how my New Years Resolutions have more or less been dashed but that a greater goal has emerged: completing my first novel in 2014. It appears to be doable. I calculated how many words I think it will take to come up with 16 different endings to the story (it being a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style book for adults), and it’s looking like at the current rate I would only need to write about 280 words per day to complete the book by the last day of the year. But I’m hoping it doesn’t actually come down to the wire like that.

Coming up with this project, along with being on a Stephen King kick in advance of my trip to New England this summer (which will include a Stephen King tour in Bangor, Maine on this awesome van), had inspired me to think about what kind of books are worth reading and writing.

I never totally lost my love of King and other commercial fiction, but I think in college my English classes trained me to believe that if it was commercially viable and came in a thick paperback you could buy in a drug store, it was probably not valuable or literary. The tension in my head between my appreciation for “commercial fiction” versus “literary fiction” has been a huge negative for my creativity.

Since college I have been trying to conceive of myself as the Next Young Literary Author, and have been trying to figure out how to get there, because that’s what we were taught to want. In reading King, though, particularly IT where the kind of fiction that comes out of creative writing college courses is lampooned by the character of Stuttering Bill Denbrough, I’ve had a revelation that attempting to be literary is an absurdity. You should just write, and what comes out comes out. If it’s a good story, it probably has interesting sociocultural elements that could be discussed, if you wanted to discuss them — but your job as an author is not to try to inject significance into your story. Trying to keep lofty literary pretensions in mind while writing is a recipe for failure.

Writing for the joy of writing a good story should be — and is — enough.

Taking creative writing classes in college has improved my writing through the process of learning to workshop and revise, and to think critically about storytelling. And the English classes I took broadened my mind to so much literature I would never have known otherwise. But as I wrote to one of my friends in a Facebook comment, I’ve let my outlook be dictated too much by stuffy college professors whose joy is not in storytelling or crafting words beautifully but in dissecting books like dead pigs and inspecting them for their messages about Marxism, post-colonialism, and feminism like those were the heart, liver, and intestines.

People (and things I’ve read) have been telling me this forever — that “literary” is more a label than a truth — but it took some serious contemplation on my part for it to sink in.

Am I hoping that whatever I write will be appreciated by scholars? Sure. I’d love nothing more than for Brandt to be one of the last names of American masters they bring up along with Faulkner and Hemingway. But I know that it’s not anywhere near likely to happen, and anyway you don’t become Faulkner or Hemingway by second-guessing yourself every step of the way.

And for what it’s worth, I believe Stephen King’s novels should be considered literary fiction. At last all the ones I’ve read, minus The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, which was annoying and lame.



8 thoughts on “Books Aren’t Cadavers

  1. Never read It, but I’ve seen the film before (I was 9, I think) and has since been one of the reasons I stopped watching horror movies and disliked clowns. There’s only one King book I’ve read: The Needful Things. Gives me the shivers every time I think about Mr. Gaunt.

  2. I completely agree with your conclusion, Jeff. The “literary” label in the present-tense has its own can of worms, but what scholars most respect is literary fiction that has proven itself valuable over time, like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Joyce, etc. And if you look at how those authors were perceived at the actual time they wrote: they were seen as obscene or as trashy or improper. Literary merit is a subjective social construct that changes drastically over time. We should be writing what WE think is worth writing, that’s all.

    • The thing is I don’t even know if we were specifically told “you must attempt to be ‘literary’ in your writing,” but based on what we learned in English department classes (not necessarily just Creative Writing classes), the implication that we should do that seemed to be there.

      • I agree, and that’s because Academia traditionally only pushes the established literary canon it accepts (with the exception of a few rogue professors who want to teach unusual stuff). The reason is the Audience that Academia believes it has. Academia does not believe it is training the next generation of writers. No one believes that. The audience Academia believes it is teaching to is:

        95% Random students who will go on to work at the office like normal middle-class Americans. Most of them are not English majors, and don’t really care about books as much as TV or sports or their actual majors. Out of the ones who are English majors, most don’t really care that much either. Like High School Students, Academia believes it should give them a broad coverage of Great Literary Literature, so that maybe it will have some tiny impact on their “inner souls” or whatever.

        5% Students who actually care about literature and reading and some of whom might go on to work in academia, or publishing, or at least carry the torch of reading as a hobby. Academia believes it should give them a broad coverage of Great Literary Literature, as well.

        0% Future Writers, because Academia traditionally never has been about people who actually want to write books and publish them professionally. Theoretically the CW Dept is the exception, even though instructors there assume that most of their students are idiots, but either way since there is no way to “teach” creative writing, they may as well just have you read really good literary fiction instead. You are paying them for something, so they give you English class (as above). If Academia thought it DID have future writers, it probably WOULD teach genre writing, among doing many other things differently.

        I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you’re in school because you think it will help you become a published professional author, STOP giving them your money. (Or, better yet, start giving them your money to teach you something useful and profitable like computer programming or the health sciences). School is not for writers.

        IMHO 🙂

  3. King’s On Writing memoir was one of the first novels I had to read for a university English course, and probably one of the most useful. King is God!

    Also, I totally agree on the pretentious “literary” debate… I realize there’s obviously a line somewhere that separates good from bad literature, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily defined by either the scholars or the consumers. Look at Fifty Shades… I know for an absolutely positive FACT that I could write a far superior soft-core-whatever-that-was (yes, I read it… I simply don’t believe one is fit to pass judgement without doing some research!) but having written extensively on Hunger Games, I can totally see its literary merits despite what those nasty critics say. Now, I can’t exactly pull any classic titles from the top of my head that I think may be undeserving of their pedestals… but you get the picture [Shakespeare was kind of a loser, to be honest… shh.]

    Also (I’m sorry for how lengthy this is getting… I’m typing as I read,) Literary Theory killed any and all residual imagination left in me. I can’t even enjoy movies anymore for all the patriarchal agendas, colonial representations, and overt phallic imagery – thanks Freud.
    F**k scholars, write what you know, this post has me all fired up now, thank-you.

    – end rant –

Holla back, girl

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