Once upon a time, maybe as recently as 2006, I loved writing. I'd always hoped to earn my living by putting words together, and to be a professional writer and editor, in a community of professional writers and editors, thrilled me. Sometimes it thrilled me several times a week.
For instance, in 2000 I helped launch an anonymous newspaper column called Good Morning Lowcountry, which ran half a page, seven days a week, in The (Charleston) Post and Courier. GMLc was the work of no single writer in its early years, so several of us shared the duties, churning through local topics and mild obsessions and odd bits of Lowcountry trivia like a pack of raccoons rooting through trailer park garbage cans. Every now and then we'd even pause between deadlines to talk about the experience and its process, prompting me once to write a GMLc with the self-absorbed subhead "This Writing Life," in which I attempted to share the good-humored, arty, third-person-objective camaraderie of it all.
Now, of course, I just wish everyone would shut up and get on with it.
There is no more thoroughly boring topic than writing, and if you doubt this, listen to a public radio interviewer ask a Famous Author to talk about his or her process, or even worse, his or her deeper thoughts on language or storytelling..
This afternoon I was subjected to several minutes of some unfortunate soul lobbing verbal kisses toward award-winning science fiction novelist Samuel R. Delany. Delany, the interviewer said, is "a sentence lover." This breathtaking banality set up what must have been a 90-second soliloquy by Delany on how sentences were made up of words, which makes them superior to words, because you can express more with a sentence than you can with a single word.
I shit you not.
Now I say this next part with regret, because I have some wonderfully talented friends who have completed MFA programs in creative writing from respected institutions and I don't seek to offend them. But here's the hard (and oft-noted) truth: MFA graduates learn to write for other MFA graduates. In doing so, they dramatically reduce their chance of ever producing original, culturally relevant, commercially viable work, receiving in exchange only a modest increase in their chance of eventual publication.
Of course quality writing matters, and yes, there's a craft to it. Proper spelling is helpful, too (although Cormac McCarthy has proven that proper grammar is negotiable).
But if we actually care about "literature" as a meaningful product of our culture, then the time has come for writers to violently and irrevocably declare their independence from the institutions of literature. We certainly have nothing to lose: in 2009, so-called "literary fiction" comprised less than 5 percent of the $10.2 billion U.S. book publishing industry, and even that dismal figure hides the true crisis, since it includes "classics."
The response to this decline from within the walled garden of critically/academically acceptable literature has been to take all incoming critiques as barbaric assaults on quality, as if they can imagine no alternative to their current state of inaccessible, self-referential obscurity than a "dumbing down" to the standards of "the masses." Consider this strawman defense of the genre, a classic in the annals of denial:
Literary fiction is an increasingly smaller part of the market, but only because the market is being flooded with more and more books that are more and more identical. Literary fiction is not dying off. Like it or not. Literary fiction may bore you. That's fine. But if it bores you and you never read it, you are not anything like an expert on literary fiction so keep your fat mouth shut when you talk about how it needs to change to become more in line with populist tastes. Literary fiction doesn't give a fig about populist tastes, which is one of its great strengths. In a hundred years, Stephanie Meyers will be forgotten, but people will still be reading Shakespeare. Why? Because Shakespeare is more important to us as a species. Even if you personally don't "get" it. Shakespeare isn't snooty or elitist. Literary fiction isn't snooty or elitist. But it may be too good for you. And that's fine.
So just remember, haters of literary fiction: when you talk about the death of literature, literature is not listening to your foolishness.
No, it seems "literature" is not listening to anything -- except its own literati. Its problems are all out there, with those people, those lesser readers who don't get it. And conflating the inane MFA drivel that passes for "literary" work today with the works of Shakespeare is just God's gift to unintentional irony. In his day, Shakespeare was considered the equivalent of a clever pulp writer -- a producer of vulgar entertainments for the masses. The idea of Shakespeare as icon of the English language didn't arrive until centuries after his death.
So if you were planning to complain that I'm calling on publishers and critics and humanities intellectuals to reject their current tastes and instead celebrate "dumbed-down" fiction for the masses, save yourself the pixels. No, I'm calling on writers -- professionals, amateurs, anyone who puts words together -- to stop caring about what the literati think, write and say. Get over your insecure quest for "legitimate" acceptance. The price is only your ideas, voice and soul.
Literary fiction isn't "too good" for us. We're too good for literary fiction, with its tiny stories and tiny ideas and lock-step aversion for anything that aspires toward big and important. Modern, critically accepted literary theory -- like modern visual art and musical composition and "social science" -- stands athwart our naive impulses toward greatness and off-the-map exploration and shouts "STOP!" Our literary establishment has become a tyranny of the smugly insignificant.
It's not incumbent on our MFA programs, book critics and humanities professors to solve this problem. In fact, I contend the people employed within these institutions are now incapable of challenging the systems that produce our high-minded mediocrities and ensure their professional status and continued employment. Western intellectualism's arms race toward theoretical abstraction rendered it impotent and irrelevant decades ago, and it cannot recover from within.
Neither can we look to the book publishing industry to save us. It's such a mess that even the people who run it seem to despise it. I've also given up hope that networked media -- the idealistic movement that produced blogs like this one in the middle of the previous decade -- will ever rise to its full potential as a democratic alternative to top-down systems of marketing and control. So no, I don't see a way around this problem.
But I do see a way through it.
We can start calling things by name. We can call bullshit when we see it. We are neither stupid nor uneducated, and though we are told that we're not qualified to comment on certain things, it is up to us whether we choose to take that input as an order or a plea.
We can find ways to beat the idiocy and kitsch of mass-culture, with its dependency on celebrity in place of independent thinking. We can reject the enforced conformity of modern intellectualism, with its Emperor-Has-No-Clothes absurdities of fearful fashion. We need not choose one over the other. We need to choose something new -- something that neither offers, and never will.
And to choose it, we must create it. We should start immediately, each in our own way.