Trying To Be Literary

I've had all kinds of fledgling writers come into my workshops, from near illiterates to near geniuses, from porno writers with their heads in the mud to sci-fi writers with their heads in cloud 2009. I've had mainstream novelists after the big bucks and wide-eyed poets writing narrative you can hum in the shower. I've been impressed and inspired by many, learned from many, and been fired up by some. All except the literati.

Literati are new writers who barely know their way to the keyboard and who are trying to out-James-Joyce James Joyce or out-Virginia-Woolf Virginia Woolf. Though I've had dozens that tried, I've never known one that succeeded.

The problem with literati is this: Instead of attempting to master the principles of creative writing, instead of learning how to make their literary creations fresh and dramatic, literati choose a literary giant as a god and seek to emulate him or her—while all the time claiming to be on the cutting edge of the avant garde because the giant they've selected is way out there.

If in the workshop it is pointed out, say, that his story has no rising action, that it's static, or dull, or slow, the literatus will smile a wry, superior smile and tell you that you obviously haven't read "The Mud at the Edge of Time," the groundbreaking story written by the literary giant whose coattails he's riding to immortality. It's a groundbreaking story because it doesn't bother to show a character's motivation, or it moves by chance instead of by events caused by other events, or it has no ending or no beginning, or every character in the story is a scumbag that repels the reader.

It usually doesn't do any good, but I try to point out a few obvious facts about the imitative work. For one thing, the hugely successful literary giant the literatus is imitating can get any damn thing he or she writes published, and certain critics are poised to praise it no matter what it is, and others are too timid to take on a giant, who everyone knows is a genius with a capital G. Both the critic who praises the giant and those who know better would roast a new writer who committed the same felonies. Telling beginning literati that they can't break the same rules as the rule-breaking giants they're imitating is like trying to explain to four-year-olds why they can't have a martini.

The biggest problem of imitative work is that no one likes an imitator.

If you are going to be one of the literati, pleeeeeeze, first become a great storyteller who uses the principles of dramatic fiction to create masterpieces of craft before you attempt to break the rules. Yes, the rules may be broken successfully, but for every ten or twenty thousand who try only a handful are successful.

Now that I've thrown my thunderbolts at the literati, let me confess that I have committed this very mistake.

My first attempt at novel writing was a fictionalized version of a memoir written by a White Russian soldier about his adventures in the Russian Revolution. Thinking my genius would get me through, I was mucking up the narrative all over the place. I didn't even bother to get the details right. If I didn't know something I should have known, say about the ranks of the officer corps in the Red Army, I just made it up. I switched viewpoint whenever I damned well pleased and generally cheated the reader at every turn—had long dream sequences, flashbacks just for the fun of it.

It didn't publish.

Another literary novel I attempted a few years after that was to be my great autobiographical work. That's the one I called The Cockroach. My genius, I thought, was ripening and I was ready to knock the literary world over with it. I did pretty much the same thing, only this time I was surreal. Death played footsie with my hero throughout the story.

I spent, all told, perhaps four years on this tome, envisioning it as the Great American Novel, trying to be literary instead of trying to be damn good.

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