Note: This is a guest post by Warren Adler. Warren is the author of The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. Be sure to check out Warren’s latest thriller Treadmill.
Portrait of a Writer
For the aspiring writer in the middle to late 20th century the goal, however fantastical and mythical, was to write The Great American Novel.
What this meant was that we passionately burned to be recognized as a kind of literary phenomenon. We wanted our books to be bestsellers, have our novels adapted into films, and were somewhat schooled in the reality of the marketplace and the odds against realizing such a dream…
We wanted to be seen as an “artist writer” who had created a novel out of his or her imagination so compelling, so blazing with impact, insight and truth, with characters so memorable and important that when fashioned into a story it encapsulated the sweep and meaning of the universal human condition. It was a mission, a dedicated and inspired artistic endeavor with the goal of attracting vast numbers of intelligent readers.
The traditional image of the writer in the garret, lost in the vapors of his imagination, creating his parallel world for the benefit of all mankind, was as accurate a description as one could devise of the dedicated writer’s toil and sacrifice in the service of literature.
We had our literary Gods to emulate, our role models, living and dead – Faulkner, the Brontes, Dickens, Tolstoy, Balzac, Poe and hundreds of others spanning generations, gender and nationality. Devoted, we read them, learned from them, were inspired by them; we wanted to be them. This was the dream of the aspiring writer.
We were well aware, too, of the barriers set by the elite judgmental literary cliques and claques of that era proclaiming what was lowbrow and highbrow on a quality continuum based on their own rigid focus. Indeed the passage of time has proven how much off the mark they had been. Literary ambition has clearly proliferated a thousand-fold since what seemed like the halcyon days of the last century.
Considering the reality of today’s publishing environment with its millions of e-books, the explosion of self-publishing, and factoring in effects of globalization and the growth of literacy, I offer some facts and advice for the aspiring writer to ponder.
What is the State of Fiction?
The marketplace, meaning the still existing brick and mortar stores and online retailers are currently dominated by genre fiction. More than half of all sales are from Romance Fiction with over a dozen different categories within. Numerous genres and sub-genres like Science Fiction, Horror, Erotica, etc. fill out the sales offerings in other fiction categories.
Not many years ago, sub-genres such as Gothic, Vampire and Zombie Fiction and the like, while they existed, never made bestseller lists nor were they ever considered more than fringe, pulp or novelty writing. Not only are they now vastly popular, but they have crowded out the literary novel, reducing its availability in the marketplace. The fact is that readers of fiction are themselves being “genre-ized.”
And What of Publishing?
Traditional publishers are betting more and more on these novels with a special emphasis on “factory” novels, name branded writers hiring others to actually write to their specs and formula under their supervision. This is nothing new and is spectacularly profitable.
There is, of course, another reality at work here. The works of the dedicated fiction writer will continue to proliferate. The author will be subject to the same obsessions and needs to create his or her work as any artist in other disciplines. He or she will seek the advice, comfort, and inspiration of like-minded authors.
Groups of such writers are banding together all over the world, exchanging work, experiences, and ideas. Many are being ignored by traditional publishers facing the economic realities of their industry. The fact is that the literary novel does not sell with the financial impact of genre written fiction, which has its economic winners and losers as they proliferate and vie for sales.
Literary novels will continue to proliferate no matter what the odds of gaining reader traction. There will be many, many ramifications and unpredictable outcomes as dedicated readers mature. Tastes change. Unintended consequences change habits. Fiction, meaning original stories inspired in the imagination, will continue to attract those who want to understand the world beyond the stereotypes and clichés that dominate popular culture of any given moment in time.
Words of Advice
So here is my advice to the aspiring writer. Write on dear friends. Share your dreams and aspirations with the like-minded.
In the great battle between art and commerce, art always triumphs. (Click to Tweet)
The serious novel, the story, the urge to know “What happens next?” is the lifeblood of the human experience, and will continue until the end of time. There were other authors of literary fiction who bore the brunt of credible critics and market influences of an earlier time. Here are a few to savor:
“We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff overwrought story.”
—Review of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Children’s Books, 1865
“It would be useless to pretend that they [Youth & Heart of Darkness] can be very widely read.”
—The Manchester Guardian on Joseph Conrad, 1902
“We do not believe in the permanence of his reputation…”
—The Saturday Review, London, on Charles Dickens, 1858
“The final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent.”
—The New Yorkeron William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom!, 1936
“M. Flaubert n’est pas un écrivain.” [“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.”]
—Review of Madame Bovary, Le Figaro, 1857
“I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire….”
— Virginia Woolfe (in her diary), 1922
“Mr. Lawrence has a diseased mind. He is obsessed by sex…”
—Review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by John Bull, 1928
“…the worthless story of worthless people in worthless chatter.”
—Eduard Engel on Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, 1901
“[Moby Dick] is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous.”
—The Southern Quarterly Review, 1851
“1984 is a failure.”
—British literary scholar and critic Laurence Brander on George Orwell, 1954
“Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.”
—The London Critic, 1855
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
—Editor of The San Francisco Examiner informing Rudyard Kipling that he needn’t bother submitting his next article to the newspaper.
As they say, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, what is yours? Share in the comments.
(All quotes from The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation.)