WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 2: Craving creativity

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What is creativity anyway?

We all probably have different definitions, ranging from “the act of creating something” to “making real something derived from the imagination.”

For me there’s also a component of making something that’s new. Children are creative, after all, because they don’t know the existing patterns. The only way art progresses is by breaking the existing patterns in favor of new ones.

In fact, most art is meant to be perceived as new. It extends our understanding of the world by making connections that we haven’t thought of before, by forcing us to look at life, society, and culture from a new angle.

That, in my opinion, is what’s missing from fiction today.

My theory is that fiction has become detached from art in a way that other media might not have — probably thanks to technology. It has become the most democratized creative pursuit, allowing anyone with the desire to tell a story to produce and sell it online. There is no need any longer for a degree in creative writing, or for a specialized education of any kind, really. (Not that an MFA was ever really required for publishing success.) All you need is the passion to do it, and passion is something our culture pumps out like bottled water. Fiction writers today — most self-publishers, anyway — have educated themselves by reading, mostly by reading extensively, deeply, and obsessively in their chosen genres. The truth is, unfortunately, that this democratization has allowed the book market to expand like an infinite balloon.

Other disciplines, like painting, dance, music, sculpture, filmmaking, and even computer graphics and game programming, do in fact require a pretty high level of education to perform competently, competitively. And, once armed with the education, the artist can apply creativity to the process of practice and performance in order to make something new, something that extends the breadth of the discipline. We’ve heard it before in terms of a Picasso or a Jackson Pollock or a Miró or any other abstract artist, that you have to know how to draw before you can do what they do. The same is clearly true with something as complex as music: if you don’t know your scales, you can’t write a symphony. (You might be able to write a halfway decent pop song, though, and no one will notice what you don’t know.)

It’s important to acknowledge that there is a market for the novels and stories being written and published by the passionate layperson today. Self-publishing has created a kind of samizdat literature, akin to that in Soviet Russia which was disseminated one copy at a time by individuals. Readers are writing and writers are reading, and they exchange their wares with enormous enthusiasm and commitment, often generating significant sales on Amazon while they’re at it. They review each other’s work, usually approvingly (then again, this isn’t very different from the traditional blurbs that appear on book jackets), pumping each other up on blogs and social media, creating in the process a large community of dedicated wordsmiths.

What happens, though, when the works they create by the millions (as the state of the market is right now) are almost indistinguishable from one another? Where is the value? Even the covers — especially in the realm of romance, fantasy, and thrillers — have a dizzying sameness that tells prospective readers, “You’ll get what you expect to get from this.”

The reader, in other words, must not want to be surprised or shocked by the books she reads. Or at least the books she buys. Maybe, when money is changing hands, it’s better to deliver the goods the consumer hopes to be getting.

Clearly this in no way absolves traditional publishing of the same sin of mediocrity. Year after year go by in which the top sellers are variations of the top sellers from recent years, or mash-ups: Gone With the Wind Meets Dracula. Not that long ago, the Jane Austen zombie phenomenon and Abe Lincoln: Vampire Killer books hit the scene, but they are not just parodies; they’re reflections of a market that doesn’t want to stop mining the mother lode until it’s exhausted. We’re fracking our readership. This is also why established writers in a particular genre have nothing but trouble trying to break out into something new. J. K. Rowling could tell us all about that, after her non-Harry Potter project three years ago, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Under the pseudonym she used, the book floundered, but even after it was revealed that she was the author, readers complained about the departure from her bread and butter.

How do we encourage groundbreaking creativity in fiction without risking, in the traditional publishing world, widespread rejection, or, in indie publishing, obscurity?

Recently, Canadian/English novelist Rachel Cusk published her latest novel, Outline, to enthusiastic reviews. In it, she breaks all the usual rules of narrative, mostly by having her protagonist tell the reader almost everything that’s conveyed in the book. The sacrosanct dictum, “Show Don’t Tell,” has been relegated to the dustbin, where, frankly, it has belonged for decades. And, truly, writers who break ground in storytelling almost always destroy stale rules as they go along, just like Picasso destroyed the old conventions in painting, Frank Gehry in architecture, Ornette Coleman in jazz. The problem for Ms. Cusk will be the deafening silence that follows the first blast of hype. Unless a movie deal is announced starring Emma Stone and Benedict Cumberbatch, I think it’s pretty safe to bet that Outline won’t sell in the six figures. So often, critical praise doesn’t translate into sales, and that’s because the great mass of readers aren’t interested in writers who don’t deliver the expected product. One two-star Amazon review begins: “I found this book a little strange to say the least and it seemed more like a vehicle for the author to showcase her writing skills than any sort of story.”

Says it all.

Popular, however, doesn’t have to be bad. Much of the time, it does mean mediocre, sadly, and that’s something that only writers can alleviate. Delivering the expected is a recipe for mediocre — by definition — so setting out to scratch the reader’s itch might yield higher sales but does nothing for the art of fiction.

As I often like to do, take the example of Jennifer Weiner. She’s immensely popular. Her books sell millions of copies. She has a multitude of fans, yet she can’t seem to garner the critical kudos she longs for. She’s not a bad writer, and I’m not sure she’s even a mediocre writer, but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s in no way cutting edge and isn’t contributing to the progress of literature. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except in that she seems to hope that her popularity will equate (something like Donna Tartt’s good fortune in 2014) to major recognition as an artist.

It’s the Rachel Cusks who are taking the chances. Writers like Denis Johnson, Heidi Julavits, Michel Faber, Rachel Kushner, and many others, who take the elements of narrative and remold them, manipulate them, turn them in on themselves like a Möbius strip and somehow make a new paradigm work, are the artists who will be remembered. If there’s any justice, that is.

My fear is that Stephen King is our Dickens, which says more about us than about King.

 

© 2016 by Kevin Brennan

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33 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 2: Craving creativity

  1. kingmidget
    January 12, 2016

    A couple of themes you hit on here … first, you’re spot on that a lot of self-publishing “success” comes from the circle of self-publishers/bloggers feeding off of and supporting each other. That’s reason #138 why I’m struggling with the idea of self-publishing again. I’d really like to push through the self-publishing barrier and get to readers who aren’t writers themselves.

    Second, the need to be creative. After my first novel, I could have followed a formula and written more legal thrillers. But that would have been boring for me. That would have been like work. And I’m still exploring the ways in which to tell stories. That, to me, is what writing is about. How to tell a story. How to tell a story differently. It’s also reason #152 why I’m struggling with writing — maybe I have bitten off more than I can chew.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 12, 2016

      It’s getting so hard to find actual readers — readers who aren’t also writers. And it’s especially hard to find readers who are willing to expand their tastes a little bit and try something less generic.

      It’s fascinating how David Bowie is getting lauded now as if he were the most mainstream performer around, but in fact he forced people to take him as he was — or at least as he was at the moment, which was usually challenging. I don’t know why that adventurousness doesn’t translate to writing.

      • kingmidget
        January 12, 2016

        One of my works in progress is likely to end up at 40,000-50,000 words — below the traditional threshold for a novel. It is a pretty depressing story about a man who ends up living alone in a house on the shores of a bay — the house he ran away from when he was 18 because he hated his father. It does have a happy ending though. But I am trying to write it as lyrically or poetically as possible. Another work in progress began as a very short story that I realized had more to story to tell. It became a 30,000 word novella. And I realized I had more story to tell. So I decided it would work as a series of three novellas. It kind of starts as young adult fiction but then in book two I think I cross a line you can’t cross in that genre. I think.

        So the question is this … How the hell do I market these things either on my own or to an agent or publisher. Neither of these fits neatly I to a genre or a subgenre. It baffles me that we have to plug everything into a neat little box.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 12, 2016

        That is definitely a problem vis-a-vis traditional publishing. I wonder if, as an indie, you couldn’t find a way to tie the pieces together that would attract readers. It sounds like it has a lot of potential to me!

        But it’s a nightmare scenario because readers are the ones who have fabricated these categories. Publishers have simply picked up on them and have poured a lot of slop into the different troughs.

        [I think that sounds ickier than I mean it to…]

      • kingmidget
        January 12, 2016

        REgarding the three novellas — yes, I’ve considered releasing the novellas as individual e-books, with a final product that represents all three pieces in an e-book and hard copy book. But I need to figure out how to market it and grow the audience so that it’s worth the effort.

        I’m not yet sold on who is ultimately responsible for this … readers or publishers. I frequently think that our choices are being forcefed us by publishers and agents and Amazon. If Amazon only features self-published authors who fit the “formula” is it the reader’s fault that they keep buying. Because, that’s really the dirty secret of publishing now … just how much it is dominated and controlled by what Amazon does. If we can’t crack the door open via Amazon, there’s no hope.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 13, 2016

        It’s true that “featured” content is totally controlled by the businesses. I have one of those Kindles with ads as the screen saver (it was cheaper!), and I’ve never seen an ad on it for anything but schlock.

        I guess they know the audience better than I do! And that’s kinda depressing…

      • kingmidget
        January 13, 2016

        I’m not completely sold on who is driving this … Amazon or the audience.

  2. sknicholls
    January 12, 2016

    I’ve had many of the thoughts about this subject that you so eloquently expressed. With RC&R, I had not yet been touched by social media. I published the book and then came to social media…where I learned all about what I did wrong. I call it my virgin book, rather than my debut novel.People liked it, and encouraged me to write more in that genre and time period. I may. But do I want to get locked into that? Like Mark said about his legal thriller. Maybe he could have been the next John Grisham…but would he want to be the next anybody? Perhaps for both of us, ego plays a part. Hmm.

    NA is leaps and bounds different from RC&R, and certainly leans toward commercial genre fiction, both in writing style and content. It is also an experiment. It’s been beat read 10 times, had two edits by a paid professional to polish it up. Had a contest held for a cover. I plan to pitch it at a conference to real agents. And yet…in my heart, as compared to RC&R it can be mediocre at best. While the characters are memorable, and the dual plots interesting and thought-provoking, it’s really just another regional Florida crime fiction novel to join the herd.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 12, 2016

      It always boils down to what a writer’s mission is, I suppose. If you want to sell a lot of copies, it only makes sense to lean toward commercial sensibilities. If you want to take a shot at the Pulitzer Prize, you’ll probably steer clear of pop fiction.

      Some writers actually do both!

  3. 1WriteWay
    January 12, 2016

    Hey, I like Stephen King!! Heh heh. Honestly I do but he’s not Dickens (and neither is Donna Tartt). I was just thinking of this theme this morning (no doubt anticipating this installment). The tsunami of self-published books makes it almost impossible to be read. And if you do strive for that creative edge,what then? The quest to gain readers begins even more daunting because your work cannot be classified, reduced to SEOs (or whatever the hell those are). Damned if you do write for the masses. Damned if you don’t.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 12, 2016

      It’s a real conundrum, all right. Categorization is huge in publishing, so to defy the labels is to ask for rejection. I just sent Town Father to an organization for review, and the first thing they asked was, What are the book’s top three subgenres?

      Aaaaiiiieeeeeee!

      • 1WriteWay
        January 13, 2016

        Historical speculative fiction? Historical literary humor? Historical humorous literary fantasy? ???? Hmmm … How is Herland categorized?

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 13, 2016

        There should be just two categories: “You’ll Love This!” and “Don’t Bother.”😜

  4. 1WriteWay
    January 12, 2016

    And damned I am for writing this comment on my phone! “Begins” should be “becomes,” among other things.

  5. Parlor of Horror
    January 12, 2016

    I often wonder if there are any readers that don’t write left in the world. There are so many choices for entertainment these days it’s hard to think of a young person picking up a book for the first time. I don’t know what could be the answer to this dilemma for writers looking for a future. On another note, I find Stephen King to be the Norman Rockwell of horror – he puts everything into a nice clean picture that everyone can understand. However, I wouldn’t look to him for cutting edge material. I started reading Doctor Sleep and stopped about a third of the way through because it wasn’t feeling vibrant and new to me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 12, 2016

      I do think we’re in the midst of an enormous sea change in reading/writing. A combo of technology and the nature of the readership. Hard to see how novels as we know them will survive.

      “The Norman Rockwell of Horror.” I love the idea of that!

  6. John W. Howell
    January 12, 2016

    I don’t know if popular and artist can be mutual attributes in literature.You make a good point about Jennifer Weiner and almost by definition if you sell millions it is hard to believe you are an artist since those who buy millions are looking for the genre stereotype. Hum such a conundrum.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 12, 2016

      Yep, it’s almost like “pick one.” But you have to be happy with the one you pick…

      • John W. Howell
        January 12, 2016

        But back to your words. Are we all headed into a mediocre vortex?

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 12, 2016

        I’m afraid we’re already there. When you’re in the vortex, nothing seems mediocre… 😱

      • John W. Howell
        January 13, 2016

        I see that.

  7. Adrienne Morris
    January 12, 2016

    So interesting, Kevin. I’m not sure I agree with the notion that for a writer to be excellent he has to break rules and be different. Crime and Punishment was a brilliant read from start to finish because it was a fantastic story told in a beautiful and chilling way.

    Experimental fiction has it’s place but most people secretly are drawn to familiar human themes–all the way to the Bible–human stories about normal people suffering through tragedies (or laughing through them) abound.

    Like SK above I came to the internet after writing a book. I spent a good year beating myself up for not doing a better online launch, etc.

    What I’ve discovered recently is that whenever I speak to real people out in the real world they almost always want to buy and read my book. I wonder if spending so much time online blinds us to the need for way more human interaction.

    BTW, just as an interesting aside children actually go through very unoriginal developmentally normal phases of development when creating art. Almost universally children make stick figures and place the sun shining in the corner of their paper. I think that’s weird.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 12, 2016

      You’re right, that this isn’t about excellence. I think it’s more about movement. The direction of literature into the future. And I think Crime and Punishment might have been seen differently in its time than now (though I haven’t researched this!), as great as it is.

      It is about human interaction, though. Writers are all trying to reach people, touch them, get into their heads. Our problem is how best to do it.

      As for kid artists, a lot of them are abstract expressionists before they can even do the stick figures. That’s weird too. They have Jackson Pollock in them before they can draw a horsey.

      • Adrienne Morris
        January 13, 2016

        But the kids don’t know how to market themselves like Pollock. 🙂 I was just reading a post on Micheline Walker’s blog about the Arts and Crafts movement and how commercial art in the form of children’s book illustration etc allowed “serious” artists to make money while pursuing their craft–it might interest you. http://michelinewalker.com/2016/01/12/l-m-boutet-de-monvel-in-his-times/

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 13, 2016

        Thanks for the link, Adrienne. Very interesting. You think this translates to writing in a practical way? I know Graham Greene was able to do serious novels and “entertainments,” but I’m not sure a lot of writers can pull that off successfully. Maybe the children’s illustration equivalent is magazine writing or essays…

      • Adrienne Morris
        January 13, 2016

        Good points. As for me–writing long sagas takes up all my free time! My husband occasionally suggests I write something like “monster porn” to pay the bills (we didn’t believe there was such a until recently) but I have these things called artistic integrity and an inability to do what others tell me to do (I think we’re now calling it oppositional defiant disorder). 🙂 It’s financially crippling to be me.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 13, 2016

        😝

  8. Dylan Hearn
    January 15, 2016

    I’m sort of with you in that when creating art by definition you should be creating something new, but at the same time creating something that’s new isn’t necessarily art. For every Denis Johnson, Heidi Julavits, Michel Faber & Rachel Kushner there are thousands of writers believing they are pushing boundaries but are actually publishing tripe.
    For me, the biggest issue for writers self-publishing literary work is not the lack of opportunity to create but that your audience has yet to be sold that quality literary fiction and self-publishing go together. It’s a hurdle that’s been overcome for the readers of some genres, but (and I’m making assumptions here) many literary fiction writers like paper, like traditional bookshops and like the old as much as the new. That’s a lot of hurdles to overcome to create a market where writers feel they can justify taking risks because the rewards will be there.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 15, 2016

      It does seem to be the case that literary writers and readers are steering clear of indie. Partly it’s the fault of promotional outlets that don’t even offer literary fiction as a category you can select! But there’s also an adoration of the physical book, as well as an appreciation of the gatekeeping role of publishers.

      Lots of hurdles indeed!

  9. Vonclair
    January 17, 2016

    Fascinating, it is common knowledge that being (very) different from the rest will most likely send you on your way to the bottom of the to-read pile. This has been the case with many artists throughout the ages, especially those in the visual arts. Why is this? It is a very interesting topic.
    Do some authors deviate too far from the norm? If so, how much is too much?
    There is, however, some leeway in our world for creativity, the question is, when have we gone too far?
    As for the quality of writing, perhaps we are looking at this all wrong, what is quality in writing? Our knowledge in story structure? Is a vast vocabulary needed? Does every grammatical error matter? Is education important?
    What makes a story truly exceptional?

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2016

      Maybe it’s like the old question, “What is pornography?” Answer: You know it when you see it…

  10. cinthiaritchie
    January 19, 2016

    So sick (sick, sick, sick) of the vampire and werewolf books–ahhhhh! But there is a place for “mediocre” fiction. I love me a good Stephen King novel (and hey, the guy also publishes literary fiction and poetry, so he knows his stuff) and Jennifer Weiner is a good airport/beach read. And, you know, sometimes it’s nice to curl up with a book that’s mildly predictable, that takes you to familiar places but in unfamiliar ways.
    That said, though, I really long for more women’s fiction that crosses the boundaries between literary and popular, that is well-written, takes readers on a journey but is also warm and funny and endearing.
    And also, OMG, women’s fiction that doesn’t begin and end with a man. Come on! Women’s lives are worth more than the quest of finding a man. (And all of those friggin’ romance covers featuring shirtless young man who can’t be more than 25–plleeassee get them out of my Twitter feed, thank you very much.)

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 19, 2016

      For some reason I just can’t bring myself to read what I know is going to be “mediocre.” Maybe I am a snob, I don’t know, but I steer clear of most pop fiction. I’ll take non-fiction instead.

      As for women’s fiction, that’s exactly why I messed with the formula for Occasional Soulmates. I hoped readers would think it was about finding a man… Spoiler alert: it ain’t!

      Yes, why so many shirtless men? I hardly ever see shirtless men in real life.

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This entry was posted on January 12, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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