Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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