Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
One pillar of the temple of creativity, to get Greek about it, is that the boldest practitioners dare to be different.
And it takes όρχεις (as in cojones) to be different these days — or to be different enough.
In a book bazaar where the reader has to be pleased with the product or she jettisons it, an intrepid author takes enormous risk in even attempting to stretch the limits of that reader’s tolerance. Too much interior monologue, not enough action, not enough dialogue, too much jibber jabber, not enough sex — it doesn’t take much to piss her off. And the worst thing you can do as a writer is bore her.
Guess what. She’s easily bored.
Often it seems to me that some of the best — and even most popular books — of the past would never be published now because today’s reader is such a fussbudget. Maybe in the late ‘20s, when William Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury, readers were a more amenable bunch, but the challenges of that particular book would never be accepted today. Forget about James Joyce, or Gertrude Stein, or any writer who tried to expand the conventions of how language is used, as well as typography and white space on the page.
The intolerant reader is so plugged into the familiar that only modest deviations from it are acceptable. And if these deviations don’t at least refer to the usual, attention lags. The way the familiar is manipulated is much more ham-handed than it has to be. For instance, writers will feature a female hero, rather than a male, who slays magical dragons. Or they’ll set a thriller in 18th century Scotland instead of modern L.A. But the elements of the genre still rule the day, and our petulant reader will notice if you’re not honoring them.
As record producer and musician Daniel Lanois says, “If something is very familiar, we likely have had enough of it.”
It would be nice to imagine that talented writers who want to do something different could do it on merit alone, but for the most part the formulas are ingrained. Literary fiction is where most restless authors try new things, but this isn’t easy either because literary novels sell in such low numbers that publishers don’t invest many resources in them. Certainly not in decent advances or promotional dollars. The competition for precious few literary slots in each season’s list is ferocious, which, in turn, encourages most writers to hold back on real innovation in favor of trying to anticipate what the publisher wants. Most innovative novels come from a stable of established academic fiction writers — i.e., those ensconced in tenured professorships and MFA programs, represented by influential New York agents — or the occasional dark horse who happens to impress an editor at just the right time. Innovation is one thing, but if the publishers’ sales teams can’t figure out how to push it, there’s no deal.
Another facet of all this is that we often don’t know what is truly innovative until later, when perhaps it no longer has quite the shine. Innovations must survive long enough to influence the form, so flashes in the pan burn out and the train keeps lumbering along until something appears that really sticks. Much later, when it’s all analyzed and recapped, we understand that so and so changed everything when he [fill in the blank].
The question is how to innovate, how to shove the paradigm into the future, without sacrificing your reputation and chances for success.
© 2016 by Kevin Brennan