For the aspiring writer in the middle to late 20th century the goal, however mythical and fantastical, was to write The Great American Novel.
What this meant was that we passionately burned to be recognized as a kind of literary phenomenon, an “artist writer” who had created a novel out of his or her imagination so compelling, so blazing with truth, impact and insight, and fashioned into a story with characters so memorable and important that 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, fashioning 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 - Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Austin, Eliot, Thackeray, Joyce, Hardy, Crain, London, Poe, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, 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. Above all we wanted to be published, our works read, recognized, well-received, and respected. 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 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.
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 it’s over a dozen different categories. Numerous different 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, Vampires, Zombies 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.”
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.
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. 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.
(All quotes from The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation.”)
(Article originally posted in The Huffington Post)
THIS BOOK MADE ME LAUGH AND CRY. Adler has a bizarre sense of humor that enriches this story and makes it quite believable.
BEFORE YOU DIVORCE, MUST READ: I found myself rooting for the children to find ways to bring their battling parents together and restore the family…This book is must reading for anyone contemplating the breakup of a family with children.
MUST READ FOR PARENTS DEALING WITH DIVORCE: Every divorcing parent should read this book and learn how good intentions can backfire. I caught myself laughing through my tears.
Warren Adler discussed how his childhood in Brooklyn New York inspires his writing, Adler’s sponsorship of a short story contest for young people, and how his public school teachers helped him strive for educational excellence.
Whatever happened to the children of the Roses?
Find out in The War of the Roses The Children.
Kindle edition NOW AVAILABLE: http://www.amazon.com/The-War-Roses-Children-ebook/dp/B00BSYIJX2/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1363206992&sr=8-2&keywords=The+War+of+the+Roses+-+the+children
Recent movie releases such as The New and Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet seem to be a crack in the mantra of marketing pundits that the only worthy targets of mass media are teenagers and those who reach the ceiling age of forty-nine, not beyond.
Marigold Hotel, already an astounding worldwide commercial success starring the brilliant Judi Dench and Maggie Smith along with Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy among others, deals with the hopes and dreams of still vital people of years who are determined to aspire, engage with life, seek love and joy, challenge fate, and to, as the British would say, carry on.
Quartet, which marks the debut of Dustin Hoffman at age 75 as a director, is a story of opera singers in their 70′s and 80′s who live in a retirement home in England and engage with each other in an atmosphere where their lifelong relationship to music thrives and continues to energize them. In this movie as well, the life force of the home’s residents is far from over as the characters socialize with each other and the community outside with vitality and verve.
Both movie plots mix revelations and memories of the past with the reality of the present, and in the hands of marvelous and accomplished actors like Maggie Smith featured in both productions, offer a glimpse into what is fast becoming a formidable challenge to the traditional ideas of consumer targetting.
From my own observations of the audiences who attended these films, they were indeed, folks of maturity who mirrored the ages of the performers on the screen, but the universality of these stories is inescapable for the sensitive, the curious and engaged of all ages.
I truly believe that the commercial sands are shifting, and those of us who can hear the ever increasing thunder of mortality’s bottom line are increasingly interested in how one deals creatively with the impending endgame. This essential ingredient will be a strong motivating factor in what is offered by the media to this burgeoning audience.
Escapist fare will, I suppose, compete to hold its dominance for this older demographic, but with the rise in a statistically maturing population, the appetite for more honest and involving age related fare will increase, and give that assumption a run for its money.
One cannot escape the coming reality. At this moment, 21% of Americans are over the age of 55, a whopping 60 million. By 2030, a mere 17 years from now, there will be 107 million in that age bracket. As for people over 65, they will represent 20% of the population during the same time frame, accounting for 70.3 million people.
The fact is that the coming generation of retirees will be the healthiest, longest lived, best educated and most affluent in history. My contention is that they will want a lot more than what is offered today.
Of course, most of us have heard these statistics before, but we are now beginning to see them take root in reality and those in the business of harvesting eyeballs are beginning to understand that it would be foolhardy to neglect this powerful and inevitable march of the aging consumer.
My guess is that this older, more affluent and educated audience who have been vastly neglected and underrated as a commercial force will upend all previous calculations and become a demographic to contend with in near the future. The two movies I cited are, in my opinion, the opening guns in what will be a vast change not only in demographics, but in material that will become less mindless, more mature, more intellectually and emotional stimulating than the cultural garbage that has been strewn in the path of our seniors the last few decades.
Will 21st century authors of fiction produce any classics?
Perhaps we must first consider how a classic becomes a classic. We apply numerous reasons for such a coronation citing artistic quality, universal relevancy, emotional integrity, critical acclaim by the author’s contemporaries, literary influence, remarkable insight, imaginative style, effective use of language and a host of high praise that has been passed through time like a railroad car glides over a well-worn track pulled by the power of a locomotive.
The potential for a classic starts out in the author’s mind, and is then transposed into the published work. Readers read and react with awesome praise, critics review with ecstatic abandon, academics discover, recommend and insert the book into their curriculums and libraries, bookstores stock the book, and most who discover and study the work exult in its story and style.
At times, this acclaim happens instantly, but often the discovery of a work emerges mysteriously after many years of obscurity.
So it begins, the journey to becoming a classic, influencing other writers, readers, educators and critics generation after generation, taking on heft, powered along the track by the locomotive of authority. Passing through so many agile minds, written about, recommended, interpreted, analyzed and discussed until it becomes part of the literary canon.
In the 21st century, those well-worn tracks to reaching the heights of a classic have lost much of their traction. The locomotive has sputtered and encountered hairpin curves, and faulty signals.
In bygone days, worthy works of the imagination could be discovered in a much smaller literary pool. Literacy was hardly universal.
The serious reading public had finite choices in a world where an elite education in the liberal arts was a necessary preparation for the fulfilled intellectual life. Such a culturally fine-tuned audience was a distinct minority.
There were fewer distractions also. Only the live stage offered a more public literary outlet and the delights of poetry had their small but hardy band of followers. Discoverability by that refined intellectual taste, enhanced by a comprehensive literary education, was the key for a work to become a classic. Word-of-mouth operated in a smaller privileged circle as it engaged with the world created by the novels of Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Balzac, Twain, Richardson, Fielding and on and on to build the blocks of the western canon.
In the 21st century, with the rise of technology and literacy and the decline of the civilized glories of a liberal education, those natural candidates for the canon of immortality are drowning in an ocean so populated with offerings that discoverability is practically impossible. This is not to say that the talent is not there. It might even be in far more abundance than in earlier times.
As liberal education declines and occupational education rises, more and more people interested in finding the nuggets of literary output are frustrated by the sheer volume. Categories and subcategories abound.
Oddly, as the number of books of fiction produced each year approaches staggering numbers, and as genres multiply, readers hungry to be tantalized by insight and inspired by wisdom by those who quest to make sense of the human condition in the kind of books that populate the classics bookshelf must, as a consequence, find themselves frustrated in their search for the needle in the proverbial haystack.
Worse, reading literature, which has always been nourished in schools, has been severely cut back in favor of informational texts or material that is more specific to the purpose of employment. It is all part of a downsizing effort to make traditional education more attuned to the job market and less to the building of a mature mind able to cope with the moral, ethical and relationship challenges of modern life.
Out of his hodge podge one wonders whether the classics of the 21st century will come out of the genre fiction of romance, fantasy, graphic novels, mysteries, eroticism, vampire zombie, etc. categories, where books like Fifty Shades of Grey will be raised on the same pedestal as, say, War and Peace and Ulysses.
Nevertheless, I do sense that I have a sea of silent allies out there who know in their gut what makes a classic, and they worship beside me in our very private and increasingly isolated pew in a currently obscure location in the literary community cathedral.