When Worlds Collide
Writing is a funny business. And by funny, I mean peculiar.
The reason I say this is that what any given writer writes about has to come from a place of either economics (wanting to survive by your writings), passion (a story that just won’t let its author go), or as a means of vindication (having your opinion heard on a given topic – a reasoning and establishing your point of view in a debate).
But therein is where it gets peculiar (at least to my way of thinking). I am solidly in the middle camp. I write from passion. I don’t give a fuck if it’s embraced. I’d like it to be, but it is not a requirement. I’ve said this before. I am a successful writer because I complete a project. I see it through. It may not find its audience until I am well and truly gone. But it’s out there – my voice among the collective. For all time, as they say, because nothing in the internet really goes away (save a cataclysmic alien invasion that wipes out our tech in favor of their own). Right?
I recently had such an experience come to light with my works. I am writing to explore the institutionalized forms of homophobia in competitive sports – in the case of Angels of Mercy, American high school football. It’s done fairly well, given I don’t expect it to be the next Friday Night Lights or something of that sort. For one, I don’t concentrate on the hetero-centrist bullshit that permeates nearly all of literature and media out there. Jesus, how our straight counterparts are so weak that they have to have so many stories written about them. True, there is a burgeoning interest in our stories, but let’s be honest, it’s still small by comparison. Given the latest study on the GLBT impression in media – we are still in the single digits by way of exposure in the mainstream.
Part of that I lay fully at the feet of my own queer community. A large swath of queer men don’t partake of books, TV or movies that focus on our lives to really make their financial impact heard in the mainstream. And when we do have something that speaks to us, about our lives as we live them (*cough* LOOKING *cough*), it is bashed by its own community for not being representational of the whole.
“We don’t live like that. Not everyone is in the bushes looking for a hook-up.”
True on both counts. Yet, it was bashed so harshly by those of us in the queer community that now it’s gone. Now we’re relegated to tongue-in-cheek facades of Ryan Murphy’s worlds (Glee took a major leap off the cliff after the third season, American Horror Story, while great, is definitely over the top, and if AHS was out there, then Scream Queens left the planet for queer representation years before it aired). Yet with Looking gone, another of our voices became stamped out. And we did it to ourselves. Rather than engage the producers and creatives behind that show (a show I happened to have loved) it was torn apart at the seams.
What is HBO or Showtimes take away? Queer storytelling that focuses on the queer characters don’t sell. Even to our own community.
(Read that last part again, in case you missed just how cutting that is to our own stories.)
That’s beyond pathetic. It’s self-annihilation, or a fucked up internalized homophobia to the nth degree, if you ask me. Self-inflicted. How fucked up is that?
I just recently watched, with my husband, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend.
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It was a brilliant and intense queer story. It opened up so many reasons why I loved Looking as I did. It did NOT have a happy ending. It just ended – leaving you to ponder what happened next. Did the boy left behind pursue his lover to the US? Or did he just simply give up? I LOVED that. I loved the not knowing. Allowing me to decide for myself how it all ended.
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I also want to see Lilting.
Jesus, that one looks like it will emotively crush me. I live for those works. I recently watched Ben Whishaw in London Spy. That one also rattled me a great deal. It was queer storytelling that was epic in how brilliant it twist and turned on a dime. Ben Whishaw was brilliant in that work as well. I love my queer men and their simple complicated lives. I love talking to other queer men about their lives and loves and losses. They hold me spellbound. They truly do. Their stories are far more potent or powerful because they exist in the face of often monumental adversity. I admire them. They are my romance. Every single one of them. Even when we don’t agree. I still love and admire them. How could I not? They are from different mothers, but they are my brothers nonetheless.
This is partially why I rail at romance tropes. Not enough is being done to write about us as we are. It’s why I can’t write those things. Not when there is so much more to talk about. I get that it’s writing to “hope” – well, romance as a genre doesn’t have the lock on hope. It’s also why I can’t get all gushy about Disney fairy tales (though I will say I was pleasantly surprised by Maleficent). Because they’ve applied solid romantic tropes to stories that had none of that in it. Look at all the works those sweet retellings are based on – there’s none of that happy ever after in the original works. Mother Goose and Brothers Grim were outright scare monsters of fictional storytelling. Nothing short of it.
But I’m a bit off topic here.
What I wanted to get to with this post, is that the crossroads of queer fiction (or as I’d like to now call it – just plain literary fiction – because I am all about the equality) and romance. Somehow the works that take a solid look at our lives as they are get bashed because there is an automatic assumption that anything queer MUST have a HEA. Yes, there are genre and sub-genre works out there, but let’s be honest, their sales probably would do a helluva lot better if that HEA albatross wasn’t out there ready to sack any fictional work that has a queer protagonist/hero doing their damnedest to get to the last page of the story.
This came home to roost with a new reader who found my works and seemed to enjoy what I was writing. Or so I thought. I’ve since learned that no matter how much you put out there that the work is NOT romance, the prevailing winds are if it is queer then it MUST BE romance. Another reason why I rail at that genre. It’s poisoning the coffers of other works out there. I don’t fucking care if it sells. It still should not myopically mar the other stories that need to be told.
I write what I like to read, and what I like to watch. To give you context, I like heightened drama – Downton Abbey, ANYTHING by Shondaland (How To Get Away With Murder, Scandal, etc), things of that nature. I like it when characters are pushed to their absolute limits of what they think they can handle. Then we get to see some real character development. Why? Because humans grow from adversity. It’s built into who we are. Whether we choose to collapse and withdraw (which is a choice) or to fight and press on. We evolve to one end of the human spectrum or another. THAT’S powerful storytelling. Safe stories with safe endings don’t provide that. They just provide the candy like feel good moment before it’s dropped and moved onto the next sweet morsel of storytelling. Police procedurals don’t interest me. Mostly because they are formulaic to a great degree. I have Sherlock (the Cumberbatch edition, if you please) that satisfies that far better than any NCIS or procedural out there. I’m a solid card carrying Cumberbitch, and proud of it!
I also come from the world of professional opera. I write operatic pieces set against the normality of life. I like watching my safe characters who, as its author, I want them to find happiness just as much as the next guy, struggle like hell to get there – whatever their HEA is (and it definitely doesn’t have to involve romance or a romantic theme). But in my worlds, as in life, none of it is guaranteed. I’ve said I am a pantser, in that I have tentpoles up that mark where I want the story to go, but I also let the characters drive the drama. Sometimes they’ve even surprised me. Actually, they surprise me a helluva lot.
So this new reader seemed to like what I was doing. But I thought, because I was careful to explain in ALL of my blurbs and marketing about the works, that they are NOT romance reads, that I was covered by that simple statement. I’ve never professed them to be romance in any stretch of the imagination. I don’t do romance. I can’t. I want to push my characters into very, VERY, uncomfortable places. I like watching them squirm and rationalize their own fucked up viewpoints, I want them to explore why they are doing what they are doing. I want my readers to see the dangers of their thinking. They are very, very specific works. Not for everyone.
But again, that is my passion. That’s what I write. Heavily influenced by my years in the opera world telling those types of stories to the masses.
I was once in the wings about to go on for the final tableau setting of Cavalleria Rusticana when one of my opera singing gay buddy besties came along side me. We loved to quietly crack jokes and goad one another backstage before we had to go on and be over the top dramatic. Keeping the balance, ya know? Humor before tragedy and all that rot. So I turned to him and said, just before the ear shattering scream one of our cast members was tasked with when the hero is killed in a duel:
“Why can’t we do a happy opera sometime?”
To which he replied:
“Who’d come to see it?”
He had a very valid point. His response is what’s guided my hand while I write what I write. I write opera. I write drama. No automatics in those works. In fact, it’s expected that shit won’t work out. That the ending will be cataclysmic and disastrous. If I can pull a rabbit out of my hat and give my characters a happy ending that works, then yay me. But I don’t do automatics. Hell, sometimes I only vaguely know how it’s going to end when I start. And even then, that ending is ALWAYS a moving target as I see it finally in my sight at the end of the work.
*Series Spoiler Alert*
Well, I asked this new reader to preview the next release – Angels of Mercy: Phoenix in the Fire. He said he’d love to read it and provide feedback. This book is dark. It’s not a happy book by any stretch of the imagination. How could it be? It is about being the victim of a very horrific beating by your boyfriend’s teammates. That is going to do a number on how you see your world, despite which avenue you choose to crawl out from that terrifying hole: to survive and become stronger (the hardest of the two) or to collapse inwardly and withdraw from everyone you know (sadly, the usual tract most take). I wanted to explore the former rather than the latter. It’s easier to implode from that sort of homophobic beat down. I wanted Elliot to climb out of that hole and find an inner strength to himself. Elliot struggles to accept the love that is freely given to him by many in his life. He thinks he’s not worth it. Many gay men have this struggle for one reason or another. I wanted to have that as part of his inner monologue.
Well, suffice to say that my new enthusiastic reader wasn’t very taken with the new book. In fact, when I asked him what he found that didn’t work (because I truly wanted to explore that) it became very clear to me he was reading it as a romance read. I tried to explain that I wasn’t writing that. It was too late. Phoenix had soured the work for him. I haven’t heard anything since my last email that tried to explain what the works truly are. Other betas advised me to leave it – to distance myself from that situation. But I’ve toiled with it in my head. It’s stuck in my craw, so to speak.
But it did point out why my ire at the romance trope exists. It is poisoning other works. The expectation that ALL stories must have romance tropic happy endings is destroying proper storytelling. It is also setting expectations out there for works that are nowhere near that form of writing.
I don’t do romance. I probably never will. I write us as we are.
There. I’ve stated it once again. Not that anyone is really paying any attention. Those tropic bullshit expectations will still be there. I’ll still rail against them and flip them the big ol’ bird and purposefully write darker works that put a magnifying glass on our community as we are just to spite those Disneyesque saccharine laden pieces of fiction.
I write drama. Operatic drama. Period. Deal with it, or move on. I’ll continue to write either way.
Until Next Time …
With a plate full of fluff, where do I put my literature?
Stream of Consciousness Time Here:
This one is a pure rant. I accept any bullshit flung my way from this vomit of “where’s the fucking art” in writing that I am about to sling your way.
This past year I woke up after toying for (literally) years with story ideas that I’d always wanted to put down. Mostly for my own amusement, with the odd thought that maybe, just maybe, someone else out there might find them of interest. And maybe with an eye to posterity (of some sort) that I was leaving behind that “I was here.” A stake in the proverbial literary catalog, of sorts.
So I started this website, started to post my WIPs (Works In Progress), started to blog about the craft of writing (which I take VERY seriously), started to cultivate getting to know other authors out there. I’ve gotten to know a few. I’ve chatted with some at length. Mostly I try to keep away from it all because to a great degree it’s been rather demoralizing as I write very differently from what they do. I know I am the oddball out. I know that my works don’t fit their often myopic mold.
I grouse at my poor husband about it all the time. I do pity him having to listen to me carry on about this. And I do, and I know it might sound like my little choo-choo has gone completely ’round the bend at times.
My issue? Most of what I read now doesn’t have any real depth to it. It’s all fucking fluff. Fluff is what’s selling. Literally I have close to 1200 books on my nook alone and I’ll start several of them in tandem, trying to find something with which to hang my literary hat on and say – “Now we have something here, boys and girls.”
But I suppose that in this day and age of rapid information, of stories in television that must be told quickly, that our society has gotten used to a steady diet of sugary and thinly written prose as if it were the real thing: true literature. How do I come to this? Because there are Facebook groups set up by authors with LITERATURE in their title. As if using that word alone will elevate the level of their writing.
I see reviews of works I’ve picked up (primarily, because of those reviews) where the author is lauded with “powerful writing” or “story that moved me to tears” and read the damned thing and went – WHAT THE BLOODY FUCK??! I didn’t even bother to review it online. It wasn’t even worth my responding to it. More often than not it was better spent lining the bottom of my cat box (if I’d bothered to buy the actual paperback). Thankfully, 98% of my library is now digital so the death of trees is not a consideration for me.
I don’t write genre fiction. If my works tend to lean into some specific genre then it is a prop no more than the dress I may put a character in. Why? Because I deal in character studies. I deal in diving deeply into the psyche of a given protag with all of their inner-monologues. I want you to know who they are – unequivocally.
Oh, I know I have that in my signature line in my email: SA Collins, Author of Gay Literature Fiction across multiple sub-genres. So I try to be honest about what I do. It is the LITERATURE part of that signature that means the most to me.
The question I keep coming back to is: Why can’t the writing be better? Jesus, sometimes I feel like I have ants crawling all over me as I read something that got five stars when I’d rather piss all over the work. And it’s not limited to just M/M Romance here (though to a great degree that genre hovers barely above the fan fic it was recently born out of). I used to remind the women who have made it into an industry on its own that it had roots in the MALE writers of the previous century. That their iteration of it only came into fruition during the gaieties of the 1990’s. Now I am not so sure. Why? Because those men – John Rechy, Gordon Merrick, to even EM Forster, Langston Hughes and the great Oscar Wilde – those men wrote real blood and bones literature. It truly isn’t the same as the M/M fluff that is out there masquerading as powerful prose.
And to be clear, I’m not saying I am the next Forster or Rechy. I am still working at my craft. But I am not about the sales. Jesus, was there ever a fucking cop out than to be totally capitalistic about it? Does the success of the work not speak for itself without it having to translate into dollars/pounds/pesos or the like?
I get that we all want to pay bills. I get that making a living doing the thing we love most is important to us. But how many great stories have been modified, quelled, softened or outright killed by their own author because there is the fear that “oh, this one won’t be as popular as that fangless disco sparkly vampire shit that’s all the rage right now?”
I know not everyone is up to the task of writing real literature. I get that. Jesus, what a bland fucking world that would be if we all were the Wildes of our times? It would be a pretty bitchy crowd as well.
But it doesn’t end with these self-pubbed or god forbid, small publishing boutique houses, who think they’ve become the barometer of what’s acceptable and can qualify as real literature or even proper storytelling.
And just what the fuck happened to real literature?
That’s what I’d like to know. Even the “NYT Best-Seller” list has questionable material out there.
50 Shades of SHIT, much? (I mean, have you read it?!)
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Harper Lee is about to have her sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird (a book I adored as a teen) published after some 40+ years. My first thought – who cares if it’s shit? It’s gonna be much better written than the crap people are slinging around now.
And it isn’t limited to books either.
Let’s take television writing, for example –
Two character driven shows I am currently caught up with (that I was certain were going to get cancelled) have somehow miraculously survived (to my absolute shock):
and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful
The first (Looking) has come under a lot of fire from the gay community as well as the mainstream audiences. The first complaint lodged at it – it was an unrealistic portrayal of the gay community. Okay, perhaps for some of you. Yet, living in the SF Bay Area as I do (and yeah, even in the goddamned city itself) I gotta tell ya, I was more pleased than not by their first season voyage. So how did I come by to give them a pass when so many of my community seemed to shit-can it?
They said it was boring, it moved too slow.
I love slow.
I love the unveiling or unraveling of a character as they spiral out of control or try like hell just to hold onto what they think will work for them even when every indication is that it won’t. And can I stop and just laud Raul Castillo for a moment? His Ritchie completely slays me. His character is so to the core of who Latinos in the gay context are (don’t let the nom de plume fool ya, I am half-Latino). He doesn’t represent every gay Latino – who could? – but what he does brilliantly is that he encapsulates the culture so well that you feel his family roots in every scene he’s in. I get giddy as a school girl when he’s on the screen. And Lauren Weedman‘s Doris is one of the BEST written women’s roles out there. I am literally on pins and needles when she’s on screen. Her Doris is a knock-it-out of the park performance that can’t be missed.
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The push against slow reveal? Hmm, sound familiar from my argument above? Rapid information age, much?
What I liked about Looking was exactly that – it was a slow reveal of these guys lives. And yeah not all races were equally represented. I get that. But hey, news flash – neither is the other hit on HBO’s roster – GIRLS. No one seems to be bagging on that show about it’s lack of inclusion. Yet, Looking got hammered (both comedically by a trashy assed group out of LA who did their rather pedestrian attempt at a comedy spoof which I found wholly un-funny, and by several critics of the show who blogged (rather poorly worded rambles, I might add) about what didn’t work for them). Fine. I accept that Looking may not be for everyone. BUT what I do rail against it the fucking notion that you have to have all your shit answered in the first five minutes of the goddamned show or you label it BORING. Give the writers a fucking chance to flesh them out, will ya before saying – eh, it’s boring!!
News flash, all of our lives to a great degree are. Maybe that was the fucking point of the show – a little realism rather than heightened drama from the first minute of an ep to the last?
Guess what: You’re boring, fucktard for thinking that slow reveal is boring. (I know, I know – not very prosaic of me, is it? Can’t help it – I’m at the end of my tether with this shit).
Characters are getting more and more stifled because of rapid writing and thinly dressed paper doll characters. I would think it safe to say that 95% of what’s out there in genre fiction is barely fleshed out. Some of it is appalling that it past muster on someone’s – ‘ooh, let’s get that one out there for the masses‘ with the desire to get them to drink the damned poorly written, thinly flavored Kool-aid.
Also, sidebar: what’s with the tiny assed novels (which are more like wordy brochures/pamphlets in my book) lately? Angels V1 is 207K words and V2 is topping out at a whopping 752K (and I ain’t done with it yet)! My work is epically big. And those that have read it have commented that it’s all pretty damned relevant – not much to cut there. Not that length is any measure of what is literature. I know that. It is the quality of the writing that elevates it to that level.
(Puts soap box away on this little side rant.)
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In the case of Showtime’s brilliant Penny Dreadful, I am overwhelmed by the writing style of that show. Gay writer and creator John Logan is a brilliant craftsman of the modern age in my book. I am a fanboy for life with this guy.
To have the brilliance of tackling most of the great gothic horror monsters in one show and of diving deeply into their strive to hold onto some small thread of their humanity is nothing short of a brilliant take on the work. I love that this show doesn’t go from one ep to the next where you think it will go. No, Mr. Logan gives us sweet and well written bon monts, gently peeling back layer upon layer of the character as we dive into their core. Characters that are desperate to hold onto that humanity at all costs, when they know their darker monsters are what make them truly strong enough to survive in their harsh world.
One episode sticks out most for me. It was a complete diversion from the main story arc but was at the root of why the whole series was being revealed in the first place. It’s focus was on the backstory of Eva Green’s character of Miss Ives and her past history with Mina. It went way out of the scope of the current arc, but it informed us of why we were where we were in the main storyline.
THAT, my friends, is brilliant and well-crafted prose. I nearly, literarily speaking, creamed in my jeans over this type of work. Only then to have a sudden fear creep over me that – “No, this is too good. It’ll get shit-canned for sure. The masses won’t keep watching this type of character driven period drama.” But apparently, Showtime was invested enough that Mr. Logan and crew were given not only a renewal part way into the first season, but also that they’ve bought into how Logan is revealing these iconic and well loved characters for a new audience. And they increased the number of episodes for the second season! Bang on brilliant in my book!
And I get that some people don’t like high prose writing. Not everyone finds Anne Rice’s works to their liking. I happen to love her writing style. As I do with her son, Christopher. Though I find his gushy blog ramble on M/M romance of late to be a bit out there.
I know fluff sells, because most of us live those boring damned lives and want some escapism to give us some much needed pent up steam release. I get it. But we’ve become dangerously weened off the good stuff in favor of this steady diet of fluff. Are we in peril of becoming literary diabetic from all this sugary coated ramble that we’re passing of as “5 star” writing?
Jesus, has the bar become that low now?
And for a guy like me who actually is trying to write the real literature stuff (and no, my NaNoWriMo HO’M,O wasn’t an attempt to do that – though I did try to elevate the prose a bit – it was more of my feeble attempt at fluff for a fan of mine since he loves werewolves so much – I wanted to have a bit of fun with his topic of choice) where do I fit in on the personal library plate? And I constantly hone my craft to look at the actual prose, to see if what I’ve worded serves the character to the best possible degree.
Not that everyone gets it, either. I mistakenly passed off Angels of Mercy to a small boutique house who simply didn’t get what the work was about – why? Because they don’t have anything like it in their roster. How do I know ? Well, a decent sized chunk of what I have on my nook was bought from that house. I think after I’ve perused that much of their catalog I get what they deem to be publishable. The response from my submittal – your character repeats what he says in his head a lot. It is what teenagers do to solidify that what they perceive is indeed real or not. They are constantly pulse checking where they are with others and with themselves. But the acquisitions person who picked up the work couldn’t get past their formula for the books they were churning out. And the size of the work was an issue.
To which I nearly laughed out loud – “Uh, do you remember what your youth was like? Cause the character is a teenaged boy who is living in fear of each day being ‘the day’ he will be beaten to a pulp. He is constantly checking and re-checking his world. It is a psychological element to his character. How do I know this? BECAUSE it is from my own journals and notes AS A GAY YOUNG BOY IN HIGH SCHOOL. The shit was REAL.” But hey, I am sorry that it didn’t fit into your formulaic and myopic view of what was “selling.”
I’ve decided that Angels is too great a work to go through the foibles of boutique publishing or even self-pubbing. It may mean that it ultimately sits on the shelf in my house and on a computer until it can find a proper home (probably via an actual literary agent shopping it around for me – so there’s that battle to wage down he road). And even with that sort of backing, it is an extreme long shot that it would do well. I get that. There’s simply too much white noise fluff out there to weed through.
The hubby swears it will find a home with a proper publisher and it WILL get read by the masses. I wish I had his confidence. I don’t.
What I do know, is that Angels captures that waffling of youth quite well (and I am not tooting my own horn here – I’ve had several people read the work in its current form and all unilaterally have said it isn’t genre fiction – what I’ve got is real literature and that it’s pretty bang on the money with how I did it).
I just don’t know if my work will ultimately sell, mostly because I am caught up with writing about inner struggles that are 70% or more inner-monologue. Think of Rice’s Louis or Lestat on steroids and you’ll get the picture.
That’s my worry. I write what I write, but ultimately to what end? I don’t have an answer for that. All I see is five star ratings for stuff that I just can’t see the value in it. And I have to cop to the fact that it is selling hands-down. But I think that is because they’ve (the mainstream buying audience) been fed a steady diet of pedestrian prose, both in book and media form, that is passing itself off as great (and powerfully moving) writing. But is being a best-selling author truly the only barometer of a well-crafted work? Let’s be honest, I don’t think much of the fluff being passed around here will be remembered seventy years or so down the line. It’s written for immediacy in selling and the in the moment hype. It has no lasting purpose, not really. Let’s be honest.
Maybe that’s why I keep reading the classics. I need to be reminded why Look Homeward Angel was a brilliant piece of fiction. Or my favorite, Maurice. There is one paragraph in Maurice that I still read many times over when I come to it. It is the description Forster gives about Penge that is simply a few sentences but so beautifully structured that I am caught it the absolute brilliance of the concise prose Forster employs to completely paint the picture of this crumbling British estate. But most of the book is like that. His prose is so well-crafted in the piece that it became a bit of a hallmark for me. I want to write, not necessarily in that style, but to that sort of structure. Only from a first-person perspective, because I think they are the most revealing. I’ve also recently picked up the un-abridged edition of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray – which is decidedly far more homoerotic than the original publisher would allow in his day.
Okay, I’m spent.
I’ve done my bit of a rant now. Not that it does anyone any good (me included).
And to be clear – though I know I will be taken to task on it (as a sidebar in case you’re wondering: I don’t care) – I think there is room for the fluff; I am just saying that can we all aspire to write to a higher purpose at times? Or is the all mighty buck the be all/end all now?
That’s my worry. I think I may be a dying breed or a breed that has already passed. Too late to the actual literary party.
Eh, maybe I’ll just give it all up at the end of the year.
If only my boys in my head who have stories to tell would let me get away with that. But I know they won’t.
So I tinker away at it while others laud and applaud themselves for being “yay this, and yay that.”
My take on it? I think, if Angels sells by some odd miracle of fate, I would be so humbled by it I think I might go into seclusion. Which is rather odd for me, because I am a child of the theatre – I’ve been performing in front of large houses (several thousand seats) since I was a child (under a different name). Yet, success in the literary world would scare the bejesus out of me. Perhaps because maybe that would lead me to think that my work would be in the pantheon of Vidal, Forster, Wilde and the like.
To be clear, I don’t think I am in their league. Not yet, at any rate.
But I press on.
Until next time …