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.
That’s what I’d like to know. Even the “NYT Best-Seller” list has questionable material out there.
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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):
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 …