Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's my mind, and I'll change it if I wanna

Or, *booming MC voice* literary fiction deathmatch with commercial fiction

As petulant as the title looks...I gotta admit it's kinda fun to say.  Especially, I'll add, if it's in a whiney voice. 

Earlier I posted about having some ideas for short stories, and about not being certain whether I was going to work on the next book or those shorts.  I'd talked about wanting to write and sell shorts to the literary magazines.  I also talked about how different the literary magazines seemed in their approaches to fiction...compared to what, I'm not entirely certain, but at least compared to each other, they were different. 

I figured it out last night, reading The Making of a Bestseller.  And I changed my mind.

You see, back when I was an undergrad student marveling at the joys of learning physics, I was pretty sure that physics is physics is physics.  Yes, there were four branches of it offered at West Point, based on peoples' interests, but it never seemed like an us versus them kind of thing.  It was just a "Hey, do you want to learn nuclear, optical, or one of these other two physics?"  I can't recall the other two, since that was many beers ago, but I chose optical. 

Fast-forward several years to me walking into a Carnegie Research 1 institution to go to physics grad school.  The Carnegie category means that they do a LOT of research there, measured by the amount of grant money that passes through their doors.  I was asked, there, whether I was a theoretical or an experimental physicist.  Seemed a silly question to me at first, but as the semester wore on I realized how important the distinction was.  To the theorists, the "other side" is debasing themselves in the name of profit, ignoring the challenge of pushing the limits of what we know in order to run (gasp) experiments on what we already knew.  To the experimentalists, the "other side" was a bunch of egghead purists who inexplicably chose to not make nearly as much money in the name of...well, getting chalk dust on their hands.  Granted, they could usually speak amicably enough to each other in the halls, and even live in the same apartment in a sitcom.  But there was certainly an immutable, immovable, divide between the two camps. 

Those who've seen the sitcom to which I refer know I broke the metaphor, of course.  Leonard is an engineer, not an experimental physicist.  To a theorist like Dr. Cooper, though, an engineer is just an experimentalist who couldn't hack the rigor of upper-division physics courses.  To Leonard, meanwhile, a theorist like Dr. Cooper is...well, heck, I've pretty much already blasted this metaphor out of the water, right?  Why continue the negativity? 

Fast-forward again to my early days as Dean, back when I actually cared about making faculty happy.  Yes, I know many of you who've worked for me who'll argue that the time never really existed, but it did.  In fact, I recall the Literature teacher asking me if we could change the anthology they used, because all the stories in it were dreadfully depressing.  A woman is insane and sees crap on her wallpaper.  A guy kills himself.  It goes on.  So, wanting to make her happy, I spent hours contacting the book publishers asking for an anthology that was light and fun to read.  No luck.  Frankly, I thought that kind of strange; lots of novels have great endings, so why not short stories?  After all, literature is literature is literature.

Little did I know in my grossly uneducated state at the time that I had hit on the literary world's equivalent to theorists versus experimentalists.  It seems a relatively quietly-kept dirty little secret, too, but the book I'm reading has the greater part of a chapter devoted to it largely because it makes a huge difference in a writer's intent and goals.  They quote editor Robert Weil saying that, "While scribblers like Dan Brown or James Patterson can, with one novel, rack up sales in the millions, it is not uncommon for noted literary novelists to sell between 3,000 and 6,000 copies of their latest work.  Selling 10,000 copies in this climate would be a resplendent success."

Wow...think about it.  The average author makes, from what I understand, somewhere around $2 for each hardcover they sell.  It's a bit less than half that, I think, for each paperback.  Dan Brown, a mere commercial writer, sold 80,000,000 copies of The DaVinci Code.  It may or may not have taken him as much time as it takes a literary author to pen a 'resplendent success'; it takes time both for crafting literary fiction and for researching commercial fiction, so the time comparison really can't be made.  Assuming they're roughly the same, multiplying the amount per copy times the copies sold and dividing by the hours it took...even Leonard could do that math. 

Of course, there's nothing wrong with the literary style of writing.  Heck, there's a lot that's good and impressive.  Those folks take an amazing amount of literary talent and lay it out on a page, bringing to their reader all the imagery and...what's that word?  Oh, yeah, catharsis...all that good, um, stuff, that literature is supposed to do for us.  Their books cause us to examine life, the world, and everything. 

Problem is, I only enjoy reading a book that causes me to examine life, the world, and everything about once a year.  If that.  Most of the time I pick up books to read because they'll take my mind OFF of life, the world, and everything.  Hard to keep worrying about how you're going to make this month's car payment when you're following Ender as he blasts aliens, right?  And, as the book I'm reading points out, most readers are the same as me., no literary work for me.  In part, it's that financial equation I referred to earlier.  Yes, I really am doing this, spending hours away from my beloved wife to hammer away at the keyboard, in the hopes of paying off my student loans, and $20K won't do it, but $160 million would just fine.  Two extremes, yes, but still.  It's not just about the money, though.  First, I bow my head to the reality that I'm just not that good.  I only had three classes in college specifically related to the English language.  While I used my business courses that kinda sorta involved writing as justification for my teaching the elementary composition course, and felt fine by that because I was, at the core, teaching them basic business composition, I've got no literary credentials.  Nor do I plan to go get any anytime soon.  But second, and more important, writing a novel is a labor of love.  If you don't write because you LOVE doing it...a point also made, by the way, in The Making of a're not gonna finish it.  Period.  I LOVE writing.  Fiction.  Specifically, commercial fiction.  A god and his human wife fight off a goddess, ferinstance.  I'm not going to try for a literary-style short story on the hopes that I might succeed when, in fact, I don't enjoy it.  I don't particularly enjoy reading it, and I'm pretty certain I wouldn't enjoy writing it.

So...yeah.  No short stories for me published in lit mags anytime soon.  Sorry, if anybody cares.  Most, I'm sure, don't really.  But for now, back to writing for fun.

Word count: TBA

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