Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Shall Not Be Disliked

Jason Jordan wrote this post about some writers he doesn’t much care for. Indie lit world (is that the proper terminology?) went all flamey. Maybe it still is all flamey. I was away and missed the beginning of this and so I’m not sure where we are on the outrage arc. At least far enough to have passed through immediate attack against Jason and the following stages of various defenses.

(I would link to all this talk but I am lazy and if you read this place you probably read other places and I’m recapping what doesn’t need recap. Which I hear is excellent writing.)

Anyway, this is all interesting. I used to political blog. A lot. And if you are ever inclined to find reasons to dislike me, feel free to Google my political pieces. I wrote from the contrarian center and almost certainly wrote an opinion or fifty you’ll find obnoxious, even ignorant and callous. I’ve been called a supporter of evil – from people on both “sides” of the spectrum (I consider this a feat worth mentioning). I’ve been emailed hate mail so vitriolic, so dismissive of my humanity that I’ve questioned the very stability of our national psyche.

But that’s how it works in the political blog world. Bloggers going after each other with high-tech rhetorical weaponry (and low-tech vulgarity). It’s free speech at its most audacious. Not for the thin skinned.

I mention all this for what is probably an obvious observation: the indie lit world (still don’t know if this is the right word combination) operates under very different “rules”. We praise effusively that which we like and stay mum on that which we don’t. I imagine this is out of some shared sense of fragility, that our community needs protection and encouragement because we’re cultural outliers and already suffer under the weight of constant rejection, not just from journals but from all those who look at us not-famous writers and say “have I heard of anything you’ve written?” as if such a thing is the only conceivable measure of our worth.

That said, I tend to think too much carefulness is stifling. Too much tending of the walls means not enough tending of the sheep. (I don’t know who the sheep are in that metaphor, but go with me here.) If the indie lit world can’t suffer a guy listing some indie-ish writers whom he doesn’t like, how can we expect to survive the metastatic dismissiveness of the greater culture? Who even cares if Jason Jordan gave fleeting rationale for his personal tastes or not? Are we not allowed to dislike something publically? Do we really feel such a thing will topple our walls?

I think the proper reaction to Jason Jordan’s post is to debate his opinions not attack him for having one or hide behind attacks on his chosen style of critique. This is the first and almost certainly the last time I say this, but: we could learn from the world of political bloggers. There’s something to be said for sucking it up and moving on.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Questions, Questions

If I gave you a page of fiction and said “this is the first page of a three-page story,” you’d have certain expectations, right? And if I said “this is the first page of a novel,” you’d have other expectations. But in each case, what would it take for you to want to read more? Is the bar set higher or lower for a novel or a three-page story? I mean, if you know there’s only two more pages to the conclusion, does that make it more likely for you to read more? Or, conversely, if that first page is promising but not, say, “gripping,” is it the novel that would make you read more (because there’s so much space for things to develop)?

Does knowing the length of something impact your judgment of its beginning? Is it even fair to judge a novel on a page or a few pages? Do you expect literature to begin like an episode of Hawaii Five-0 with a lot of action and a clear establishment of stakes? Or do you just want something that displays a compelling voice or sets up something big and potentially grand?

I often make judgments on a piece of short fiction in a journal within the first paragraph. I’ve done that with books in a bookstore, too. There are plenty of times I’ve stopped reading right there. But, clearly, whoever published the piece or the novel had a far different reaction. Chalk that up to variations in taste.

But it makes me think. Is it possible to write something that can’t be dismissed? Or can everything be dismissed by someone? And if everything can be dismissed by someone, what percentage of dismissing is acceptable for you, as a writer? 10%? 45%? 85%? I mean, even if only 5% of people who read what you write think its existence is necessary, that’s a lot of people. And aren’t those people worth writing for?