We Need a Revolution in Literature!
An Essay by Wolf Larsen
The best literature is the kind without a price tag. The goal of writing should not be to sell books, but to write the most innovative and exciting literature imaginable.
Look at all the endless varieties of music! It almost seems that there are as many kinds of music as there are drops of water in the ocean!
What a different story when you go to the bookstore! In the literature section of the bookstore you will find only novels, short stories, and poetry. That’s it! Why only novels, short stories, and poetry? Why is literature so limited? Why shouldn’t there be as many different kinds of literature as there are different kinds of music? Why must writers limit themselves only to novels, plays, short stories, and poetry? Why shouldn’t writers invent endless kinds of literature besides just novels, short stories, and poetry? It’s fine to write novels, short stories, and poetry – but why not invent new forms of literature as well?
One of the reasons literature is so limited is that it is still shackled to the major publishing conglomerates and the universities. Literature will not be free until it has unshackled itself from the crass commercial interests of the publishing conglomerates and the conservative influences of the universities.
Publishing houses have one and only one purpose: to make money. They are hostile to innovation in literature, because publishing innovative literature involves risk. And they certainly don’t want to risk their money! The publishing conglomerates want to continue pouring potential best sellers (particularly airport novels) unto the market. And to the publishing houses that’s all literature is – a market.
I am not against the publishing conglomerates. Their books provide popular entertainment to the masses. Their backlist includes many good works of literature from the past, (because they make money from them). But while I am not against the publishing conglomerates I don’t like lies – like the misrepresentation of these huge corporations that own an endless array of imprints as being anything other than money-hungry corporations. Contemporary literature of quality needs a home – and that home is not and cannot be the publishing conglomerates – because today’s publishing conglomerates are only concerned with money.
I am also not against those who work in publishing conglomerates either. For most employees of publishing conglomerates the work is hard, the pay is low, and as the publishing conglomerates have increasingly focused solely on making money the personal rewards for many editors (like getting a favorite manuscript into print) are dwindling. Today an editor in a publishing house cannot push a book for publication just because he loves it – more and more he has to work with books based on their economic potential.
Academia may claim to be interested in quality in contemporary literature, and academia may also be less interested in money. But academia is primarily interested in promoting the “great” writers and poets of the past and those who today imitate them. (Of course there are exceptions to this – there’s exceptions to everything.) Anyway, after learning in a university about the “greats” of the past what is the writer/poet to do? Should he imitate the “greats” of the past in his writing, or should he seek to create his own innovative literature?
By a young age Picasso had assimilated the “masters” of the past – and he went on to create new brazen works of art – he departed from the past – and created wonderful CONTEMPORARY masterpieces. Mozart also mastered traditional styles of classical music – and he went on to create music that at his time was INNOVATIVE.
Hence, the truly great masters of the recent past – in music (Stravinsky, Mahler), painting (Dali, etc.), sculpture (Rodin) – produced great works that were INNOVATIVE and hence FRESH and EXCITING. In contrast, those that worship the past tend to produce works that are stale and flat. Sure, there are adequate writers, painters, sculptors, and composers who can blindly copy the “greats” of the past – but by copying what’s already been done they are contributing nothing to the arts and literature.
There are those that argue that first you must learn tradition to be a great writer. By all means I agree you should read as much “great” literature as possible – both traditional and contemporary. But then some of these same people will go on to say “learn the rules before you break them.”
Forget learning the rules unless you plan to write a conventional essay or a guide to used car repair. In creative literature go ahead and unshackle yourself from all rules! SMASH any and all rules with a sledgehammer, a wrecking ball, or better yet with a pen or a paintbrush! Works of literature, music, painting, etc, should obey no conventional rules whatsoever. If you feel the urge to have rules invent your own! Look at Schoenberg’s 12 tone scale! Wow!
Let’s take grammar for example. Obeying the rules of grammar is fine if you’re writing a conventional essay or a manual about car repair. However, when you’re writing creative literature you should write as freely as possible – without rules.
There are those that argue that if the writer does not obey the rules of grammar his work will be incomprehensible. That depends. It depends on the writer and his style and it also depends on the reader. In some cases, the writer may be creating for a more limited audience – like those who are familiar with modern and postmodern developments in the arts and literature, for instance – and that would explain why many readers might find a given work incomprehensible. In other cases, the writer may simply be incompetent. However, at times when a work seems incomprehensible it might be the reader’s fault. For example, if the reader hates a work of literature for no other reason than that it is different (i.e. more creative than more conventional works) than it’s the reader’s fault that the work seems incomprehensible. Certainly, if the reader is lazy, ignorant, or simply close-minded he may choose not to apply himself to any literature that is different than what he is used to. Such a person may be more comfortable reading an airport novel or one of the works of the past “greats”. At times, such a person may have an advanced degree and consider themselves highly cultured and learned, but all those years reading literature that is conventional can make it harder for that person’s brain to concentrate on and grasp anything that’s written in a new and innovative manner. The fact that their brain may have a hard time grasping anything that’s written differently than what they’re used to is not the fault of the writer, it is the fault of that particular reader.
There are people who look at a Jackson Pollock canvas and say, “My five year old can do a better job than that.” Of course, such people are ignorant of art. Instead of studying art (which they don’t) they take their prejudices (which are pro-representational and pro-realism) and from a position of ignorance and prejudice they proclaim everything that doesn’t conform to their ignorant and prejudiced misconceptions of art to be bad. In the world of literature it is even worse. Those who are ignorant, prejudiced, and close-minded stand in judgment of what is “good literature”.
Should the writer create works of “literature” easily accessible to even the most ignorant and close-minded of readers? Sure, if he wants to make money or be accepted by the conservative world of academia.
But let us suppose the writer is either not employed by academia or is employed in academia but could care less what some of his “colleagues” in the English department think – in other words he has a decent day job and thus doesn’t give a damn about making money from his writing. Such a writer may be influenced by such innovators as Baudelaire, Rilke, Octavio Paz, Anne Sexton, etc. and less influenced by the “greats” of the publishing conglomerates (the best-sellers) and the “greats” of the academic world (people who have been dead a very long time).
Frankly, I am rather disappointed with English literature and have ironically found greater inspiration for my writing outside of literature in the other arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, music, modern dance, postmodern theater, etc.). Many of the past “greats” that are in the canon of English literature are not so “great” at all.
Many of the “great works” of English literature in the canon were written by “gentleman” with disposable income (that they didn’t have to work for) and lots of free time, as well as the high social connections to insure that their work was published. Not all of them were talented or had much to say. Is a writer/poet’s work “great” just because it’s included in the Norton Anthology and the professor taught it in your literature 101 class?
Of course, some “great” works of the past are better than others. Some of these gentleman of leisure in the canon had talent – in addition to the work ethic necessary to produce great literature – but not all of them.
Literature has not even begun to reach its potential. In fact, literature will not even begin to reach its potential until all of humanity has ample food in its stomach and plenty of free time.
The seed of talent falls where it may. Most of those who have disposable income without having to work for it and thus have plenty of free time to write are inborn, have little or no work ethic, and are of mediocre abilities – like the president of my country George Bush. Besides, the outlook of the leisure class is often conservative, so it would not occur to them to write literature that is innovative.
Most people are so engaged in the struggle for survival that they do not have the time to create innovative literature. When humanity is freed from its bondage to an economic system that benefits only a privileged few than a shorter workweek for all will make it possible for more people to create great works of literature, painting, sculpture, etc.
Hence, the greatest most innovative period of literature does not lie in the past – but in the future.
In a different kind of economy huge amounts of money will not be wasted on maintaining a class of worthless bourgeois bums – and huge amounts of money will also not be wasted on gigantic bloated militaries.
With more money available culture, literature, and the arts would flourish more than ever – because we could improve the quality of education – including teaching more art in the schools – and offering free higher education to all. In such a society, we could also give a modest living stipend to writers and artists. And since more diverse parts of humanity would be free to create great literature – instead of just a small privileged leisure class – literature will have more variety and innovation than ever.
Thus freed from their chains to market forces and academia writers would be free to create a new innovative literature. A general population with a reduced workweek would have more time to read a new revolutionary literature that’s constantly changing and evolving. If the world of painting can constantly evolve and change – why not literature? If classical music can constantly evolve and change than certainly literature can also evolve and change.
The defenders of tradition look to the past because they cannot imagine a future any different than the status quo.
But in fact, civilization is constantly changing. The world is different than it was a hundred years ago – and extremely different than it was just three hundred years ago.
Human civilization has existed thousands of years – imagine the human race thousands of years from now! We as a species (homo sapiens) have existed 150,000 years – imagine the human race 150,000 years from now!
If the human race is not extinct in a thousand years – and with constant war and the nuclear bomb that’s a big if – but if the human race is here a thousand years from now it is certain that capitalism will be a distant memory as feudalism is today. So far the human race has gone from hunter gathering to ancient city states to empires like the Roman to feudalism than national monarchies to capitalist “democracy” for the rich.
Hence, human civilization is constantly evolving, and as civilization evolves so will literature. And just as human civilization has not even begun to reach its full potential, so the same is true for literature and the other arts.
The best contemporary writers of creative literature – those who write today and will be read a hundred two hundred a thousand years from now – will not be those who copy the past but instead those who CONTRIBUTE to the DEVELOPMENT of literature. The writers who will be read a thousand years from now will be those who helped literature to advance.
I don’t care whether you like my own literature or not – for the purposes of this essay it is irrelevant. If every writer wrote completely different from each other – and completely different from the “greats” of the past – then there would be more reason to pick up a book – because god knows what’s in between the covers of that book! And if you don’t like that author’s writing you can pick up another author’s book knowing that that book will be completely different than the one you just glanced through.
Hence, THERE IS NO CORRECT WAY TO WRITE. In fact, the more we depart from the idea that there’s a correct way to write the more variety we offer to our readers. We thus begin to offer readers an exciting universe of literature where every author is completely different than another – how exciting!
Traditionalists will argue that it is preferable and natural that literature remain the most backward and conservative medium of the art world. (Compare literature’s snail-like advancement to the great innovations in painting, sculpture, and the other arts since the beginning of modernism in the late 19th Century.) However, there is nothing positive about literature’s relative backwardness compared to the other arts. Even classical music in the past 120 years has left the literary world behind in innovation, boldness, and creativity! How pathetic!
Look – the reason that literature is so backward compared to the other arts can be explained by several simple reasons. The first is money. For a writer to make enough money to support himself comfortably he has to sell A LOT of books. A painter, on the other hand, needs only a few appreciative buyers to support himself. Thus, it is easier (not completely easy – but easier) for the painter to paint whatever he wants. The painter may have to deal with galleries – but he doesn’t have to deal with publishing corporations. The painter doesn’t have to consider entertaining a large reading audience primarily looking for cheap entertainment like the writer does. Hence, partly or mainly for monetary reasons painting has left behind the literary world in boldness, innovation, and quality.
The writer enjoys little independence. He is dependent on publishing corporations to help him reach a large audience seeking cheap entertainment. Hence, in order to make a living from his craft the writer often has no choice but to write mediocre and non-innovative “literature” that will be acceptable to conservative publishing conglomerates. In addition, since “success” is defined by how many copies are sold, the emphasis is on producing cheap mass entertainment.
So writing remains the most conservative, mediocre, and backward medium of the art world partly or mostly because of money.
Another conservatising influence (yes I probably just made up a word – good! We writers should make up words more often) – another conservatising influence on the literary world is the whole prestige game. You get your work in certain prestigious “literary” magazines, get nominated for certain prestigious “literary” awards, etc. – and suddenly you’re considered a “great” writer/poet.
The pages of many (not all) of the most prestigious literary magazines are filled with excrement masquerading as great literature that doesn’t even qualify as mediocre – it’s just plain bad, conservative, and bland.
The same is true for many “literary” awards. An “avant-garde” poet received a very large monetary award recently. I won’t name him here – but his work was so conservative, so dull, so devoid of innovation, so much like a zillion other poems you see everywhere that I don’t see how his poetry could be considered “avant-garde”. I guess for the people giving out the prestigious awards and the money anything that doesn’t rhyme is considered “avant-garde”.
The contemporary writer/poet who wants literature to advance forward instead of being stuck in backwardness is inherently outside the literary world. He views the official literary world with contempt. He understands that the publishing conglomerates, academia, prestigious literary magazines, and award givers are mostly hostile to innovative literature. The contemporary writer/poet who wants literature to advance understands that the literary world is an obstacle to wonderful innovative literature and therefore must be SMASHED TO PIECES. Literature is great – but the literary world is not.
It would be a great day for literature if all writers and poets started using the pages of the prestigious literary magazines as toilet paper. We don’t need the editors of the prestigious “literary” magazines to showcase great literature because they don’t even know what literature is – let alone great literature. The same can be said of those who give out prestigious “literary” awards – but maybe I shouldn’t say that – sometimes they actually give money to people who write good poetry!
The great literature of our time is rarely found in prestigious “literary” magazines – it’s rarely found in the Sunday books section of the New York Times – and you would be lucky to find the great literature of our time in the bookstore.
The great literature of our time can sometimes be discovered in the less famous literary magazines. The great literature of our time can sometimes be discovered on posting boards.
The poetry stacks of the nation’s public libraries are filled with poets who were famous and prestigious in their times but who have since been forgotten. You open the book and begin reading and you often encounter mediocrity. These formerly famous poets were usually able enough – but their work lacked vision – their work appealed to the popular tastes of their day – but their lack of boldness and originality doomed their work to obscurity over time. The literary establishment has rarely been right in judging who are the great poets and writers of their day, because the tastes of the literary establishment are so conservative and backward.
As writers most of us – with the exception of the airport novelists – have nothing to gain from the literary world. The traditional literary world is an obstacle to great contemporary literature. The literary world as we know it is an obstacle – an unnecessary middleman – between the writer and the reader. The literary world limits the reader’s choice to an array of airport novels and boring banal “literary” novels that help people fall asleep at night.
Why should big publishing conglomerates decide which books are available to the general public? After all, there is no positive reason for the publishing conglomerates to exist anymore – except for their backlists.
With the new technology print-on-demand a reader purchases a book and a copy is printed up especially for him or her. How nice! And the price is almost the same as a traditionally published book – and further advancements in technology will only bring the costs down more. The reader no longer needs to be satisfied with merely choosing amongst the thrillers, romances, and “literary” novels at the bookstore. With the Internet and print-on-demand the reader’s choices are no longer restricted by the dictates of the publishing industry – the reader’s choices are endless!
Of course, the traditionalists and people employed in the traditional publishing conglomerates may argue that many of the books available via print-on-demand are not masterpieces. But the same is true of the books sold by the traditional publishing industry. In fact, if the book is published by the traditional publishing industry you can bet that the book was published primarily because of its commercial potential.
With the technology print-on-demand books that are not commercial can now be made available to the general public. For the first time ever the general public can purchase and read all kinds of works of literature that were never available before.
Another great innovation that makes more possible than ever is the Internet.
The Internet weakens the traditional prestigious “literary” magazines vis-à-vis the less famous literary magazines that are more likely to publish innovative literature. Before, the more traditional literary magazines could use their prestigious names to receive greater distribution in the bookstores, and it was more difficult to get hold of the less famous literary magazines. But now, with the Internet, the less famous literary magazines that publish more innovative literature are only a click away.
Of course, traditionalists will argue that not all innovative literature is good. However, most literature written in a traditional style is not good either. In fact, contemporary literature written in a traditional style is more likely to be stale – which is what often happens when one copies from the “masters” of the past. I am not saying that all contemporary literature written in a conventional style is stale. However, most contemporary poetry and prose written in a traditional style seems to be stale.
Also with the Internet comes the posting boards. I’ve heard other writers/poets complain that many literary posting boards are no more than cliques hostile to outsiders, and other posting boards engage in all kinds of censorship, and still other posting boards are presided over by control freaks who ban everybody who they disagree with, and on some boards there’s intolerance towards writers/poets who feel shy about commenting on the works of others.
I can understand why writers and poets would find the above problems very irritating. However, I still feel that posting boards are a positive – or can be a positive influence in the world of literature. In addition, posting boards have a great potential to transform the literary world.
Posting boards make it possible for writers/poets to view each other’s work. In addition, the general public can enjoy a greater variety of literary voices than ever before.
In addition, another extremely important innovation is the word processor. The word processor, by freeing the writer from the typewriter, has made it possible for the writer to experiment more than ever! A writer can try out zillions of new styles of writing on his processor and go back and change anything he wants easier than ever!
With the word processor the writer is freer than ever to experiment. The writer may ravage the page at will! The writer is free to change, improve, evolve, invent new words, etc!
Other technologies like print-on-demand make it easier than ever for the writer to bypass the publishing conglomeracy. You are now free! You don’t have to write some crass commercial novel to get published – you don’t have to write within the “literary” novel’s limitations on creativity – you can write anything any way you want to and the general public will be able to read your book.
Of course, traditionalists will argue that a self published print-on-demand book stands little chance of being “successful”. But the traditionalists seem to define a book’s “success” more by its sales, and less by its quality or innovation.
To this I respond that a traditionally published book stands little chance of commercial “success” either. The vast majority of traditionally published books fail commercially.
Each publishing conglomerate works on much the same premise as a tree. A tree you ask? Yes, a tree – a tree throws out endless seeds every spring – and as you know only a small number of those seeds ultimately become trees.
The same is true of traditionally published books. Each publishing conglomerate throws out lots and lots of books every year – and the few that make it and generate high sales sustain the publishing conglomerate’s profits.
And just as a tree throwing out seeds does nothing to nurture its offspring publishing conglomerates nurture very few of their books with adequate publicity.
The system works for the publishing conglomerates and the few airport novelists whose books become best sellers – but the losers are the vast majority of authors whose books never generate good sales and whose books are out-of-print within a few years.
The other loser is the member of the general public who walks into a bookstore wanting to read something different than the same fare of romances, action-thrillers, and “literary” fiction.
But now, with the advent of the Internet and posting boards and print-on-demand and the endless choices on Amazon.com and other online retailers the man or woman who wants something different than romances, thrillers, “literary” fiction and the like can now find an endless variety of literature on posting boards, in obscure e-zines that publish “out there” literature, and on author’s web-sites.
Hence, now both the writer and the reader are free from the restraint of choices found in traditionally published books.
The posting boards have a very important role to play. Over time, some posting boards may acquire a reputation for having more daring writing and will draw more interest from the general public. The public will be able to purchase on Amazon.com via print-on-demand whatever author they choose. Old outmoded institutions like the traditional publishing industry and the New York Times Book Review will play no role in any of this at all.
Hence, the posting boards, (or at least some of them), will provide the general public with a venue to read all kinds of exciting innovative literature like they’re never read before, and the posting boards will thus help the writer of innovative literature to receive exposure and thus help writers to become increasingly independent of the big publishing conglomerates.
Of course, not all writers want to be independent of the big publishing conglomerates. Many writers want to make big royalties, and the only way to do that is to write commercial airport novels. Of course, after the aspiring would-be airport novelist has actually written the commercial work he has to somehow get the attention of a literary agent, which is nearly impossible. If after writing the commercial work the writer is lucky enough to get a literary agent and then (hopefully) a publisher the would-be airport novelist is still not on easy street yet. After you sign the contract with the publisher the literary agent’s work is done, but the author’s headache is just beginning. Publishing conglomerates are notoriously stingy in putting resources and time into promoting their books. They publish LOTS of books every year – and they don’t have the time, resources, or inclination to adequately promote all their books.
You might have the most commercial book in the world, but if your book doesn’t receive any publicity than nobody will know about your book which means nobody buys it and your book will be out-of-print in a few years – which is what happens to most traditionally published books anyway.
Of course, you could max out your credit cards and take out loans to buy more publicity for your book – but this will more likely result in bankruptcy than a bestseller. The traditional publisher might offer to pay half of the publicity/promotion for your book if you pay the other half – but unless you want bankruptcy in your future you might want to be careful how much you put up for publicity.
When (and if) a traditional publisher signs up your book you might receive all kinds of promises about how they’ll promote your book. Take it all with a grain of salt. The person in the publishing house in charge of promoting your book is also in charge of promoting LOTS of books. And unless your name is Stephen King or John Grisham don’t expect the publicity of your book to be given much priority – especially if you’re a first time author. And if your first book doesn’t sell there’s a good chance that no publisher is going to want your second book.
By the way, don’t be surprised if the publishing conglomerate re-writes your book to make it more commercial.
Why bother with all that? Why not write what you want to write? Why bother writing a commercial novel that’s just like so many other books already out there anyway?
But one thing: in the unlikely event that a publishing house offers you a big advance my advice is to take it! If a publishing house gives you a big advance they’re almost definitely going to heavily promote your book – because they want to get a return on their investment.
Something you may want to ask yourself is – why do you write? Do you write to make money? Do you write for prestige and acclaim? Do you write with the opinions of others in mind? Or do you write because you have to create?
If the reason that you write is that you have to create than money, prestige, and the opinions of others are all secondary. Creating innovative works of literature is probably not going to make you money or give you prestige and acclaim anytime soon. And like many others who were creative – like Gauguin, Mahler, Rodin, etc. – you will receive endless harsh attacks.
Let others make all the money from their airport novels, let others receive all the prestige and acclaim for their conventional banal “poetry”. Let others receive all the applause for their conservative traditional works written in “good taste”. Their work will wither into dust over time. A hundred years from now no one will be reading their novels, poems, and plays.
Nearly everything ever painted, sculpted, or written in “good taste” later withered and died with time. “Good taste” is nothing more than what is in fashion at the time – and as time passes what was in “good taste” centuries ago becomes trivial.
Many of the masters of the past in literature, painting, sculpture, and music were nothing less than innovators and revolutionaries in their time. Their work often caused controversy because they were not enslaved to tradition. They did not care about “good taste”. They could give a damn about the opinions of others.
There is no correct way to write – at least in the creative sense. The very essence of creativity is to write without rules. In the arts there is no correct ism – except INDIVIDUALISM. Hopefully, you are a unique person. And if there’s no one else in the world like you why should you write like anybody else?
I am not against conventional writing. It has its place. I have utilized it for essays and autobiographical novels. But I reject the idea that everything – particularly creative literature – must be written in a conventional manner according to any set of rules, including grammar. There is no correct way to write creative literature! As writers we should SMASH TO PIECES any obstacle to individual expression – especially in literature – which has been chained to tradition and convention for far too long.
Copyright 2007 by Wolf Larsen