Read my latest on Splice Today, a response to Alex Perez’s piece on the not-so-lost art of “dirty realism”: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/dirty-realist-protests-too-much
Let’s say you’ve labored long in the fields of creative writing and the People Who Know (or maybe just the people who’ve noticed) have appreciated your talent. Some have appreciated it loudly and publicly, some quietly to friends in ways that eventually come back to you, some through amazing feats of jealousy, and others through an unrelenting aggressive competitiveness that beggars belief. The lower the stakes, the higher the vitriol is an axiom of creative culture.
Let’s also say that for the first decade of writing and submitting short stories to magazines with names like Lost Nose Quarterly, Barbaric Yawp, and Bitch Review, the feedback of the 25-year-old readers working on these magazines mattered. Susie Lillywhite, the fiction editor at Uncommon Snuff, writes you a personalized rejection, praising your “humorous story of cis-het men behaving badly,” and your ever-present grinding self-doubt abates for ten full minutes; though, on minute 11, you wonder how Susie writes dialogue (“Hello, Mister Cisgendered Heteronormative Male. How are you today?” / “Hello, Thinly Veiled Proxy For Susie Designed To Signpost Authorial Identity And Abate Criticism. I am fine.”).
You get the inevitable raft of rejections and a few acceptances. In time, your acceptance average goes up. You know this because you obsessively gamify your submission process on a spreadsheet like fantasy baseball. Maybe your box scores show progress. Maybe all this effort means something—if not anything tangible in your day-to-day existence, then perhaps in a kind of working-fiction-writer sabermetrics that suggests your chosen life direction hasn’t been a horrible mistake. Maybe the 500 hypothetical readers of Dogwater International are upping your short story RBI. It’s possible. Don’t say it isn’t.
You’ve got a novel in progress. This goes without saying. Everyone has a novel in progress. Your screenwriter friend, Gaurangi, tells you she has two novels in progress, a poetry chapbook in progress, and a book of essays in progress. Yet, she’s miserable and hates her life. “Is that because you’re still assistant manager at KFC and can’t break through the glass ceiling?” “No,” she says, “it’s because you’re a fucking asshole.” You’ve been friends for 15 years. Her name means “giver of happiness.”
There is no joy like mine, you think. I am a cherry blossom adrift in the infinite cosmos. The form email from GOAT Bomb sits in your inbox. You can see that it begins, “Dear Valued Author, thank you for submitting to GOAT Bomb . . .” but you’ve been meditating. And if zazen has taught you anything, it’s that impersonal form rejections are naught but the transcendent meanderings of The Great Vehicle. The rejections aren’t depressing you. It must be something else.
So let’s say you’ve also learned how to save money as an effective freelance survival tactic. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve managed to eke out an existence as a ghost writer and a copyeditor. Let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that your cousin, who thought college was stupid, now makes low six figures as a construction manager and thinks you’re hilarious. You see him at Christmas dinner, a rosy-cheeked beer-drinking construction Santa with a twinkle in his eye. And he asks you the same thing he asked you last year: “Are you a mental midget?” He finds the question hilarious. “No,” you say. “I mentally fidget.” He can’t stop laughing. “With your digits!” In this family, we come together through spontaneous and combustive rhyming. You don’t take it personally.
But you don’t follow baseball. Thus, your spreadsheet submission game perpetually teeters on the edge of something else, deep and dark, eldritch and unspeakable, an existential abyss. Why do you do it? How does publishing another story in The East Punjabi Fiction Annual (that took you six months of sustained before-dawn writing sessions and seven painful drafts) matter in the construction management food-on-the-table sense? You joke, but there are no rhymes for it, at least none that would entertain your cousin.
The fact is, you are a mental midget. You must be if you still have to worry about putting ten more dollars on the credit card for a sandwich at Safeway—which isn’t Joe Biden’s fault. So don’t start. The supply chain is effed-up, yes. Covid is ineffable, yes. The pandemic shooed you out of Bangkok one step ahead of the Thai quarantine police, yes, and now you’re living in a Hawaiian jungle, but that has nothing to do with anything. Here you are. The feral rooster outside goes, “KEEEEE-YAAAAW-KOOOOO!” And the great world turns with its comings and goings.
Smoke three cigarettes with Gaurangi in her Kia in the parking lot of KFC. It’s midnight and she is off work. You drove into Hilo just for this because it’s a miracle that you both now live in the same place and she texted you: come smoke a cigarette with me so I can cope with the fact that I manage idiots. She won’t smoke at home because she has a two-year-old daughter and cigarettes are poison. “I should move back to L.A.” she says. “The fucking Big Island’s getting me nowhere.” “You married a Hawaiian.” She looks at you, drags deeply, and smiles. “Yes. That probably has something to do with why I’m here.”
One manages a KFC in Los Angeles if one wants to be a screenwriter, a whole different fantasy ballgame. One brings one’s Hawaiian husband to a bungalow in Glendale. Maybe one sells the script for She’s Gotta Have It 2, earning $135,000 for the original screenplay, including treatment, and suddenly it’s all cheddar. One writes one’s friend in the jungle: I don’t hate L.A. now. It is what it is. Now one can calm down and finish that poetry chapbook in peace.
You’re drinking too much coffee and you read a lot of news. Some nut writing for The Conversation says Covid and climate change are going to turn coffee into a rare luxury item like Kobe beef or Cristal. But the enormous tin of Safeway Select on top of your refrigerator suggests otherwise. You wonder how much the writer got paid to cook up a pandemic scare piece on coffee. What if you pitched something similar about a thing everybody wants being unceremoniously taken away by forces beyond one’s control? What about cheese: “Is Cheese Systemically Racist? Biden Might be Coming for Your Gruyere.” Or sex: “The Death of Intimacy: Gen Z Prefers Online Porn to Sex and Who Can Blame Them?” Or healthcare: “The GOP Thinks Letting Grandpa Die is Good for the Economy.” You write these ideas down and fire up the laptop. There’s rent to be made.
At this point, there are many possibilities. You’ve moneyballed your way into 30, 40 magazine publications. You have three published story collections and a multitude of columns, articles, and essays floating through the aetheric digitalia. But you still live in the jungle. You’ve got a neighbor up the dirt road who deals with his emotions by smoking crack and shooting cats with his Marlin 60. You’re still getting rejections from 25-year-olds and machines that go, “While we appreciate your interest in Dark Pissoir . . . “
Occasionally, some acquaintance on social media will pay attention to you for more than 30 seconds and wonder how you exist. How do you make a living (or How can you possibly make a living?)? You say as best you can. There are 25-year-olds publishing novels with Random House. There are 25-year-olds managing construction sites and getting welding certificates and buying their kids $900 gaming consoles. And there’s a fine line of termite dust along the base of your hovel’s north wall. Are you discouraged? What does that mean, exactly?
The transition from dilettante to serious artist is always indistinct. As with any art form, one becomes what one does. One becomes a writer by saying, “I’m a writer” and then writing. I suppose one becomes “serious” after demonstrating or announcing one’s seriousness at some later date. But isn’t it a little absurd to say, “I’m a serious writer”? It immediately raises the question, “How serious?”
To which one may respond: I’m dead serious, more serious than a heart attack. So serious I got two degrees in it. So horrifically, agonizingly, putridly serious that I’ve kept doing it through poverty, flood, plague, and famine. More serious than a white sale in June. More serious than the fine print. Hell, I am the fine print. I’m a serious dude. It’s my thing. I might as well put it on my business card: Serious Writer Since 1997. That’s over two decades of seriousness, okay?
Maybe that is the required declaration, the necessary attestation of commitment at the necessary volume to prove you’re the real deal. Because you have to prove it, right? Because no one can assume how serious you are by just looking at you the way they might if you were some other sort of professional. No one’s a part-time brain surgeon. No one does constitutional law as a hobby. No one flies for Lufthansa as a side gig. No one asks how serious a nuclear engineer is. When Red October is about to go under the ice, no one says, “Sure, but how serious is the captain?”
In the arts, however, people always wonder. Some journalist, critic, competitor, or professor is always ready to say, “You Don’t Deserve to Live was an entertaining novel, but it’s not serious.” And then everyone must nod as if that makes sense. This is probably because no one will ever truly agree on how to define a serious writer producing serious writing. No one has a clue.
Does money show it (James Patterson)? Do numerous film adaptations of your work show it (Stephen King)? How about literary and cultural iconicity (Alice Munro, Bret Easton Ellis)? What about your books frequently showing up on university syllabi (Michael Cunningham, Francine Prose)? What about your writing having been convincingly marketed as a “modern classic” such that it will one day be hermetically sealed in the basement of Cheops for post-apocalyptic archaeologists to dig up (Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt)? Where’s the benchmark for quality? Who can say? I can say I like some of these writers and dislike others. But I like a lot of things and people, many of which will no doubt be adjudged “not serious” as soon as we can determine what that is.
Maybe no one asks Alice Munro whether she’s a serious writer anymore because she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Maybe that’s the only reliable standard. No one argues with the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel committee called her a “master of the short story” and said she revolutionized modern literature. Of course, three years later they said as much about Bob Dylan. Three years between literary revolutions can make one’s head spin, but these are interesting times. Next, the Nobel committee may award Munro a prize for her influence on folk music. Then we can all relax. They know what they’re doing.
Of course, there’s still the inner, subjective, impressionistic option. At various stressful moments in my childhood, my mom would quote a line from “Duration,” my birth hexagram in the I-Ching: “[T]he dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed. In that which gives things their duration, we can come to understand the nature of all beings in heaven and on earth.” She said this often enough that I had it memorized by age 12. An enduring meaning in his way of life. Maybe that’s it. “Enduring meaning” has a nice sound. It’s certainly a better formulation and standard than any of the others given above.
But Nobel doesn’t award prizes for embodying an enduring meaning in one’s way of life. It happens quietly, without parades and gold medals and book tours and exhausting four-hour dinners in New York and swarms of desperate grad students. The only revolution it can incite is an inner revolution, an inner revelation. The New York Times Book Review won’t be covering it. Alice will remain in Canada. Bob will stare at a tree outside the window and hum a little tune.
So how do you know if you’re a serious writer, if you have talent, if you aren’t wasting your time? You can never know these things relative to what people say or how much money you’re making off your work or whether the gatekeepers and critics deem you worthy. You can know whether the act of writing sometimes makes you feel good. And in that feeling, there may be a quiet, personal meaning. And if you write regularly, you may embody that meaning such that it becomes part of your life, a way of life. And then you can stop asking questions that originate in commercial and social status anxiety instead of in the metaphysics of the creative process.
I’m offering a short fiction writing course (actually three courses in one), designed to take someone from the basics of story writing all the way through the publication process. If this is something you’re interested in, take a look at the link below.
I once drove a forklift in a magazine distribution warehouse for a living and got to know romance, action adventure, and western paperbacks of the 1980s and 90s fairly well, since we handled a high volume of grocery store book sales. I read the cast-offs that got damaged in the sorting process on my breaks. The writing was usually atrocious, but it was an incremental education in what readers actually want.
Years later, when 50 Shades of Grey sold 15.2 million copies, I wasn’t shocked. When James Altucher called the book great literature on account of its sales figures, I shrugged. Someone was bound to make the “volume of sales” argument. It fit with what I was packing every day into forklift innerbodies. And it fit with what I knew about the mentality of the publishing industry, where books are “units” and the bottom line runs deeper than all literary pretension.
Recently, I had a long email exchange with a romance writer friend of mine about changes in her genre, which is now almost unrecognizable to me, since I haven’t done a lot of romance fiction editing and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a warehouse-level view of what is being shipped.
I learned some interesting things from her about the how genre fiction publishing is evolving. But I came away with one difficult unanswered question. Why do the main characters in romance novels now all seem to have unremarkable porn names—i.e. names suggestive of bank managers and legal assistants in gray office complexes somewhere in middle America? Ethan Chase. Julie Steel. Laura Woods. Richard Ward. Shannon Green. One gets the impression they should either be overseeing new accounts on the 15th floor or having a highly choreographed threesome in the back of a speedboat somewhere in Florida. Or both.
There are no more 70s porn names. Nobody’s named “Hung Johnson” or Cyndi Squeals anymore (and I suppose there never were in romance writing). Now there’s just boring character names like Sean Parker, Katie White, and Corey Davidson and equally boring characterization to follow. At least the Fabio romance novels of the early 90s had lurid bodice-ripper paintings on the covers to go along with “Pirate Fabio” or “Fabio in Space” or “Fabio Conquers the Cavemen” or “Fabio and the Secret of the Dragon Crystal”—basically all the same book with a different configuration of adjectives. They never called him “Andrew Roberts.” He was always Fabio, the bodybuilder who got his nose broken by a duck on a rollercoaster in Williamsburg, who now wants to ravish you and save the dolphins.
Thinking I might do some research on the evolution of character-naming trends in romance writing and porn and write about it for a magazine, I did some digging and found a news story about how porn sites have seen a dramatic uptick in popularity as a result of Covid isolation. It got me thinking about a Wired piece from 2015 on how social media, cell phones, and the internet in general have disrupted the entire porn industry. I wondered whether there was a relationship between how audiences were being trained to consume online adult entertainment and how they’re reading romance fiction, which often blurs the lines between erotica and tamer forms of storytelling.
I discovered that online pornography seems to be heading toward extreme minimalism in terms of story, characterization, and acting, emphasizing short clips appropriate for “tube” sites as well as smartphones. The companies still making longer “movies” routinely expect to see them cut into more easily sharable segments. This affects everything from the way people are hired to what they’re paid to how long they can expect to legitimately work in the field. But culture magazines like Wired aren’t interested in how this tech shift might have overturned adjacent industries like literary erotica and romance fiction. As a book editor, I am interested in that, especially in the aesthetic changes (some might say aesthetic fallout) that have ensued. My friend didn’t have answers, but she thought it was interesting, too.
She said many of the in-house style sheets currently handed out to low-status and even midlist romance writers now require interchangeable sorts of everyman characters. If Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw had an unremarkable name, at least she distinguished herself through Bushnell’s idiosyncratic narrative first person (and on TV through Sarah Jessica Parker’s ironic Magnum P.I.-esque voice-overs). But even though the TV series ended in 2004, it was still squarely within the female-oriented rom-com story genre—occasionally with a racy B- or C-plot but nothing too far outside the (fairly permissive, though still present) bounds of HBO propriety.
But now there seems to be a blankness creeping in. The protagonists seem increasingly like pornographic blank slates, primarily distinguished by lowly positions on the corporate hierarchy, by what they own and don’t own, and who they have to worry about at work. There’s an unremarkable ex or a lingering, equally blank high school / college boyfriend. And then there’s Christian Grey, who’s going to make everything happen, but who is about as interesting as a self-cleaning oven.
I’m beginning to suspect that the romance genre is actually now about consumerism itself: corporate style, money, granite tabletops, the Ivanka Trump winter collection, and the bourgeois dream of neatly trimmed lawns and not having to worry about paying for your route canal because the arrogant Ferrari-driving CEO wants to take care of it for you.
Maybe it’s all about suburbia, even when it’s about dragon crystals. Maybe it’s the same formula, just more direct: young, shy-and-willowy Victoria Grantwell works for an attorney named Jonathan Charles, who has a lot of money and devilish good looks. Ravishing ensues—somewhere in the vicinity of walnut wastebaskets and corner offices. By the end, Jonathan Charles is so moved he has an emotion. All because her passion taught him how to love.
I realize I may have just described the plot of Jerry Maguire. Maybe it was all porn from the beginning.
News this good doesn’t arrive every day.
My third collection of stories, Living the Dream, just got accepted by Terror House for publication in 2021. I will be updating my websites when I have more information.
Thanks to everyone for following my writing. It matters.
Read my new piece on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/magazine-rejections-and-learning-to-love-the-hate
If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long. But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.” It means what it says.
The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them.
I know this about myself. I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process. I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating. Nothing lost. Everything in motion. And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working. Being a writer, I tell myself a story. But it might be bullshit self-deceit.
The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of “productivity.” And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh. Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory. Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward. Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do.
The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing. They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else. I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention. I hate obeying. But am I achieving anything in my disobedience? For that matter, is achievement even the point?
When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed. I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform. Being an artist is not about “closing.” Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy. I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units. I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition. I want the serendipity of inspiration. I live for it. And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.
Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself. It’s terrifying sometimes. Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever. In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.
“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year. More than that and people forget who you are. You won’t be able to position it. You’ll be starting over.” Six years later, my second book was done. And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over. From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before. I wasn’t starting over. I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.
Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult. Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult. Putting in the years is difficult. Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary. Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count. One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down. One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.
Of course, there might not be a bigger process. Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony. Maybe. Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else. It’s always possible. The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.
It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end. Apocalypse. Tragedy. No one at the wheel. Inhuman corporations controlling everything. And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units.
Capitalism wins. It usually does. But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline. That is a reality you must not accept.
How does a writer know what’s real? Is it moonbeam or production line? Is it both? Can it be both? Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes. For the rest of us, maybe not. For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand.
Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success. But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely. So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort. And that intersection has to do with luck. Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon. Nobody cares. Their units don’t ship. And yet they also have the favor of the moon.
Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam. They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others. And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism). Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations. Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.
A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it. Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that. You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work. You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do. But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.
So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by. I’m turning 46 this month. I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books. These have been hard things. Are they enough? Will they ever be enough?
Don’t worry, I tell myself. There’s bigger process at work. There must be.
Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters