“Occasionally, I have students who want to be rock stars. They have started a band, and they are spending their weekends and off hours writing songs and practicing. Without fail, these kids know everything there is to know about new music. They are listening all the time—they can discourse on Bob Dylan as easily as they can talk about the new e.p. from a new band from Little Rock, Arkansas, or wherever, and they have a whole hard drive full of demos from obscure artists that they have downloaded from the internet.
I wish that my students who want to be fiction writers were similarly engaged. But when I ask them what they’ve read recently, they frequently only manage to cough up the most obvious, high profile examples. What if my rock star students had only heard of …um….The Beatles? We listened to them in my Rock Music Class in high school. And…. And Justin Timberlake? And, uh, yeah, there’s that one band, My Chemical Romance, I heard one of their songs once.” Dan Chaon, From Review Review*
“But I don’t think Chaon’s advice is necessarily beneficial to literary fiction writers. For one thing, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It’s inevitable that this should be so; fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published.” Robert Lennon, Salon.com, March 29, 2013
Here’s what nobody asked me to talk about:
I’ve been similarly frustrated by the internet’s flattening of life, art, literature. In the glut of information and entertainment, I have a hard time distinguishing between what is being created for artistic purposes and what is being replicated for marketing purposes, and most of the time I come up short. It’s not that I don’t care – I do. It’s just that I can’t figure out what is really happening in the relationship between my physical brain and my internet soul. I think it is partly because I was born and raised into young adulthood before the internet, and I miss that missing piece.
What Lennon fails to recognize is that this flood of mediocre writing is a valuable means of measurement and contextualization. The fewer people writing, the more narrow our choices for what to read, and how to read it. The internet is open for business, and all kinds of people who never had voices before suddenly have tumblrs and lit mags and weird hybrid sites that celebrate inexcusable excess. And a lot of it is bad right now. So what?
What we don’t have are those visual cues that used to be dead giveaways – the covers of vanity press books, for instance. Everything now looks like it could be pretty good, and we don’t find out that a story is terrible until we are halfway through it. And that’s five minutes we’ll never get back.
The other day, my director stopped me by the copier.
“Who decides what goes into the canon?” He asked (when he taught, he taught mathematics). It’s a good question. The answers are being challenged by all kinds of writers and readers because there is simply more (and more ways) to read than ever before. There are more voices coming through, and more people challenging the standards of the traditional canon. Many of them are not great. But some are. If this is the case, how can we have too many people trying to make art?
Like any good artist, Chaon’s hopeful rock star with a million free downloads on her hard drive does not love and respect every single song, and will not recommend every single song. What that aspiring rock star will be able do, however, is tell any other listener what is wrong with the “mannered, conservative, and obvious” songs, and why those songs fail as art. Then, she can use what she knows about everybody else’s shitty recordings to avoid creative pitfalls and cliches. She can build upon her own mistakes and break stupid rules that are commonly followed by dilettantes (because she’s not one – she’s a growing artist, well-aware of the stylistic and theoretical trends (both new and old) of her community of musicians). And she can distinguish her own voice from the others.
*Full Disclosure: Dan Chaon is one of my favorite writers of all time, but that’s not why I think he’s right about this.