Me and the Literary Establishment

I got my second story workshopped in class last week. I turned in a heavily revised version of “A Rat Problem”–what I have since changed to just “Rat Problem.” Aaaaaaaand it filled the class with wonderful bewilderment–wonderful because they said my writing style was very strong and that I have a good sense of dialogue and action; bewildering because they had no idea what to make of the ending. A few of them got it, although they weren’t certain in the conclusions they had reached. So I got things to clarify …

My professor says I’m “afraid of character.” I told him there is a difference between being afraid of character and being much more interested in the systems that construct that character. This, evidently, is one of the last things you want to say to a literary fiction professor. I’m surprised he didn’t burn me at the stake.

It really brings into focus how much I need to break myself away from the “literary establishment,” for, if nothing else, my simple sanity. Part of me, naturally, really wants to be accepted in this incredibly exclusive club as they wield considerable cultural clout. But. The tradeoff is having to write very specific stories–stories that, frankly, do not interest me as an artist. Don’t get me wrong. The literary elite are very good at what they do, and I enjoy reading (some of) their stories. But I have other things to say.

When I think about this stuff, I like to remind myself of my two favorite authors: Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. Pynny is shunned by most of the literary world because of his ontic antics and the sprawling, bloated, massive narratives that are his calling cards. Gravity’s Rainbow, what is hailed by most as his masterpiece (no argument here), was in fact rejected by the Pulitzer Advisory Board as “turgid,” “overwritten,” in parts “obscene,” and overall “unreadable.” But I can say with confidence that he doesn’t give a fuck what they think. The more I learn about him actually lends me to believe that some of the things he does, he does in order to disrupt their contented modes of reading. Kurt Vonnegut was similarly shunned as merely a science fiction writer by the literary world for much of his career. It wasn’t until Slaughterhouse-Five that they realized how good science fiction can, in fact, be. But, again, he wasn’t writing for those jackasses.

And neither am I. I have finally zeroed in on what it is I want to say to the world and I don’t need anyone’s approval to say it (though it is nice to hear that people are listening (Comments, please …)). Literary fiction is a genre like any other and grad school has showed me that I want to write something else. That’s a hard pill to swallow when that particular genre is held up as the be-all-end-all of literature. But I need to accept it. And I think, slowly but surely, I will.


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