The original idea behind writing my novel Pyramid of Babel was to devise a converse of the usual single-protagonist-versus-the-system formula for a dystopian novel. (It sure did change a lot as it matured.) Today, vaguely echoing Jonathan Swift, I’m thinking about a new idea for a novel or short story: what if you dropped someone who expects the factors of a modern dystopia into a different and free (if not utopian) society, someone like an insufferably politically-correct political columnist? What would they spend their time complaining about, and what kind of window might it provide into that society?
OK, so part of me wants to write fiction again—this has to be the fourth or fifth story concept I’ve generated this year and kicked around in my head for a day or so. But only if an idea absolutely compels me will I give in and commit the personal investment to it. Taking the trouble to write excellent fiction is simply asking for misery in this market, which is all about gatekeeper agents looking for genres catering to masses of readers with awful taste, indifferent to quality.
Finding a home for a serious, important novel (like 1984) with a caring literary agent and publisher is a lot like winning the lottery. You’re much more likely to find a patron or patrons, in today’s environment. It’s gotten so bad that I can’t imagine a writer like Orwell who did something new and challenging becoming half as successful today. (1984 would probably be relegated to a sci-fi niche next to teen space vampires series, or something.)
If you’re not a writer at all, or you are an economically-fortunate writer of genre-fitting fiction, trust me, you think it’s easier out there than it is. This is not to say that there isn’t necessarily some good writing passed along the ruts on the bar serving the usual, nameable, marketable mix-and-match genres. But those of us who aren’t interested in dispensing with art and ideas in order to engage in a writing career are inclined to create different things. And we have reason to curse the immoderate influence that percentage-seeking “literary” agents, with all that implies, now have on the selection of those who will even have the opportunity to reach the desks of publishers.
I see the bestsellers, I see what’s “popular” (because many pandered and made it so) and what we’re charitably calling “literary.” I have some similar feelings about the business to those that many people began to have about record companies in the 80s and 90s, because of what they were doing to artists in the music business, and what popular music became, all so that the money could manage the artist and his/her process (and “the product”), and not the other way around, with the artist and the process driving the business end. They didn’t need to do it to make money, and in fact, ended up killing golden geese in various ways by eroding the special cultures of artists and enthusiasts with respect for artists. The publishing business is different, but it could learn a lot from the way the music business treated music and musicians as fungible, and presumed to tell the consumer that garbage was good—that counterfeit culture was great culture.
Some once-great publishers and once-great agencies have reason to be ashamed. (If you are not one of these, that’s wonderful. I congratulate you. I might very well want to work with you. But I can’t deny the obvious decline in standards.) It saddens me how many creative and insightful works may never be finished because of the economic disincentives to invest quite that much thought and labor.
To be crystal clear: I have no objection to making money at all, and I believe that literary agents and publishers provide valuable services and play valuable and necessary roles. Many both earn their money, and deserve it. And yes, the market is consensual (well, except for the corporate structure and law involved); no one’s making consumers buy the crap. However, the enemy of great art is my enemy, and I make no apologies for that. Also, dumbing down the culture, lowering standards, and counterfeiting artistic quality is a way to get on my bad side. Someone has to stick up for art in culture, and count me in as one of the volunteers.
In my latest non-fiction news (don’t get me started about the business prospects of non-fiction), I am coming close to finishing the rough draft of an eight-section series on various facets of extraordinary and potentially transformative experiences, such as revelations and other experiences with “spiritual” aspects. I’m looking forward to passing this along to my small group of volunteer readers for their feedback.
Though it will serve as part of the much larger grand-tour-of-gnosis book/series that I’ve been working on for the past couple of years, if I like how it turns out enough, I might just consider pre-releasing it as a standalone thing online; this bit is the epitome of relatable-yet-important philosophy, I think. Otherwise it will be a much longer time before it’s publicly available with the rest.