Thursday, September 16, 2010

Our Job

Steve Almond posted this at the Rumpus recently:

Our two-fold: to focus on our own failings as writers. But also to speak more forcefully as advocates for literature. Books are a powerful antidote for loneliness, for the moral purposelessness of the leisure class. It’s our job to convince the 95 percent of people who don’t read books, who instead medicate themselves in front of screens, that literary art isn’t some esoteric tradition, but a direct path to meaning, to an understanding of the terror that lives beneath our consumptive ennui. It’s hard to make this case, though, if all we do is squabble with each other and lament our obscurity.

He posted this in response to the death of Kevin Morrissey at the Virginia Quarterly Review, and while that loss is beyond tragic for so many reasons, what I would like to address here is Almond's notion of what our job as writers is.

So, then, let's consider what he says our job is: first, to "focus on our own failings as writers."

Take the plank out of your own manuscript before you point out the speck of dust in the rejecting editor's/agent's/workshop leader's/reader's eye. Or something like that. Focus on your own work. Blame no one but yourself for its weaknesses.

All right. I'm with him there.

Next, he says we should devote ourselves to "speak more forcefully as advocates of literature." We need to convince the majority who don't read, or who at least don't read literary fiction, of its value. And, I love what follows--how right he is about literature's ability to battle loneliness and the "moral purposelessness of the leisure class." A thousand yeses. I couldn't agree more.

A million yeses. Yes: let's show the world what good fiction can do. I'm so with him.

One question: how?

Readers, help. Any thoughts? Honestly, I'm asking: what can I do (or you do or any of us do) to get people to read more anything? And especially: how do we get them to read more literary fiction?

Or, should we even try? Is it our job, afterall, to both write fiction and try to get others to read fiction?


E.P. Chiew said...

This is an interesting quote, Susan. Thanks for this.
I did find myself nodding at the term "moral purposelessness" and "consumptive ennui" but I also wondered if by championing why we should literature with these reasons, we don't sound like clergy. I don't think we should write literature in order to educate how to be better people. If a reader receives this instruction or evidences this epiphany, that's a happy byproduct!

Linera Lucas said...

One thing that I find heartening is the growth industry of MFA programs. They may not all stay as writers, but they surely are going to be readers. When I'm in a situation with a new reader, I focus on what they are doing right, not on what they miss in the text (this is classroom and workshop situation) and I hope that will help.

Susan Woodring said...

Elaine, I am so with you when it comes to a severe dislike of preachy fiction. I detest agenda fiction of any stripe. I am a Christian who can't read Chistian fiction for that reason, and though I loved the first Barbara Kingsolver book I read and while I agree with her on a number of issues, there are times when she just plain annoys me.

This summer at Tin House, somebody--ooh, ooh, name?--spoke on morals and fiction. Said you can't write about people without there being some moral value, no matter how slight, how subtle. Often, the writer isn't even aware of it--it's there.

In any case, I do agree with Almond that reading literary fiction is good for dealing with the condition of being human, which is, in and of itself, a moral predicament. I mean, I don't want fiction telling me what to think or how to act (that's what the essay is for, right), but there's moral value in the fact that good fiction simply forces you to consider the world from another person's point of view.

Okay, I'm yammering on a bit too long, but thank you, Elaine, for commenting. You raise a great point--

Susan Woodring said...

Linera, yes! The popularity of MFA programs is heartening--and Almond addresses them specifically in his essay/rumination--I think it shows that there are people (and a growing number of them) out there who value the written word and who, I think, are finding something lacking the ordinary soul-comforts of modern life--there's just too much television to numb us, in my view--and are searching for ways to really say something...or just think, really think. You're right--they won't all stay writers, but this trend does show some hope for the future of how literary arts are viewed in this country.

Again, I'm too wordy. Sorry. Thanks, Linera. Nice to see you here!

Jessie Carty said...

I think it is hard, as authors, to try and promote literature unless you are promoting the work of other writers. If you are saying "you must read my book" some people are turned off. That's why I like sites like Goodreads where I can suggest the books I love to other people without having to do so under the guise of "hey also buy my book".

In the spring I'll be teaching Introduction to Literature at my community college as well as World Lit II. I'm hoping by making it fun that that will help!

Susan Woodring said...

Jessie, you made an excellent point about promoting others' work. Absolutely.

You and Linera both mentioned teaching. I think how literature is taught really does have a huge impact on the growth or decline of a reading public. I think what you and Linera and other really great teachers are doing is enormously important in our plight. Thank you both, and thank you, all teachers!!

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