Writers! Dump the Virgin, Toss the Whore

writers, don;t be a virgin or a whore

Let me tell you a story.

When I was an undergrad, I took a class in the writing of poetry from John G. Neihardt, best known as the author of BLACK ELK SPEAKS.

Though we agreed on almost nothing, I thought he was a marvelous man, and he gave me a great gift that day.  He catapulted me into making up my mind about what kind of writer I wanted to be, commercial or literary.

He started by reading the first line of a bad poem I’d turned in.  When he came to the name Agamemnon, he said casually, “Mr. Blevins has decided to write for people who know who Agamemnon was.”

He proceeded to read and comment on the entire poem, but I didn’t hear a word he said.  He’d nuked the walls in my head.

I went to the student union and made a serious attempt to get drunk on Coke.  ‘My God,’ I thought, ‘what have I been doing?  I’m writing for English professors, or critics, or the literati, or…   Do I really want to spend my life writing stuff that my own family won’t want to read?  Do I want to leave the people I grew up with, the world I come from, out of my audience?

First answer—hell, no.

Second answer, bigger and better:  If Mark Twain could be populist and literary in the same story, in the same sentence, so can I.  That is still my motto.

This question stumps me:  Why does the book world—the publishers, the booksellers, the critics, and far too many readers—want to divide writers into virgins and whores?  Literary and genre writers?  Why do people discuss snooty tomes at parties but read Stephen King in bed at night?

Why does the term “literary novel” exist at all?  Sometimes I think the best novelist in this country is James Lee Burke, and he’s not classified as a literary writer.

Why don’t they recognize the route taken by great American writers from Mark Twain forward.  Not genre, not literary, but the mainstream?  Why isn’t that idea even mentioned?

Bluntly, this literary vs. genre stuff is pernicious, and a damned lie.  It has confused the reading public and turned them away from fiction.  We’re telling people that what they like is low-class and what seems to them high falutin’ abides in a higher state.

So, what do we expect to happen to fiction sales?

Worse, what’s a writer supposed to do?  If he puts his energy into telling a good story in a compelling way, he’s a whore.  If he writes only for other people with MFA degrees, he’s a model to be admired.

How did we end up here?  And why should we write for the few instead of the Honorable Man in the Street?  Like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck…

The professors did it, with the help of their progeny, the critics.

Two generations ago, somehow, we started letting English academics tell us what’s good and bad in storytelling.  The trouble is, they came at it with their brains and left their hearts and souls behind.

A person reading a story, or listening to one or watching one, does not need to be told when he’s enthralled.  His ancestors were feeling that a quarter million years ago, and it has come down through the generations as surely as their DNA.  He comes as naturally to stories as Homo sapiens did at the birth of our species, with senses, imagination, love of play, liking for humor, intelligence, and emotions ready to be engaged.  He is receiving the story as a whole person.

You can’t smell flowers with your hair, you can’t listen to a band with your tongue, and you can’t bring a story into your embrace with intellect alone.  It is too agile, too rambunctious, too untamed for that.

Professors and critics witnessing a creative act are eunuchs observing an orgy.  Note—they’re observing.

Let us reclaim our souls from these people.  Let us read with our hearts and our whole sentient beings and know without being lectured what a marvel a good story can be.  Let us write such stories with full tides of passion.

Look again at the tee shirt pictured at the top of this blog, designed for me by Meredith.  That says it all—MEMBER OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST PROFESSION—STORYTELLER.  (And I love the howling wolf.  You can see the shirt in our Writers’ Store if you like.)  I invite you to join me in this spirit.

Let us, as an industry, as people writing, publishing, and selling books, throw the professors’ distinction between literary and genre out the window.  Let’s liberate the ancient and honorable art of storytelling.  Let’s write and sell good books without a whiff of guilt, and then have a helluva party.

— Win

 

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