Friday, August 6, 2010

However Slight

All this talk of simplicity reminds me of the ever-changing list of literary fads. Just like anything else, there are trends and influences that sometimes seem to become absolutes for a time and the very thought of acting against them smacks of pretensiousness.  Take modern voice for example. Loved ones, and not-so-loved ones, have become titles in contemporary voice; The Husband, The Boss, The-Furry Children (okay, I'm guilty here), The Boyfriend....etc. The word "snark" rocketed to fame after a well-known literary agent named her blog using the word as though it were any other fashion accessory. And the masses flocked. It's trendy to dislike urban fantasy, in some circles, particularly vampires and werewolves and shapeshifters...just as it's popular to dislike pop-fiction (Dean Koontz, Janet Evano-what's-her-face) in others. Women's literature, also known these days as "chic-lit" has also had a bold new introduction to the world. Bitter is the new black (I think there's a book with this title). Everything is cute with a distinct sense of "bitchiness" about it.

They may never say it aloud, but our readers (even if we write fantasy) will view our work through whatever cultural lens they've been given, whether we like it or not. This will always be the case and it doesn't change how our work will be seen once it has passed out of our hands, as a generation, and on to the next. We have no control over that. But, the sheer fact that these trends are in existence means that they influence our career. Agents and publishers are forever aware of these things and bank on half of them.

So, what does this mean for us as authors? Well, that depends. For me, because I'm sensitive to some of these trends, I have to be careful with what I write and I have to look for it. I hate to admit that, and God help the reviewer should one ever bring this post against me, but I have to purposely listen a little closer to what my characters are telling me because I'm apt to hear first the cultural chatter that pervades the airways.

How do you know when what you've heard is true or not? These trends slip into critiques and reviews and the comments of editors and how do we know as authors when to take the advice and when to leave it? I don't recall who said it or when, but someone once made the wise observation that if it sounds like something that an older, wiser you would have thought of...then it's true to your vision as an artist. When I read back over my own work, I know it--those insidious influences--by the way they make me feel. After I've read narrative, or a character description, I'll start to feel as though someone has just told me that I've just been selected as a winner of publisher's clearinghouse sweepstakes! In other words, it will feel like nothing more than a false promise. A character may do something that rings untrue, despite how adamant the editor has suggested that it "fits" her personality, because it won't actually fit will only fit who the cultural bias says she should be.

Allow me this brief analogy: I remember walking into a bookstore in Auburn, AL a few years ago and stopping just inside of the entryway because I'd spied a wall'o Jesus to my immediate right. There were bracelets with various letters of the alphabet, all arranged to spell out some catchy slogan. There were t-shirts made to mimic pop culture icons. There were pens and pencils and book-bags and hats and bumper stickers. It made me wonder when James Patterson had high-jacked fundamentalism and how I had missed the subsequent carnage. There wasn't any missing it now...

I'm not saying that we'll do anything quite so tacky in our writing as that wall was to the Christian faith. But, there are people who thought that was a fantastic idea, just like there are readers and agents and editors and publishers who think a good many things are a fantastic idea in relation to your work and those things may be detrimental to your story.

 However slight.


  1. A thought-provoking post. I feel watching for these trends lends itself to voicing. That is, one of the things what makes a voice unique is the roots to universal truths rather than cultural norms.

  2. This is absolutely perfect for me right now, thank you. I think it's important to know the cultural norms out there, and for me, it's important not to follow them. Sometimes I like to skim by them, and sometimes I accidentally put them in my writing.

  3. I don't follow trends either. It's not because I may or may not want to, it's because I couldn't if I tried. I mean I could make an effort to write a new age vampire love story where a tattooed girl is in love with a vampire treasure seeker, but honestly, I'd probably do a lot better with a couple of rednecks who've found the secret key to a Budweiser plant.

  4. Doug...sounds like the best spoof I've heard of in should sooo write that. too! I forever find bits and pieces of it where it shouldn't be. It has a place, but usually it isn't in anything I write. Blogs are another story, but not in my fiction.

    Anthony and JoniB...thank you! I'm glad you liked the post. I struggled with whether to post it or not. You know how sometimes you aren't sure if your thoughts are cohesive enough to be clear. This was one of those times for me and I wondered if I even made any sense.

  5. In one of Orson Scott Card's books on writing he said that when you brainstorm a new idea -- for anything, a new alien species, a plot twist, a character trait -- throw away the first one to three ideas that pop into your head, because they are the cultural cliches lying around in your brain. That's why they "pop" so easily. They are borrowed.


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.