Go to Facebook, and you can find groups discussing: whether anti-heroes are a good thing; whether characters can express/embody real-world ideas; whether the “rules” of magic can be bent. Oh, and whether this cover is more eye-catching than that cover. Technology enables the production of printed books as readily as it enables blogging, vlogging, tweeting and fake news – and these young people are choosing to write novels – not screenplays – that (a) take us back into myth, and (b) can be bought in old-fashioned print form. Technology has given individuals the ability to bring back the past by going directly to print, but without collecting however many hundred rejection slips first.
Gatekeepers. These youngsters are putting out their own stories – putting them out all the way from writing to publishing without anybody blocking their way. If you think that means there has been a wholesale democratisation of storytelling – yes, but it’s a re-democratisation. Yes, I remember the term “slush pile”, and yes, I remember the vast intermediation of book publishing in, say, the eighties – agents, commissioning editors, publishing conglomerates, SAEs, et cetera – but this takes us back over the hump of all that to a time when published stories were either good or they weren’t – authors** managed to entertain, and thus to develop a following, or they didn’t. An idealised, imaginary golden age, perhaps, but I do like that colour for the scales on my dragon.
There’s a whole blog post to be written about the collective loss of authority of authority figures everywhere, but the figure I most like to ignore is the one whose response to any new idea – or set of sample chapters – is in the range from “You don’t fit my preconceived notion of a marketable author” to “It won’t work because it doesn’t resemble something that worked last week.” By way of “I’m too complacent in my gatekeeper role to feel my lack of a creative imagination or even empathy.”
If the gate’s open, I’ll open it for you. Not that I’m bitter’n’twisted or anything, but even after all these years, I remember the name of the agent who returned something to me (that was subsequently published without her help) with the covering note: “This has been on my desk for several weeks and I haven’t picked it up so I’m returning it to you.”
Well, gee, thanks. It sold quite well in the end, actually. And perhaps more significantly for the ongoing collapse of western civilisation, I remember the agent who came back to me with this response to another project (paraphrasing): “It was very good but it didn’t fit with the rest of my list.” Never mind the quality; it has to fit in with everything else. I’ll represent any book you like, so long as it’s this book again***.
I wonder sometimes about the conformity of opinion – but that’s another blog post. I realise that some of this young American fantasy fiction won’t conform to, say, F R Leavis’s idea of literature (as expounded in, say, The Great Tradition of 1948 – I got that from Wikipedia), but that isn’t the point.
Your turn. They’re getting their shot. That’s the point. Many of these young Americans (other nationalities and age groups are also available) won’t make it as authors in the long term, but that’s just natural selection. They deserve their shot and they’re getting it. They deserve a measure of respect, too. I can complain about technology – quite enjoy complaining about technology, actually – but I will say this for it: if you want a shot at being creative – I’m talking here about novel-writing, but this also applies to just about anything else – today’s technology gives you both the tools and access to the audience. If you have the stamina and the nerve to take the chance.
Nice cat. Yes, thank you. Very amusing. Now excuse me – I have to go and photograph my lunch for Instagram.
*I wonder whether that’s a “but” or an “and”.
**Charles Dickens, for example.
***The appearance of agents marks the point at which an industry goes beyond human scale. Discuss.
Enough of the old-guy talk. The chicken came first, stands to reason, just as our inability to stretch our minds around grammar came before Grammarly. Which is a good thing; it’s a “cloud-based English-language writing-enhancement platform,” and we all need one of those in our lives. I still refer occasionally to my bookshelf-based copy of Hart’s Rules, which have been going – Horace Hart’s rules have – since 1893; look for the New Hart’s Rules among Oxford University Press’s various guides. Or log into Grammarly and follow the prompts.
Yes – end, what end? As the Art Editor of a magazine said to me once, as I rushed into the Studio, in the grip of some emergency and laden with galley proofs, b/w pics and layout sheets (never a Pritt Stick around when you need one): “Relax. After a few years, even crises aren’t crises.” Good point. We have the technology to express our opinion, even to panic, but not to show us the long view. Everything’s big and now and newsworthy (sic).
I don’t know, I don’t think I can sustain the level of hysteria required for communication these days. A friend signed a petition to “demand” more investment in public transport in the UK. She lives in Hungary, and has posted pictures of bus stations there, so I suppose her interest in the buses of another country, somewhere she hardly ever travels by public transport, is at least discernible – but “demand”? One of the tiny cracks in tech-enabled civilisation is the lack of opportunities just to “ask”.
We’re all adversarial now. No, answers aren’t readily available either, but that’s a “something’s wrong” to set against the lingering idealism of tech-enabled communication. To demand isn’t to offer (force, even) an opening for dialogue. If we’re demanding because asking doesn’t work, we’re moving away from the thing that’s wrong, and away from addressing the failure of communication. Maybe the apocalypse will hit, and we’ll all be too busy shouting at each other to notice. Shouting about social media’s ability to bring us together, perhaps.
We are on apocalypse-watch, aren’t we? To drag in the obligatory cultural references – here come the spoilers – on the one hand, we have Dr Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, telling the US Congress (I think it was Congress?) in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) that we’ve unleashed forces that we can’t control – meddled with nature, and so on. By the end of the film, the question isn’t what the T Rex makes of the lion from the zoo; it’s what the dinosaurs are going to make of Caesar and his army from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). They’re all loose in the same imagined neighbourhood, I think?
And let’s not forget the zombies from World War Z (2013), who will no doubt be keen to join the party. “We’re all doomed” is the stronger hand, I think. On the other hand, well, I was thinking about my tendency to overplay whatever it is that the storytelling requirements of the collective imagination tell us about our instinctive fears – about what we’re tantalisingly afraid might actually (although not quite literally) happen – when onto the car’s music system came Brian Eno’s Just Another Day, from the album, if that’s still the word, Another Day on Earth (2005). “We’ll say, that was just another day on earth…”
We’ll put it all behind us. That sums up an attitude that isn’t prevalent these days. Our inconvenient truth (ha! Easter egg!) is not that things might be going wrong, but that they might not matter very much. The forecasts are all doom-laden and dire, the social-media activity hysterical, but the passengers get to their destinations, the presidents shake hands, the forecasts for wholesale post-referendum economic collapse – yeah, right. And does it strike you that there’s always someone else to blame?
Mind you, enjoyed the preoccupation with dysfunctional family relationships, and even smiled at the solution proposed by the Father Figure/baddie, in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Half of us have to die, for us all to be saved? Uh huh. I would drone on about global warming at this point, even “demand” that somebody sorts it out. But I suspect that somehow, the real disasters slide by us while we’re arguing about them. Easier to tweet about what we (sic) must (sic) do, than to do it. I’m not suggesting this, but global warming does begin to look worryingly like a tool we’ve devised at some instinctive level for handling over-population.
If so, there might be a short cut. Wasn’t there a thing recently about flatulent cows contributing to global warming? Junk food, anyone?