A Word About "Literary"

Let’s pause to make an important distinction. Regardless of the various genres failed novelists work in, most imagine that they are engaged in a literary enterprise. They may be writing (or thinking about writing) a mystery, sci fi, a coming of age story, a family drama or an adventure/thriller or whatever, but the standard they believe they adhere to is somehow literary. By “literary” we mean the stuff taught in college lit classes, authored by dead white guys, which has more or less stood the test of time. Many of these writers were not particularly well known in their eras, except perhaps as alcoholic sociopaths. Most lived and died in relative obscurity. They may have been famous for a few years but became better known and appreciated over time. You may be a dead writer, you may be a famous writer, but to be literary, traditionally, you should be both.

To be sure, most “great” works might have been thought of in terms of genre when they first appeared. But over time, these achieved a classic status that makes them literary, and convinces the amateur that by mimicking the style, the amateur is also engaged in “literary” writing. Of course, in our day and age, no one can wait to be thought a “literary” writer. The literary mid-life crisis is about right now. The amateur announces to the world that she is engaged in literary writing without waiting for history to decide that she is both dead and famous.

So we find ourselves in a bit of a quandary. When challenged, most mid-life-crisis-I-know-I’ll-become-a-published-writer-any-day-now types will admit that getting legitimately published is a pipe dream. They will even admit that most published writers don’t sell enough books to hang out at Starbucks. And they probably look down their noses at most of the best seller list as being the work of hacks. All the while, the failed novelist is pursuing a result even more impossible and unlikely than hitting the lottery – immediate real-time commercial success, literary respectability, AND the eventual immortality afforded dead and famous white guys.

This may be the hardest part so let’s get it over with quick. I’m going to tell you something that even your meanest gay friend won’t spew after several brown drinks: There is nothing special about you, and you are not destined to be a famous writer. A certain former talk show host is not going to choose you for her pretend book club. The New York Times is not going to herald your arrival (late in middle age) and you are not going to top the best seller lists. How can I know this? Well, for starters, there’s the fact that you have read this far, what with the blog title and all making it pretty clear that this is advice for people who hope to POSE as a novelist. There there now. There is no shame in this. But yes, statistically it’s a fact. You are no more likely to become a literary legend than the poor bastards that the talk show host picks and they SELL BOOKS. Yes, I have looked deep into your imaginary soul and I know that more than anything, more than selling books and getting laid, what you really want is to be taken seriously as a literary writer, even though you will never be one, and by definition, all great literary writers are dead white guys who can actually write. In this regard, you are no different than Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen, who so far, let’s face it, may some day be dead white guys but that is about it. And they SELL BOOKS. But they are not literary writers, and indeed, imagining that one must be “literary” is really of no help in becoming a published writer. Write crap if you want to be published, but you’ll not have your cake and eat it too.

So let’s be clear. Your goal is really to be thought a literary writer. However, such status will be of no use to you when you are dead. This is about enjoying the benefits here and now, not doing the work and dying drunk and broke. Trust me, you aren’t cut out for the life, let alone death of a real writer, which often involves your liver slowly shutting down or some more direct method of self inflicted demise. Now that we have that bit of business out of the way, it will be necessary to remake your image into that of a serious author. It’s a very serious business, being a serious author, so you’ll need a bit of background. Stay tuned.

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