The World Needs Your Novel, and Other Lies
(Another Dyspeptic Powellian Rant)
The catchphrase of the hideously-named NaNoWriMo, ‘the world needs your novel’ is one of the more egregiously fatuous mottoes of commodified literature. Let’s dismiss it at once. The world doesn’t need your novel. There are thousands of brilliant ones already, far too many for anyone to manage to read all of them. So why should we need more? Are you going to outdo Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy? At best, if you’re immensely talented, you’ll manage to say what the greats have been saying for millennia, in a new or newish way.
That brings me to a concomitant lie: that every writer (every human being) is special, and has something unique to contribute. It’s true that each of us is slightly different, but the similarities between us are far greater, and growing greater all the time in this era of groupthink and social media. Be honest: how many people do you know—including artists—who dare to express opinions divergent from those of your friends? Few or none, I imagine. And those rare spirits who do dare to differ will be silenced, or ignored. For all the talk of diversity in our academies and in public discourse, ours is not a culture that favours diversity of opinion, or even aesthetics. Most people, including artists, never have an original thought in their lives. They rehash others’, and if they find a striking way to express them, consider it original. They fool themselves, and if they are good self-publicists, the public as well.
And what about that third dictum of the writer’s credo—that if you pursue your dream faithfully, it will succeed? It’s Disneyland balderdash. Hollywood producers saw long ago that all they had to do was market wish-fulfilment to their immature audiences of all ages, and they were bound to succeed. It’s a short step from the fantasy of Wonder Boys (in which a neophyte writer hits instant success—told with humour and panache, admittedly, by Chabon) to the semi-official dogma of the Creative Writing program.
Who is responsible for these lies, and why? It’s hard to excuse the legions of professors who tell their students they are all ‘special’—if they are all special, obviously no one is. (Those same professors speak very differently about their special students behind their backs—in inverse proportion, usually, to how complimentary they are to their faces.) Some of them are sentimental saps: they’ve bought into the Hollywood myth. Others are more cynical. Their livelihood depends on fostering it, just as that of the movie producers does.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t phenomenally gifted young people discovering a love of letters at any time. The best of them will write, whether they are garlanded by the powers that be in New York and London or not. They will write because they have to, in the teeth of failure and rejection.
Should you disregard the rantings of a dyspeptic old white guy? I am dyspeptic, after two decades of witnessing frequent manipulation and deception of young artists. And disappointed, at a time when more people are writing than ever before, that the quality of our fiction is lower than ever. Call me elitist, if you will. I don’t defend the privileges of any class, sex or ethnicity. Background is no barrier to genius. I am saying let the best rise to the surface, and let’s not be afraid to call it the best. Judge the work, not the author. Otherwise what passes for literature will be increasingly puerile, moralising, self-congratulatory (and covertly self-promoting). Or do you find fiction ‘refreshingly diverse’ these days?
Give me a break, dude.
Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell, until 2017 professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Durham, and Arizona. Living in the Persian Gulf and teaching on the women’s campus of the National University of the United Arab Emirates inspired him to write his story collection, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, McSweeney’s, Nimrod, New Orleans Review, and other literary magazines. Powell lives in northern Portugal and writes full-time. His novel, Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, was published by Flame Books in 2022, and is available from their website, Amazon, and all good bookshops.
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