Monday, October 27, 2008

Literature As A Form of Art

The main lesson I learned at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD this weekend is that there's a big difference between 'books' and 'literature.'

Here are the things I liked about the conference. Susan Cheever, the keynote speaker, did a wonderful job. She was witty, engaging, and informative. The winner of the annual award for outstanding achievement in literature, Elmore Leonard, was also a pleasure to see in action, both during a morning panel about crime fiction and during his reading. And I enjoyed the workshop with Stacy Barton, during which she gave me a new way of thinking about character development through making murals.

I think it was a good experience to attend this conference, because it was completely different from the other events I've been to. At the same time, it is not a conference that I would recommend for emerging authors.

To many, literature is an art form. Novels are meant to be broken down, analyzed, their merits judged relative to the existing body of sanctioned works. Some people are allowed into the pantheon of great literature, and others aren't. F. Scott Fitzgerald never made a living as a writer. He is remembered not for his persistence or his marketing skill or his flexibility, but for creating what is widely known as one of the greatest works of American Literature. And that's great for him, and wonderful for all the people who celebrate his work. But it's kind of depressing for emerging authors who are looking to make a living, not looking to make art. Because publishing houses, in general, aren't interested in great literature. They're looking for something that will sell.

Personally, my goal isn't to write the next Great American Novel. Instead, my goal is to give someone a thrill, fill a need, leave them satisfied once the story is over, and sad that there isn't any more. And it's hard to learn how to do that from people who want to get to the essence of the written word. To me, it's not about essence, it's about substance. Characters readers can relate to. An engaging plot. A story that's easy to follow, and easy to understand. A book that children and adults alike will finish and say, "Now that was a rousing tale!"

What are your thoughts? What, to you, is the difference between 'books' and 'literature?' Is it possible to achieve success as an author without impressing the literati?

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Michell Plested said...

Hi Emma,

I totally agree. I want to write stories that people want to read and enjoy over and over again. While that could be the next great novel, I don't have any illusions that it will be nor is it really my intent.

I think the phrase that comes to mind is "commercially feasible".

Scobberlotcher said...


I'm so envious that you got to attend that conference. It sounds like it was great.

I think you pose excellent thoughts about the divide between what sells and what endures. So I might disagree that the conference shouldn't be attended by emerging authors. Perhaps this is what he/she needs to consider. Because an you know, as any writer knows, it's a long, lonely journey to write ANY novel, much less one that will be embraced for its merits. And because of this, I think all writers should be writing because they want to, because they are writing a novel they, themselves, would want to read. That's what got me to start writing.

Have a good day!

R.J. Mangahas said...

Oh, boy, I could go on about this forever, but I won't. I think that the whole "books" vs. "literature" is a ridiculous feud. (or more specifically genre vs. literature) To me, a good story is a good story. Period. I really don't understand some of these literary snobs saying someone is a hack because they sell a lot of books. People are reading it right? I mean, isn't that the whole point of why we write? To be read? True some of the best sellers aren't that great story wise, but hey, people still read them.

So yes, it is possible to achieve success without impressing the literati. Look at Stephen King for example. For the longest time the literati looked down on his work, but years later they nominated him for an award. (He turned it down)

Gayle Carline said...

I do agree that a good book is a good book; however, there are stories that you enjoy (a friend referred to them as "popcorn for the brain") and stories that get into you in a deep, meaningful way. I think they transcend genres, and I don't like to separate them in any way that turns books into "us vs. them". Even "popular" writers have a hard time making a living these days. An emerging author probably won't earn any more on their popular first novel than on their literary one.

That being said, I just like to tell stories. I wrote a murder mystery, which will be published by Echelon. It's probably more popcorn than filet mignon, but I wrote it because it was fun, and I hope people read it for the same reason.

Anonymous said...

"Personally, my goal isn't to write the next Great American Novel. Instead, my goal is to give someone a thrill, fill a need, leave them satisfied once the story is over, and sad that there isn't any more.

That's a DARN good goal, Emma!

Emma Larkins said...

Glad to hear all the great feedback!

I think that new, creative writers have a lot to offer the writing industry. And that's not just traditional, print books - that's anything and everything from old to new media that provides entertainment and information. But I think that there's still a lot of mystery that (intentionally or unintentionally) keeps people out. For example, at the conference there was one panel held in a huge auditorium with professionals taking photographs and filming all over the place. I found it somewhat intimidating!

People should not just be allowed to tell their own stories, but encouraged! I find the conferences with smaller panels and one-on-one interactions with authors, editors and publishers much more encouraging.

It's also intimidating when, like R.J. said, people start whispering that people who sell well are hacks, or people who write genre are hacks. The original purpose of story, even 'great literature' such as Shakespeare or Homer, was to entertain. Not to be judged!

R.J. Mangahas said...

I'll be honest, I don't let people like those literary snobs bother me. I'll say this as far as the crime-writing community goes though, there is such a feeling of community among them. Not just among established writers only, but to those who are emerging and aspiring as well. I got the pleasure to experience this first hand at Bouchercon this year.