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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