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Number One: Caleb J. Ross and Pablo D’Stair:

Three dialogues on literature

[Part 1]

This dialogue is presented over the next four weeks in a style of “progressive fragments.” The exact order of inquiry and response as presented is not the order of inquiry and response as it happened between the two dialogue partners. Therefore, ‘Statements’ and ‘Responses’ from one week may not be directly addressed by both parties until subsequent week. It is the hope of both parties that the spaces between these responses allow readers the time and opportunity to more fully and experientially engage with the propositions, for themselves, rather than looking at the dialogue as a closed circuit.

CALEB J. ROSS: My work, like all work, falls into a genre, but I wouldn’t consider it genre in conventional terms. Those conventional terms are what I don’t agree with…

In common use “genre” equates fiction created to entertain while “literary” refers to fiction created to enlighten. Here’s where the dispute originates, in that the differences are with intent rather than the end product. When something cannot be judged 100 objectively, there’s going to be disagreement. Hell, that’s why conceptual art, you know, Duchamp’s R. Mutt urinal and such, is so polarising. Some people would call The Fountain trash. Others would call it Art. Actually, it’s both. Like Trash and Art, Genre and Literary are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are designations for different metrics entirely.

Tangible measures

Genre refers to tangible measures such as content, setting and plot. Literary refers to the way in which those tangibles are executed. For example, a novel that people of the first distinction might call literary, ‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen, is most definitely literary. But, like everything, it has a genre as well: ‘domestic fiction’ or ‘environmental fiction’ (or any number of other categories). Following that logic, two books could share genre, but not necessarily both be literary. Stephen King’s ‘It’ is horror and so is Mark Z. Danielwski’s ‘House of Leaves,’ but only the latter could be called literary.

PABLO D’STAIR:As you know, I feel there is an unavoidable and irreconcilable difference between terms ‘as seen by a writer’ and terms ‘as seen by a reader’. Indeed, I think literature (read: the written work) is a wholly different experience from each side, the two do not touch. It strikes me interestingly, because of this, that your writer self thinks at all in terms of genre distinction—primarily because mine doesn’t.

The ‘thing about reading’ is that one comes at the stimuli and works to define it as a kind of proxy for ordering one’s own thoughts: ‘What do I think of this? Well, I think it’s ‘domestic fiction.’ I think it ‘comical.’ I think it is… ‘character driven’ ’. The investigation (read: act of reading) is not so much about defining the wholly subjective ‘book’ but about trying to make less subjective (more personal) one’s ideas, one’s personal aesthetic, even one’s sense of self.

Experiences

The ‘thing about writing’ is that one (from whatever starting point) experiences a full and actualised event without the need for interpretation or evaluation. That is, one has ‘written a book’ without someone else ever reading it, without even reading it back oneself, and so one can speak of ‘writing a book’ with some authority.

And so (follow me) if one takes the written product and investigates it. either in terms of plot or in terms of style, it is the artifact (the residue) of the writing experience which is being investigated, nothing to do with the act.

From this, I personally always find it striking to hear a Writer say they ‘write genre,’ simply because the end product can be labeled thusly. Taking your Stephen King/Mark Danielwski example, the act of writing the books could be believed to be largely the same, but as you say, the act of reading them is wholly different.

***

Sound

CJR:I’m never one to simply express myself. Rather, I use writing to mull over my own philosophies, to textualise them so that I may have a physical referent for any future questions regarding those philosophies, an artefact of sorts to say, “This is what I believe about this subject.” Also, I love to hear the way great word-combinations sound, especially when used to describe grotesque situations. It’s a mix of giving permanence to my own philosophies and seeing beautiful words. Oddly enough, though, I don’t care for poetry, which would logically seem to satisfy both of those goals.

PD:Very interesting. You mean, of course, to mull things over in the rhetorical, though, and in an impermanent way, yes?

After ten years, your novel written today is more a record of ‘what you thought’ than ‘what you think’, and I would go so far as to say the novel, in the moment it is set down, is only a record of ‘what you think given a constructed situation built for the sake of moot exploration.’

By this I don’t mean that I fail to understand the representative nature of the actions of fictional characters, but that, no matter how it is sliced, you are not fully exploring a circumstance’s reality (and therefore ‘what you think about it’) because you are sole arbiter of presentation, content, and happenstance, which you can never be “in life”.

Influence

Do you think you can really investigate ‘what you think’ without a third-party influence, so to speak, rearing in to ‘define it’? The old ‘Well, it works great on paper (that’s what you “think”) but if in reality X happens and you act not according to your idea as set down on paper, does not the actual action (what you “did”) more define the actual contents of your ideas and identity?” As in: What good is what you think about something you haven’t done?

***

CJR:The way I see it, there are three components of success—what most people would define as success—when it comes to being an author: readership, sales, and prolificacy. I think the lure of the publisher is the potential to grow all three areas with perceived ease. But what a new generation of writers is beginning to understand is that the writers themselves can, with equal ease (though not to imply that either way is truly easy) accomplish the readership and prolificacy aims without the aid of a publisher.

Sales, too, but that one is still difficult, at least to the level that it takes to be a full-time author. I think it’s up to the publisher to adapt. A publisher needs to understand that authors can gain readership and can write plenty. A publisher needs to then reallocate resources away from these two areas and bring more attention to sales. Meaning, promotion, PR, events.

Ultimately, the tendency for an author to favour legacy publishers over self-publishing implies a certain degree of ego. Readers, for the most part, don’t care how a book gets published. In fact, most readers probably don’t know the publishers of even their favorite books.

Among writers, for one to claim one of the Big Six legacy publishers as their own means that the writer had navigated a difficult series of desks and wallets to have the book published. The end physical product is the same as a self-published author, but the implied journey is much different. And I think the perception is valid. It’s about winning something more than readers.

Getting a book published with a legacy publisher is more difficult than self-publishing or publishing with a small independent publisher. It’s that simple. But again, as far as the general reader is concerned, the publisher is irrelevant. Though, I would love to live in time when readers were passionate about publishers the way, say, music lovers tend to be about independent record labels.

Attitude

PD:“More difficult” I agree, but I have to say I sense from you an implicit “and therefore more deserving of something” attitude. Not negatively, but I think you gloss past it. Because, even as you say, it is only more difficult based on multifold things entirely outside of the work itself, the author him/herself, etc. Certainly, you don’t mean it is more difficult to get in with a big house because it requires “writing a better book” in any quantitatively or qualitatively measureable way?

Building from this, a bit—I agree that, in general, as you say a reader does not care about the publisher. But, form your personal standpoint, don’t you? If you read a book out through Penguin do you think you read it the same way as you read something out through (insert indie press name)?

To the general reader, no difference. But to someone who is aware of a difference (you or I), someone versed in such things, isn’t there something more than “it’s more difficult” going on in your brain?

Because, truthfully, people like you and I, we are “in the scene” and so see things a bit differently. I will tell you that I know many a writer (of all qualities) who are not ‘in the scene’ who would likely find it “impossible” to get published through an indie. And impossible, truly, it would be.

No Indie that I have ever heard of publishes books solely on the merit of the words in the manuscript. It doesn’t happen. Just like with a large house it doesn’t happen.

And specifically, how do you feel that there is a requirement to ‘participate in a lifestyle’ to really be considered by either sort of press? Isn’t that where the real prejudice against self-publishing (publishing, theoretically, without being involved in the day-to-day scene) comes from?

***

Crime story

CJR:Only recently did I sit down to consciously write a crime story (for a forthcoming collection of novellas). I think the allure of crime for me—whether as a defined genre, or as a mashup of thematically similar tropes—is its inherent proximity to morality, which in turn speaks to the importance of characters. For me, writing is all about exploring my own philosophies through the lens of grotesque characters and situations. Crime lets me do that without compromise.

I’m not against trying to “force” myself into a genre, though. I like the artificial construct of hard genre. I like a challenge. Hell, that’s what my writing philosophy is built around; challenging myself to confront personal philosophies.

PD:How much do you investigate your own morality through the writing of crime? Gonna get “philosophical here” so…deal with it.

As it is said of mathematics that “knowing mathematics is doing mathematics” is not the same true for morality? To be moral you have to “do moral”? But, being moral through inactivity is not an action, nothing that requires staunchness or ‘moral fibre,’ it just means, to take a fun example “I never murdered someone because I never wanted to.”

But what of this? Do you approach the moral predicaments of characters from a personal start point (read ‘investigate your own thoughts) building them from situations where you feel you have perhaps transgressed morality, personally? (fictionalised, of course, fictionalised—you could “write about a murderer” but be investigating, really, your own feelings of transgression and guilt about cheating on a girlfriend, lying and shoplifting) Or do you build from a generalised notion of “people say this is wrong, let me tinker around with it, not brining myself into it at all?”

What is it that you feel immoral about, Caleb? Because as the philosophers of old would tell us and the psychologists of today back them up, no one things about morality without the prompt of feeling they have violated it—there’s no blood to it otherwise, it would be same as thinking about why clouds are pretty or why it feels good to sleep in.

***

CJR:I don’t buy the risky things. Or, said better, I don’t care if a writer is taking risks—whether consciously or sub-consciously. To me, a risk is when a writer does something that could potentially cripple something they’ve, until the moment of the risk, spent their writing lives building. For Stephen King to write a bodice ripper would be risky. For Pynchon to do a reality TV show would be risky. Neither of these would impress me. I love that Stephen King writes horror (though, for the record, I’m not a fan). I love that Pynchon is a recluse.

These traits are important to the general perception of these authors and their work. A risk would be compromising those things.I think authors themselves don’t generally see themselves as risk-takers. They write what interests them. However, talking about being a risk taker adds to the sexiness of being an author that readers want (in the way that any public persona tends to dramatise their role for the sake of success). Those writers who say they are “getting in touch with their dark side” or “going to places where they are uncomfortable” aren’t describing truth; they are describing fiction. And isn’t fiction what they do best? Or, perhaps, they are simply using grandiose terminology for the act of mulling over personal philosophies, as a familiar author once said.

Interesting

PD:Now, it’s interesting that you focus, more or less, on “career risk” or “perception within a career” risk. More so, it is interesting that you focus on “persona” and “sexiness” and “public perception.” Are these ideas so central to the idea of “writer” to you? You, earlier, wrote of using your work to investigate or have record of your personal philosophies, but is this only within an attempt toward having a career as a writer?

A little bit of an expansion: don’t you think that an author’s ambitions, really, could be wholly satisfied, in a grand scale even, without ever having to enter the commercial marketplace, and more importantly, without having to enter on to the radar of “readers at large” and so therefore without ever having to worry about public persona?

Follow my rhetorical—if one, with no thought of publishing one’s self, or certainly not commercially, wrote and made efforts to expose their work and thoughts. to other artists, commercial and scholarly, of their age, would not these efforts, if they put them in the esteem of men and women of letters (or other pursuits) be equally as influential and lasting as someone who commercially or “within the existing framework of success” reached a certain plateau?

I mean, in the sense of influencing contemporaries, if I had one hundred readers and they all seriously considered my work, and these hundred readers were other authors, filmmakers, thinkers, painters etc. of some regard, would this not be as “successful” and sure a way to assert my work as having ten million people read it?

In a short form—other than “getting” and “momentarily” (because, come on, that’s what it usually is) having some influence on this or that random person, what is it that you Caleb, as a writer, want from your work?

(To be continued)

 

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