HYPER-TALENTS OF THE NEW LITERARY AGE PART III
Should an art form remain static?
Art is supposed to be in a state of constant creative upheaval. If it’s not, the artists of the era aren’t doing their job.
Today’s literature is literally trapped within institutions, whether the institution be a Manhattan skyscraper, an Iowa writing workshop, or a government grants panel awarding prizes and largesse. All exist together in a symbiotic relationship. They tell one another continually how great their writers are. There’s no incentive to change– no reason to glance outside their echo-chambered walls for other options.
There is an avant-garde of sorts. Postmodernists for the most part, who believe in nothing other than the personal politics which go with their jobs. An avant-garde which has taken root in the institutions of literature and won’t leave. (They have tenure.)
An unpopular and inaccessible cluster of institutionally-approved writers which has turned into a permanent status quo. Their mindset that “all is well” in literature permeates every publishing company, every university, every classroom– a solid weight of inertia which won’t be easy to remove.
Hope to renew the art of literature lies with the new generation. So-called millennials.
Yet they’ve been raised in the most hopeless situation of all, born into a world in which past roles have vanished, all gods destroyed– even newer gods like Communism which were supposed to replace the old ones. If Ernest Hemingway and his generation were “lost”– then what about young people now? In 1917 thinkers began questioning if the world had meaning. They began doubting accepted truths. One hundred years later that doubt, that embrace of nothingness, has become accepted fact. Dissent, despair, and doubt fill every corner of the land.
The work of young writers reflects perplexity at the changed world. Confusion about their roles within it. If there are roles for them.
In this segment of our series we’ll examine, one at a time, four millennial writers who approach their generation’s dilemma artistically, each in a different way.
SAMUEL J. STEVENS
We wanted to open this segment of our series by planting a flag to say, “Yes, alternative viewpoints to one-size-fits-all literature ARE out there and need to be valued.” We reject any notion of a monothink hive or herd putting Orwellian pressure on writers to join an unthinking mob.
The writing of Samuel Stevens is unique– short stories or novels– because he gives the reader an unfamiliar viewpoint. One never seen in today’s approved literary scene. His male characters once were the norm– in the 1950’s, before a cultural sea change. Think Charlton Heston in films like “The Naked Jungle.” This upstanding, moralistic type still exists. Plenty are out there. Mainstream culture has decided they don’t exist, and so excludes them from all scenarios except as a target for mockery.
Stevens’s characters are often Roman Catholic. The classic Catholic protagonist is on a perpetual quest for meaning in a fallen world, testing whether his precepts have application in that world; wondering how to apply them. Once, the Catholic writer was an accepted part of the literary landscape, via authors as different as J.F. Powers and Graham Greene. Today they’re an endangered species.
In Stevens’s new story for us, “Greener Country Grass,” the narrator journeys into the American heartland with a cynical D.C. buddy. The story could be an analogy for east coast intellectuals currently scrambling to understand the attitudes of the heartland.
The two friends are as much strangers in a strange land as the two tourist friends in the classic Richard Yates story, “A Really Good Jazz Piano.” In that tale, the foreign setting is Paris. In “Greener Country Grass” it’s America. The best new writers are on a quest to find America.
Like Yates, Stevens’s chief stylistic influences are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who remain the gold standard for any aspiring American writer. The writing is tight and to the point, nothing extraneous. The technique is the point. Conciseness creates meaning.
Who are the heroes of American culture?
Haven’t we all seen the rock musician– faded, middle-aged, grungy and scrungy, tattoos everyplace, bleary-eyed, a walking mess– with the beautiful girlfriend (or boyfriend) half his (her) age clinging happily to the arm of the “star,” even if the band the person belongs to never made it big? It’s all in the myth of the genre the individual belongs to. A quickly fading myth, granted, but with cred nonetheless.
Once, in the wake of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and later the Beats, writers carried that myth.
If I had to do a quick listing of cultural stars, I’d rank them like this.
1.) Pop/rock/rap singers.
2.) NFL quarterbacks.
3.) Movie actors.
Writers don’t even make the list.
But things are changing! All art forms and cultural activities go in cycles. Ups and downs. “Literature” has been down so long that it’s ready for a comeback. As a sign of this I give you Eli Cranor, former college quarterback, who now puts his energy– a lot of energy, by all accounts– into writing.
This man approaches the art the same way he approached athletics, with intensive preparation and work. “I rise at five and put down two thousand words,” Eli tells us. “I am serious about my craft.”
The work is paying off for him, to judge from his story for us, “Five Minutes,” a tale told about a schoolteacher trying to navigate, with frustration and bewilderment, through an environment designed to make teaching impossible. A crazy place where the student holds power; the teacher with only that leverage which his ingenuity can supply. Eli Cranor is showing us, in other words, contemporary society.
When we first kicked off New Pop Lit we called it “The New New.” I’d call Cranor’s story “The Real Real.” This is what being a teacher today is like, stripped of glamor and illusion– yet for all that there’s a triumph of sorts to be found in it .
We don’t know how accurate Eli Cranor was as a quarterback. As a writer he’s on target.
LAUREN N. JACKSON
There’s not one literary revolution happening right now, but several of them. Including a wave of DIY writers self-publishing via ebooks. Including an emphasis on fantasy fiction– which includes subgenres like vampires, werewolves, medievalists, dragons, et.al.
Most of these writers, to be fair, aren’t that good. Their impact is economic more than artistic. I’m thinking of Amanda Hocking,, who sold a million copies of her self-published ebooks before signing a book contract with Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press– Macmillan being one of publishing’s “Big Five” conglomerates. I’m thinking also of Simon and Schuster’s George R.R.R. Martin, who’s become an industry unto himself, and along with a handful of other best-selling authors is keeping the failing giants going.
It’s inevitable that genre writing will improve. At some point the best of them will produce actual literature, and so create a version of Pop Lit– writing that’s popular and meaningful both. Can they use their talent to address not simply their imaginations, but the actual world? (Which is often itself fantastic.)
These questions are raised with the writing of Lauren N. Jackson. As part of this series we present “The Spore Guild”: an excerpt from a longer tale.
A recent graduate of The Ohio State University, Lauren cites fantasy author Jeff Vandermeer as a major influence on her work. She subscribes to “Poe’s theory of capital T Truth and Beauty in lyricism and art–”
What of her writing?
Lauren’s writing hovers in a netherworld between pop fiction and literature. In the same way her story inhabits a halfway land– which may well be ours. The setting is tangible and the use of color in the text is striking– like no one so much as 19th century American impressionist writer Stephen Crane.
Her style stresses the visual. It’s not far removed from the writing in the “Portraitists” section of our Overview.
“The Spore Guild” contains ideas– but which ideas?
“I offer up the fantastical to make sense of the mundane,” her character tells us. And: “I’m tired of a collective truth. I want a singular Truth that only I ascribe to and know.”
Her character inhabits a very different mental universe from a Samuel Stevens character– yet is on a similar quest to make sense of a confusing world. The viewpoint is not Catholic!– the use of a “Cardinal” in the narrative implies a rejection of institutions and hierarchies. The atmosphere is thickly medieval. Intensely pagan. Pre-Church. Beyond time. Pre-civilization maybe, into a forgotten era of myths and mysticism of the kind Robert Graves wrote about in The White Goddess. An apparent retreat from reality, while the writing simultaneously describes incidents of hyperreality. The sort of more-than-real writing style fiction needs in order to survive in a hostile cultural landscape where too many options abound.
Classify Lauren N. Jackson with others of her generation as a Seeker. The world of emotions and restrictions, desires and rules, is a mystery to her. She plunges into it regardless. A talented writer who carries every tool in her writer’s tool kit. Can she pull back a tad from fantasy, to use her imagination and talent in the way Stephen Crane did, addressing more pointedly the actual world? Does she need to address that world?
Finally, in our survey of young writers we come to Jess Mize. Possibly the most talented of the new writers we’ve encountered via operating this web site.
We’ve received for consideration many submissions from well-credentialed young writers at MFA programs across the country. The writing is often polished, usually predictable. They may be the best and brightest young writers by the standard’s of today’s institutional literary system– but not by the standards of authentic art, which require more than conformity, homogenization and imitation.
What makes Jess Mize unique is her originality. Her need to move beyond the acceptable boundaries of the short story form. Not content with the pat or the safe, Jess willfully inserts into her tales writing more connected to the real world than to the short story as it’s supposed to be written.
Two examples from our site.
1.) In “Valentine’s Day,” Jess included a vulgar email rant as a realistic expression of character.
2.) In “Suffering, Suicide and Immortality,” Part V gives an inside look at a suicidal mind. We edited this but didn’t scrap it, though we might have in the interest of pace.
Jess Mize takes aesthetic chances, in other words. We like that. The short story HAS to change– to be more exciting, more competitive, more compelling, offering more than the same-old same-old.
Jess is pushing boundaries again with her novel-in-progress. Read an excerpt and judge for yourself where she’s going.
The four writers outlined in this essay merely point a beginning. May they blaze, with talent, imagination and charisma, a path others can follow.