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New year. Old debate.

Charles Dickens is not happy with Captain Jack Harkness (or literary fiction meets popular culture)

The New Year begins. I spend every New Year’s Eve writing and drinking sparkling wine. What about you? Supposedly I’m not superstitious, but I insist on my pen moving into the new year as if this will make a difference.

What am I writing? Popular fiction or literary fiction? Serious fiction or fluff? I’m a woman and my main character in this novel is a teenage girl. Must be a little novel then, right? I recently read this article about great novels and women’s novels.

If you made a list of novels, what kind of list would it be? Who would be there? What makes a novel great?

Happy New Year and Happy Writing.

12 thoughts on “New year. Old debate.

  1. Arguments are ongoing so long as there are enough bottles of wine to support them, but no argument is complete without at least one novel by Louise Erdrich. Shall we say,The Plague of Doves? Let us. Not to forget Love Medicine.

    You already know another of my favorites among the moderns, The Echo Maker. I am also bound up by Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.

    What makes a novel great, you ask. For starters, a writer opening the door on a hidden room in the house of the human heart wherein we learn, as, say, we learned in Bastard out of Carolina that some of us will survive no matter what, and that in A Light in August, there is a built-in sense of love and kindness in some of us that will drive us toward living in ways that reflect such love.

    Don’t get me started on Jim Harrison, but then again, you might want to yourself get started on him.

  2. Oh, I missed the sparking wine this year! Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to make up for it on my birthday or something.

    Happy New Year to you, and may wonderful things happen for your writing, superstition or not. 🙂

  3. I had high hopes for my cranberry champagne… but it was a HUGE disappointment. yuck.

    oh well.

    as for the question of WHAT I write? I’ve decided for myself that the most important thing is to write something I enjoy, write something that I myself find fun, something that I would read… and to respect what comes out of me. I spent too many years trying to write literary fiction, and I wanted to write it, but I think also a lot of it was ego. I wanted to Be A Real Writer.

    But as the years have gone by, what’s shaken out is that I don’t want to be a writer of “serious” literature. I am far too serious by nature. I want my books and my movies to be enjoyable, fun, light, funny, exciting, sexy, fantastical, escapist.

    However, I still take my writing, my genre, my characters and my stories seriously. I am still a “serious” writer.

    It’s not about what we call ourselves, it’s about the love we put into our work, I think.

    • Cranberry champagne. Sounds good. Sorry it sucked.

      I guess my ego is still struggling. And then I can’t decide what I’m writing–what genre, what anything. Why do I continue to struggle with this after all this writing? But like you, I take the actual writing very seriously.

      Now the kiddo calls. He wants me to turn him into a taco.

      • The Missus and I — well, really just I — have a running gag. She asks me to (say) make her a margarita and I exclaim, “Poof! You’re a margarita!” This never fails to crack us me up.

  4. I’m tempted to call bullsh*t on that article you linked to in the Examiner. Generalizations about what makes great books (or music, art, etc.) great have two problems:

    (1) Even when they’re seemingly “statistical” analyses, (a) the sample sizes they’re using are just too small to draw meaningful conclusions from; and (b) what they show results from so many varied (and probably mostly invisible) forces and influences and uncontrollable circumstances that no one could possibly seriously mean to say they understand it all.

    (Historically, I bet the relative “scarcity” of “great” books by women can be chalked up to how literacy was an almost exclusively male domain for centuries. To make an honest comparison, you can’t throw Homer, Shakespeare, etc. onto the one scale and then say, “Oh sure, Virginia Woolf et al.” If you’re going to make it really fair, you’ve got to start at some point when the male literacy rate was (say) 90%, and then count — of the books published by male authors over the next N decades — how many were “great”; and then you’ve got to set the starting point for women at the time they attained the same literacy rate, centuries later, and track forward the same number of decades. As is, it’s like starting out by comparing novels by college professors to novels by computer programmers and concluding that the latter must be the victims of discrimination or just can’t write as well. No: they’re victims (if that’s even the word) of history. Actually, I pity the poor computer-illiterate novel-writing college professors — and it’s got nothing to do whether I myself, a computer professional, ever write a “great” novel.)

    (2) It’s all after-the-fact anyway: all we can honestly say about “great” books as a class (vs. on a one-by-one basis) is that they were once judged important by enough influential people (subject to all the unknown factors mentioned in (1b) above) that they stayed in print long enough that their greatness became a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s no way to write a great novel before it’s written, published, and hung around long enough.

    So I say: write what you write, and don’t stop. Make your art until you can’t hold anything in your fingers anymore. Every single person who will ever love it — get something “great” from it — has only one way they’re guaranteed never to see it in the first place, and that’s if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain and keep trying to break through to “visibility.” Take comfort in knowing that you HAVE managed to touch discerning readers who’ve made their way to you somehow: there’s your reassurance to keep going.

    Speaking of discerning readers, Shelly’s dead-on about Jim Harrison. And interestingly enough, JH is one of those cases who may be teetering on the brink of literary-historical “greatness”: almost universally praised… by a fairly small but highly influential readership. He just writes what he writes. I’d take his career and his chances for “greatness” and his readership anytime!

    [Damn wordy comment. Sorry. Returning you to your regularly scheduled programming now!]

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