Archive for December, 2013

This is one of two posts about a work in progress. See related posts here and here.

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What my writer friend should have known about me, but didn’t, was that I own a book in whose index the phrase “Art for Art’s Sake” appears.

Art for Art’s sake is the academic way of saying we produce art (music, writing, film, paintings, sculpture) because we are moved to do so by emotions and intellect which cannot find outlet in any other pursuit.

Academics defend this behavior because many of the productions of these efforts have been exquisite.

Art for mass consumption is often referred to as middle-brow art and is usually sufficiently entertaining , as to garner attention, and sufficiently intelligent so as to not feel like a total waste of time. Some producers of middle-brow art might be Maroon 5, Khaled Hosseini, or Francis Ford Coppola. These artists have commercial success and there is some intrinsic value in their production and their craft.

Middle brow is not always high craft, it usually leans more toward the sellable than the refined. But it’s popular for a reason: it’s easily digestible and of high enough quality that it feels like authentic art. It makes us work a little bit to understand the deeper more complex human conditions it describes. But we don’t have to work too hard.

I have been saying I wanted to produce a book-clubbable book. I want to write something that’s good enough to discuss but it doesn’t have to be high art. High art is that which is produced primarily for its craft.

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This is one of two posts about a work in progress. See related posts here and here.

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So much of what is written these days is simply production. I am particularly annoyed by SEO and the idea of diluting language to the 100 most commonly used search terms to improve the likelihood of discovery. As if discovery in and of itself has value and the message is secondary.

Say what you need to say.

If what is being written is production then what is being consumed is also production and this is a downward spiral into the degradation not only of language but also of the most important reason for language: to communicate the human experience.

Empathy is being so much aware of someone else’s experience that one understands both the feelings and actions of that other person. It is sharing the human experience with other humans and connecting with them through that sharing.

Empathy is a connection. But, really, connections are made all the time.

With so much exposure to the experiences of others, are we not hyper-empathetic? You can almost hear the music, the language, the expressions mapped together in order to elicit empathy. Empathy keeps us tuned in. Just ask all those reality-TV producers that urge us to care about total strangers.

So should high art rely upon empathy to engage people?

Readers of high art should be invited to an unusual experience: a collective narrator like the neighborhood boys observing The Virgin Suicides or the multiple-narrator, multiple-era, multiple-style conglomeration of Cloud Atlas.

Readers should be expected to empathize with people not like them and by doing so be opened, honestly, to the vulnerability of their own constructs. They should think: one bad decision, one series of unfortunate events and I could be other. Less fortunate. Less.

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Last year I was five months in to the writing life I had always wanted. It started in April 2012 when I went to the Clemson Literary Festival and came home and wrote my first short story in 15 years.

By October I had a few drafts of disparate stories and a finished novel whose first ten pages had won an internet popularity contest.

But when Khara House suggested we submit as many as three pieces a week, 26 pieces to 26 different literary magazines, or at least four pieces over the course of October 2012, I was sorely underprepared.

That year I submitted one story – to The Baltimore Sun who never bothered to even decline the thing. They just ignored me as the literary universe has done my whole life.

I queried three agents with my first 10 pages, two of whom said, “thanks but no thanks,” very kindly, I might add, and the third took The Baltimore Sun approach.

What I learned in October 2012 was that I needed a body of work. I needed enough fiction that I could legitimately contend in the literary universe, or at least enough to draw response of some kind.

So I created the 2013 Short Story Challenge. I have one loyal participant besides me. Thanks, Melanie!

The goal was to have 13 polished stories by October so that I could complete Khara’s Submit-O-Rama challenge. I did it. It’s over. Now here’s what I learned:

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