Monday, October 8, 2007

Shakespeare Was a Working Writer

"He should have stuck to short stories. If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in them."

"A middling playwright...often crude and crass...two of [Beaumont and Fletcher's plays] being acted through the year for one of his."

"...imitative, annoying, and tiresome."

What do the three authors that recieved this criticism have in common? Three things:

1. Their work was written for the common reader, rather than to academics, scholars, and literary critics of their time.
2. They enjoyed enormous popular success and mixed literary success during their time.
3. They are now considered three of our greatest authors.

They are (in order): Dickens, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain.

I remember I was at a writing conference this summer, and one of the speakers was L.A. Banks. This woman is a serious working writer. She writes vampire fiction and romance novels, and churns 'em out at a jaw-dropping one book every six weeks or so (if I remember correctly). I remember listening to her talk and thinking, gosh, I would LOVE to have her career.

But I also want what every other writer wants: validation. I want to be considered a literary genius, my work passed down through the ages, plastered with lofty awards. Yeah, I have delusions of grandeur. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that we all do, to an extent. And even though L.A. Banks is a working writer with a healthy career, nobody is comparing her to Toni Morrison or Jamaica Kincaid.

There is definitely a perception that you can have literary merit or popular success, but not both: that a really excellent piece of writing is so rarified that it's only a chosen few who can truly appreciate it. But when I look at writers like Dickens, I think that he's not really the Faulkner or Fitzgerald of his day; he's more like the Danielle Steele. He wrote popular fiction. And when I look around at the writing out there, I start to think that maybe it's not the recognized authors of our time who will stand the test of centuries. Maybe it's the Stephen Kings and the Danielle Steeles and the Harlequin authors that readers of the future will venerate.

L.A. Banks gave a great talk, but that's not what I remember. I remember standing near her while she was speaking to another writer. They were having a conversation about writing popular genre fiction versus literary fiction. And Banks said something about how there's no shame in being a working writer; after all, Shakespeare was a working writer.

I guess what I realized then was that you don't have to give up a paying career as a writer to be recognized. You don't have to write literary fiction that doesn't sell and work as a creative writing professor. Your genre of choice may be snubbed by the critics of today, but it could be the biggest thing to hit 2100. After all, it's not the most "literary" works that stand the test of time. It's the work that reaches and inspires the common people.

No comments: