Our contributions to literature – a feed into the collective consciousness?

When I think about all the hours that I have put into writing, all the novels and stories published, and an equal amount unpublished and probably never to see the light of day, I wonder whether it has made one dint of difference to the oceans of literature that surround us and keep increasing exponentially every day.

Let’s face it, we all circle around universal plots, which Wikipedia describes in the following article: The Seven Basic Plots
And we keep re-hashing the same plot, albeit from our experience, in our voice, hoping that it has enough novelty to stick out from the rest. We believe that we are extending the outer regions of the universal plot we have chosen. We add newer technology into the mix, exotic settings, complex characters, and when reality is too dull or frightening, we go off into fantasy where we can order the world according to our morality and pain threshold. Or we flip around and invent diabolical acts that we would never desire in our own lives – the more diabolic the better. And all the while we are plagued by nagging thoughts: “Has this been done before? What is the limit of tolerance before a reader tunes off? Or are there no limits? Are we limited only by our imagination? ”

I have come across books and stories that have eerie resemblances to my own work, that were published around the same time as mine. I had not read or copied from these works and I am sure their authors are in the same boat; it was as if there was a collective consciousness operating at the time that we were all plugged into from different vantage points to create these works, each in their own voice, but each moving towards a common centre. Or were we caught up in a trend of copycatting the first book that came out and stretched our imagination in a certain direction? I can think of the detective novel that hasn’t stopped being “adapted” since Edgar Allan Poe started writing his “disturbing” stories; I think of the vampire genre that hit a renaissance with the release of the Stephanie Meyer books; and the Jane Austen revival, thanks to film and TV adaptations of her novels. But these newer iterations, copycat or not, have stretched our concept and expectation of those plot types. I’ve seen the detective novel change with the advent of fingerprinting, and later with cell phones, then DNA mapping, and now that ubiquitous snoop that takes the fun away from sleuthing: the CCTV camera. I would be bereft if a modern detective novel did not have all these newer props; I would say that it was not “realistic.”

And yet, despite all this evolution, it is only a handful of authors who are universally read in their respective genres today—even if they do not do much to extend their branch of literature— thanks to effective marketing engines powered by astute investors, while the rest are relegated to an amorphous bubbling sludge from which some periodically pop and gasp “read me, read me,” before slumping back into the collective consciousness (we hope) that houses the evolving Seven Basic Plots.

So what is the way forward? Delude ourselves that we are furthering the cause of literature and continue to churn out tame derivatives of the Seven (should we rename them The Seven Deadly Sins?) or troll around for a clever marketer who could find an angle to “position” us above the sludge, or hold our pens and cast out for that truly genre-bending idea that will start another movement like Poe, Austen and Meyer? That, my dear scribes, is the 64,000-word question!

Are all stories political?

I recently contributed a story to an anthology titled Everything Is So Political (Roseway Publishing). In keeping with the book’s title, my story was called “Suicide Bombers”—how more political could that be, I thought. But then I realized that most stories, if not all of them, are political.

Politics has many definitions. Here are some from the Free Dictionary that I took particular note of: “intrigue or manoeuvring within a political unit or group in order to gain control or power,”  “the often internally conflicting interrelationships among people in a society,” “any activity concerned with the acquisition of power, gaining one’s own ends.” Power, intrigue, manoeuvring, conflict, relationships—all aspects of a rollicking good story or novel. Even a love story has all these ingredients in it.

So I concluded that fiction writers are closet politicians. We may not have the opportunity, energy or canniness needed to survive as real politicians (a few notables have tried and failed: Michael Ignatieff and Mario Vargas Llosa come to mind) but we certainly are eager for change and for promoting good in the world, our way. And that way may be by inventing situations in which the ills of bad politics are exposed or where the benefits of good politics rise to the surface. We also have the ability to invent a safe world through our fiction and kill off the bad politicians in it—something which is a bit hard to do in real life without going to jail.

Some books started civil wars, if you can believe that tall tale about Uncle Tom’s Cabin;  others like Ann Frank’s Diary warned us of our innate ability create good and evil; and others have extrapolated trends into the future to show us what might happen if we do not pause and shift course: Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind.

Many authors abhor political activism and believe they are above “those deal•making slime buckets that shift towards wherever the votes are the highest.” But in their own way, consciously or unconsciously, writers are involved in, and are making a contribution to political consciousness, not just on their home turf but wherever their work is read.

The challenge however is, like the shrinking turnout at the ballot box, the numbers of readers are diminishing these days as people are caught up in the struggle for survival, or with fulfilling advertising•led consumerist images of themselves. Or that blasted 140•byte writing and reading style has won them over. Get everyone reading engaging, entertaining, educational and enlightening literature, and we may raise the bar on political awareness in a nation—that’s my hope.

Now, I wonder, if I had sent Roseway a love story, replete with boy meets girl (intrigue), they have a great love affair (manoeuvring), boy cheats on girl (conflict), girl leaves boy (more manoeuvring), boy feels lonely and runs back to girl (power, or the loss of it for him), girl takes him back and they live happily ever after (relationships), would they have published me in their political anthology?

 

Standing on the Edge, Again

I recently bought a small place back in the Big Smoke. A bold move for a guy with indeterminate income who had started to get comfortable in semi•retirement, writing books and playing guitar in his small town by the lake. I will have to work again – I mean, really work – to afford it all, with a hovering recession and high unemployment that refuses to go away as my travelling companions. In exchange, I would be opened to the attractions and distractions that the city would offer: theatre, art, literary events, traffic, rent•a•bike, smog and crime. And I would stand once more at a window on the larger world of diverse and displaced people struggling to make it in their new home, just like I did, oh so many years ago.

I remember when I first “retired” from writing and moved abroad, in my early twenties, because at that time all the stories of my tender life experience had been written and I needed new fodder. I never thought that I would ever write again. I wanted to “do” not “dream.” The next 20 years of “doing” and screwing up gave me enough for a truckload of books and stories, but now that conduit too has slowed to a trickle. The time to hunt has begun again; the new harvest, or gathering, will have to follow at a later date. Life, it seems, full of new beginnings. What is the alternative? An ending? The END?

But now there are those reports of the “throwaway glass condos” springing up all over Toronto, buildings that are energy efficient yet not durable in the long term. Have I picked myself one of these lemons? Should I have stayed put in my cottage by the lake and buried my money under a mattress to escape the stock market’s never ending case of the hiccups? Am I suffering from buyer’s remorse? Am I scared of change, of the unknown? Isn’t life all about surprises? Couldn’t just the next medical check•up spring a surprise?

They say that growth happens on the edge, not in the comfort zone, and I am deliberately placing myself on the edge again I realize, hoping that it would bring me raw material for the next round of stories, whether that even includes personal loss. Unlike my last “retirement”, my life span is a lot shorter now, so I can’t afford another 20 years of “doing” before the next harvest of experiences. I am going to have to gather as I do and hope that the finished material falls into a coherent whole. Writing on the go will also help me deal with the fear of taking the plunge again.

Stepping off edges doesn’t get easier with age; on the contrary, it’s bloody scary, but exhilarating! What will I attempt next? Russian Roulette? Or bungee jumping off the CN Tower?

Do titles sell books?

I know that covers sell books, well, at least for now, before e•books run us over, but do titles do the same? Is it best to plagiarize an existing best•selling title, and modify it a bit to ensure that unintended searches will unearth your book and present it to an unsuspecting reader? I know I had some unasked•for success when my last novel After the Flood came out a few months after a more famous book called The Year of the Flood (honest, I did not plagiarize here, I had been toiling at my tome for over seven years and had a mass of publishers and other gatekeepers to wade through before I arrived at my launch party, late, as to be expected)

Or is it better to use the most unremarkable title like The (Something) or a longer one like the curious incident of when I went to buy groceries and met a long cool woman in a black dress? Or adapt one of those biblical passages that Hemingway was so fond of using even if it has no relevance to the story: I lie me down in green pastures.

I have been struggling to find the title for a collection of linked stories that I would like to see published next. These stories cover the immigrant experience from both sides: the home country and the host country, and deals with the unfinished business often left behind, the emotional baggage that prevents the immigrant from making that final commitment to his new home, to what was originally just a leap of faith. I started with Unfinished Business, then I found out that there were plenty of titles under that moniker; also it could be mistaken for a poorly written business book. I lingered over Memories – too soppy and melodramatic. Departure Stains was next, but it sounded like someone had taken a dump on the old country and run away in a hurry seeking sanctuary in the new home (which is true of some shadier immigrants, but is not a general condition). From Both Sides Now is the name of a famous song, so I discarded that one. In desperation, I thought of Untitled but even that has been taken several times over. My Short Stories would be too immature, Immigrant Stories would be better as a sub•title, and I Can’t Bloody Find A Name For This Book would definitely sound paranoid.

I thought of asking my publisher. After all, they are going to market my book, let them do some work. But then I could see their rebound question hitting me squarely in the face: “You can’t even articulate the meaning of your book with an appropriate title? Okay – Reject Pile. Next!”

Dear readers, you seem to be my last resort. If you have an idea, please let me know. Perhaps cyberspace will come to my rescue, and as Frasier Crane said, “I am listening…”

The Dead-ends in Life

When I think of the dead ends I have followed over the years and the amount of time I spent on walking those futile pathways, I must have wasted much of my life. Let me itemize a few of these duds that would not offend friends or family (the rest, you will have to imagine!):

1) Earning four academic degrees, none of which I have any recollection of putting to practical use, except on my ever changing resume. I use Microsoft Office applications more than any other, and these tools I taught myself
2) Trying several times to immigrate to the wrong country (whose name will remain unmentioned) and then, by freakish accidents, ending up in two places I never knew I would ever live in. Dubai in the 80’s was pile of sand attracting only labourers and housemaids; I ended up there for seven years, like Ulysses on Circe’s island seven times over, until I was panting to get out. I then landed in Toronto which had hitherto only been a name on those old paperbacks that claimed “this book is published simultaneously in New York, London, Toronto, Sydney & Auckland”; well, I thought, at least they read in Toronto—must be a nice place. And it was! Why did I take such a circuitous route?
3) Reading hundreds of books, many of which did not advance my understanding of this world one iota, especially the formulaic fiction that everyone was reading because these books were “so cool, and recommended”
4) Writing dozens of stories and novels, only a few which have seen the light of day. The others are making good doorstops or keeping the Post Office solvent with their to•ing and fro•ing
5) Sending out hundreds of job applications and attending dozens of “play•act” interviews only to find employment through the people I had known all along and hadn’t asked
6) Joining, forming, or playing in many music groups, all of which finally collapsed on their own success, leaving me holding onto my lonely guitar, back at square one
7) Pursuing the dot•com phenomenon. Oh, weren’t we champions of that promised new economy during those heady days of the new millennium, creating new business models by the day, taking inventions out of every basement crackpot and trying to find customers for them, and finally imploding when the banks and venture capitalists cut off their financial pipelines.
8) Rebounding to pursue this social networking thing now (Hello! Who’s out there? Are you listening? Do you even care? Do you wanna be my friend? No? THANK YOU!) No one knows where SN is heading, or how it will end. Will it be another dot•bomb?
9) Joining volunteer movements in order to make the world a better place. Instead, this planet has become worse. Oh, you egotistical sod, you were but a solitary spermlet in a sterile ejaculation that could never transform the elusive egg!

I could go on, but I would only end up depressed. A wise man once told me that Planet Earth is not a place for accomplishments but a place for learning hard lessons, often making one end up empty handed but spiritually enriched. If that were the case, I must be well on my way to earning a PhD in this joint soon. But I wonder if I will ever use that credential either?