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I think about all the hours that I have put into writing, all the novels and stories published, and an equal amount unpublished and probably never to see the light of day, I wonder whether it has made one dint of difference to the oceans of literature that surround us and keep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

How to write the next literary novel

A fellow writer asked me what it would take to write the next literary novel. I searched through my notes, gathered after wondering for many years in literary wastelands, and came up with these Ten Commandments (caveat emptor: I take no responsibility for the success or failure of your novel):

1) Do away with plot. Plots are superfluous and distract from the language.

2) Create metaphors within metaphors within metaphors…

3) Deliberately obfuscate the flow of the narrative. Forget about beginnings, middles, and ends. Start at the end and go to the beginning. Or better yet, start in the middle and go both ways, testing your reader who wouldn’t know if you are coming or going.

4) Throw in all the literary styles you can think of: dialogue, poetry, screenplay, Q & A, parallel scenes, songs, flashback, flash forward, oh, and bit of straight narrative so that the reader still believes that she is reading a book. Write at least one chapter as one long stream•of•consciousness sentence. Write from about five first•person points of view (of preferably the same scene) and let the reader figure out who is who. Worried this book may be unclassifiable? Who gives a damn? The literary novel makes its own rules. Show them how clever you are.

5) Create characters that are not just larger than life but physically grotesque. Their character flaws and physical defects must yawn larger than the Grand Canyon.

6) Make sure that everyone is sexually repressed but don’t have them express their sexuality—the imagination is better.

7) Invent new words. Go for sound not meaning. And you don’t need a glossary at the end of your book to explain them—if the reader doesn’t get it, too bad! He will put it down to art.

8) Write at least 1000 pages. After the publisher’s cuts, it should not be less than 500 pages. A heavy tome is always authoritative. Also the reader will never finish it, so it will remain a mountain to be conquered, a masterpiece to be returned to time and again, in frustration.

9) Don’t publicize the book. Just make sure it has some scandal attached to it (charges of nihilism, sedition or sexual deviancy would work).

10) Print a limited run of 100 copies, give them away free to people who are looking for a hook or platform to further their own literary careers, then sit back or get on with your regular writing and watch your book become the stuff of legend. Better yet, say it’s out of print and have readers scramble to get their hands on a copy.

In the end, if the reader does not understand your novel, he will put it down to the superior intellect of the writer and your work will be hailed as a classic, only to be read in small doses by scholars.

All the best with your masterpiece!

We will work until we die–one of my seven pillars of wisdom

When I lived in a developing country in Asia many years ago, I looked towards the developed West and was wrapped in envy and a sense of inadequacy. Middle class westerners had plenty of material goods, excellent physical infrastructure, plentiful jobs, rules of conduct that were respected, guaranteed incomes, predictable lifestyles, excellent healthcare and a sense of entitlement that the world and their governments owed them a good quality of life. I felt shafted. In my part of the world we had import bans, shortages of most goods, local industry not worth talking about, corrupt governments, patchy healthcare, crumbling colonial infrastructure, and wars to unsettle us. What I hadn’t counted on was that the West was aging and the East was young, vibrant and bound to burst out of its fetters soon. What I also did not realize was that the fortress walls that had cloaked the advanced West from the backward East (aka barriers to trade) were about to fall off their artificial foundations.

So I came west with a lot of optimism, and after a honeymoon period, I saw the tide begin to turn. Now I live in the West and over here there is crumbling infrastructure, governments mired in debt, high unemployment, healthcare and pensions under siege, industry shrinking and going east, no guarantee of incomes or of employment. The only affluent middle class here will soon be retired public service employees on indexed pensions, who got out early and have only declining healthcare services to contend with. I still feel shafted. And one can never go back.

The lesson from this radical shift is that there is no free lunch. I wrote down my learnings:
1) Walls erected artificially will come down.
2) Inflated benefits will convert into piles of debts – phone any western government!
3) The rich will exploit the poor, always. One can only be rich if someone else is poor. It’s a relative thing. It happened in the Middle Ages, it happened in Dickensian times, it is happening now. It will happen whenever vigilance and resistance is dropped.
4) Standards only apply if there is energy and discipline to uphold them.
5) We will work until we die. “Man will earn his living by the sweat of his brow,” still holds true today, instead of “Man shall retire to a beach at 65 and stare into the sunset with a margarita, while money collects in his bank account.” Maybe this latter mantra works for a privileged few who will die of boredom, but not for the majority of us. Professor Emeritus on full pay has gone out of fashion; temporary worker on minimum wage is in.
6) Our children will be worse off than us because we did not teach them survival. A well fed stomach does not make one lean and mean. A survivor is lean and mean. And as the world lurches over the 7billion mark heading towards 10billion in the next 50 years, only the lean and mean will survive
7) There are no guarantees in life: guaranteed, employment, guaranteed government largess, guaranteed lifestyle – all myths that we created for ourselves in a post war boom when happiness was at a low base.

Having fortified myself with these seven pillars of wisdom, I realized that it really does not matter where you live these days. Each place brings its own set of challenges; each challenge enriches the soul. The pursuit of happiness is a myth. Ours will be the pursuit of experience. Now, I finally get it. But I did I have to travel all the way from east to west to find out?