Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Being a Grad Student and Pursuing Publication

A weird thing happens when you're both a writer and a student of literature.  You realize that your perspective is...skewed.

Now, plenty of people in academia also write.  Plenty of grad students have notebooks full of poetry or short stories or novels.  And plenty of professors--at least, the ones who keep their posts in publish-or-perish academic departments--have experienced the highs and lows of publication.  Yet there's still kind of an oddity actively pursuing both commercial publication and a degree in studying things that are published commercially.

An illustration.  In one class, a professor (for humorous effect) outlined the belief that many people have that books are written by writers and then proceed directly through the magic of "becoming published" with no further interference.  I burst out laughing, not the polite titters of my classmates, but solid "Yes, it's so completely the opposite! What you just said is beautifully absurd! I love it! HASHTAG HILARIOUS!" laughter.

He kind of glanced at me as he continued, "Yes, but you all think this in some way or another!"

Thing is, when you're a writer pursuing publication, you don't.  You definitely don't.

And here's the thing--it's often treated in the study of literature as a dilution of the author's intent, all those "things" that can happen to a work between end of drafting and publication.  That somehow, the input of agents and editors "takes away" from the work the writer did.  I sense a clear undercurrent of that in many discussions of literature.  "Well, Dickens did it this way because of the serialized nature of the work..." with a sigh that oh, his work would have been purer had he not been constrained.  "It seems the editor took some liberties with the chapter breaks" as though goodness! The editor was quite the idiot and the author in question was infallible.

I feel a kinship of understanding, probably completely inappropriate given that I'm little old me and not a Great Author, with Great Authors, simply because I *get* what they went through to write a complete work.  And maybe I'm just not at their level of genius, but input *helps.* My work is *better* after my agent makes a recommendation, even if the rec comes more out of a concern over saleability than "pure" art.  Because what is so pure about written work, anyway? It's process work.  It's never truly "finished"--we just decide at some point to stop tweaking.  Not only that, but it is formula work.  Part of the beauty is the way in which is fits a formula.  We reject a novel that's thirty pages long because it isn't a novel--yet we criticize the "meddling input" of an editor who suggested re-working the breaks on Shelley's Frankenstein for re-publication.  We don't want to harsh the author's writerly buzz with silly concerns about saleability...except we do want the author to utilize form.  It's a fascinating, weird question of applications.

Further, it's fascinating to recall that, though we study many Great Authors as bastions of literature today, they weren't necessarily publishing believing themselves to be Bearers of Great Literature.  They were, many of them, commercial successes.  We can't read them as Literature without remembering that they (even, yes, those Great Authors) knew a thing or two about appealing to an audience.  They weren't writing in--or for--a vacuum.

So I find myself feeling the need to push back against this mentality that any "intrusion" on the author's "pure" writing is bad.  I'm experiencing the intrusions of people, market pressures, audience expectations--they're not necessarily "bad." They may, yes, guide my work--but we agree that work benefits from some guidance.  Constraints can actually produce better work, in my view.

How does writing influence how you think about what you study, or where you work? Does it change your expectations or outlook?

4 comments:

  1. I completely agree. The 'public' has a very misinformed view of publishing and editors. I for one am so grateful for my agent's feedback on my work. I've learned across edits over several books that writers are in their own heads too much. As hard as we try, we can't obtain an outsider's perspective of the story. When I'm polishing a first draft I'm full of many internal 'rules' for the story, and I might sense something isn't working but I can't imagine it another way, so I let it slide. My agent holds me to a higher standard, or is able to pinpoint the things I sensed were off but couldn't specifically identify.

    I think that's part of why traditionally published writers sometimes look down at self-published writers, especially those who become commercial successes. We KNOW our own work is full of inconsistencies and messy bits, and we see the tempering that goes on during the editing process. To see readers gobble up writing we know we'd get taken to task for can be frustrating.

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    1. So true about outsider's perspective--that it's really hard to be objective. And I don't see including an outsider as "diminishing" the work at all, but making it clearer.

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  2. I think you bring up a fascinating point. Many of the great authors were nurtured by their editors sometimes for years in ways that helped the author's writing mature. Instead of taking us further from the author's vision, the editors may have brought us closer.

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    1. I *LOVE* how you phrase that--that outside input can take us closer to our own vision. Bingo.

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