Sunday, February 9, 2014

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

Raise your hand if you thought I'd been defeated in my latest bid for literary gory.  I mean glory.  Show of hands, please.

Not yet, my erstwhile friend, not yet!  Soon, perhaps, but not yet.

As I thought, having a private blog where I can post excerpts from my first-draft for a small group of adoring readers has been very helpful.  It fends off an insidious sloppiness and inspires me to look at my work with greater objectivity.  And it is another motivation to write, (in addition to my own powerful motivation to tell the story).

Posting a chapter, or what will become the basis for a chapter, is very satisfying.  Once it's posted, I see it differently yet again, and I make further corrections.

Needless to say, once the link to this post is on Facebook, I will click on the link myself and make even more corrections.  It's a perverse process of publication and self-correction.  (Hence, my hyperbolic title, let a hundred flowers bloom, referring to Mao Zedong's campaign of encouraging everyone to express themselves openly, and then sending the dissidents to self-criticism camp.)  (It's an absurd comparison, but I have to pepper my prose with historical references, now, and it's about to get worse, so hold onto your hat.)

Charles Dickens' The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club was written in twenty serial installments between 1836 and 1837.  It was the first writer-reader relationship of its kind.  Dickens heard his readers' (they were legion) response to what he had just written, and he knew that they were eager for the next installment of the story.   Would the public have been as hungry to consume a 784-page novel as they were to consume the piecemeal portions that continually whet their appetites?

Could he have written the 784-pages of The Pickwick Papers without his readers' enthusiasm and energy?
His very first published book was a collection of sketches that he had submitted to various magazines for publication.  On the strength of those sketches, he was hired to write the captions for artist Robert Seymour’s humorous sports-themed illustrations.   Dickens "captions" were so well received by the reading public that they superseded the illustrators.  The tables were turned: the illustrator supported the author.  And then, I don't know why, perhaps he took succession terribly hard; the illustrator took himself out of the picture entirely.

I think that the immediacy of Dickens' relationship with his readers as he was writing influenced his writing enormously.  (I don't offer this forth as an original thesis, I'm just sayin'.)   I feel, when I read Dickens, a particular devotion to his reading public, and a quick search on Google finds his own words, confirming:

Literature cannot be too faithful to the people, cannot too ardently advocate the cause of their advancement, happiness and prosperity.  --Charles Dickens

Shakespeare also had a close and immediate relationship with his audience.   Far from being holed up in a study, Shakespeare more likely wrote from the wings, or in the otherwise empty box seats at the Globe.  He probably revised as he directed.  It is certain that his actors played a role in rephrasing Shakespeare's lines, perhaps even inventing lines, that we attribute to Shakespeare solely.

The audience imposed criteria on Shakespeare's work:

  1. It had to amuse the ordinary and disenfranchised people as well as the rich merchants, Queen Elizabeth, buccaneers, humanists, Catholics, and Protestants. 
  2. The greater part of the audience stood on their feet for the entire play--and spat, or threw rotten tomatoes at the stage if it failed to divert their attention from varicose veins, arthritis, sciatica, lice, consumption, or the consumptive cough of the bloke behind them, spraying it on their neck; never mind: itchy scalps, festering sores, fallen arches, or the chills, fatigue, and "a vague sense of apprehension" that accompanied the mysterious-terminal-Tudor sweating sickness.   

Shakespeare's motivation was clear enough: worm-and-disease-infested tomatoes and putrid-stinking garbage, or absolutely-they're-going-to-love-it-don't-worry-get-out-there-effing genius.   

All lines that did not fall trippingly off the tongue were ripped out of the mouth, with the sentiment of   castaways bailing seawater out of a leaky boat.  In the interest of money and art, and in the spirit of fear and survival, Shakespeare's scripts were forged in a lousy, itching, desperate, diseased, powerful, decorous, and above-all deserving audience, and shaped into transcendent poetry.

There are those who say that Shakespeare was too low-born and humbly educated to have been himself.   Instead, he had to be a noble, or at least a favorite at the Queen's court.  Such a candidate would have written in secret, far from the madding crowd.  Alone, without benefit of tomatoes, he would have written great literature for art's sake, without hope of credit, legacy, or agenda.

Yeah, right.  Tell it to the hand.  There is no single person smarter than a whole audience.  (It's true: there was a study done sometime in the late nineties. I heard it on NPR.  It concluded that a group of people was almost always smarter in the aggregate than any single smart person.)

So, yes.  I am still writing the book.  I'm on Chapter Ten.  According to my adoring, hand-picked readers, it doesn't suck.  However, I have noticed their attention flagging in the last two installments, so I guess I'll have to step up my game.

Reverence is fatal to literature.  --E.M. Forster
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