Today it’s the direct opposite. For over a decade now, the goal of the vast majority of my students with professional writing ambitions is to make a lot of money. In the 1960s, they would have been called hacks. Not today. And today “the literary novel,” the backbone of publishing half a century ago, is a pejorative term, a novel that won’t sell and few will read. Today commerce rules the roost.
What happened? A major thing that happened is that in the 1980s publishing houses started being bought up by large international corporations, media conglomerates. The same thing happened in the film industry. Now “family businesses” run by those who loved literature became divisions of huge companies, run by accountants. Publishing and film became “bottom line” businesses.
I’ve done both outside-in and inside-out writing over the years. As managing editor of Oregon Business Magazine in the 1980s, I wrote features aimed at a business audience. At the same time, I was doing inside-out writing as playwright-in-residence at the New Rose Theatre, where I wrote serious plays for serious theater goers.
It’s easy to retire from outside-in writing. You just stop. But it’s not so easy to retire from inside-out writing. The brooding and self-exploration, the reflection and sleepless stream of consciousness associated with literary writing cannot be turned off like a faucet. This is why some say writers never retire: literary writers may not. In Zen, poetry is defined not as words on paper but as the mode of thought in the mind of the poet. If a poet stops putting words on paper, s/he might still be “thinking like a poet.” Is this retirement?
I have two archives full of literary writing, one online at the University of North Carolina (www.ibiblio.org/cdeemer) and one in hard copy at the University of Oregon. I’ve done more inside-out writing than commercial writing but I’ve been lucky to live at a time when this activity was not put in the bad light that affects it today. I also worked at a time, early in my career, when grants to literary writers were easier to get than they are today. The culture subsidized literary writing more than it does today.
I started my career in fiction, went to playwriting, where I had most of my artistic success, went to film, where I had much of my commercial success (and this without having films made!), and returned to fiction after tiring of the necessary collaborative element in all script writing. Will I continue writing after I retire as a teacher? I’ll have more time, after all.
Maybe and maybe not. We’ll see. My large archive may be large enough. Indeed, my recent essay (and the title of a recent collection of essays, available at Amazon) “Creativity. Faith. Impotence.” speaks to the issue of retirement for a writer. I take the Zen position, that writers like myself don’t retire but they do change and become more mind-oriented, less socially communicative.
I’ve been blessed with a good life and a productive life as a literary writer. If I were young today, I doubt if I would become a writer at all because commercial success never interested me and today that’s the name of the game. But the pendulum will swing again. It always does. And today, with digital technology, work is not as hidden as it once was. Of course, this means bad writing is more available than ever. But it also means, I believe, that works of literary genius are lurking in dark corners of cyberspace, and one day someone will find them and announce them to the world.
At that time, “the literary novel” will no longer be a pejorative term and writers who tell stories of vampires will not be as admired as those who try to figure out what it really means to be human. I won’t be here to see it but I am sure it will happen. Or at least, this is my understanding of the human condition.