Realism has become moot. It’s not worth it anymore to paint a picture with your words of what a barn looks like unless there’s a character behind the description and so a point to your picturing; and even if those pictures are bleak and dismal—painted to evoke a sense of sadness or to be used as a backdrop to show the unfair or horrible world we live in—it’s senseless to show this without the mind behind it to ponder and question it or a heart behind it to strive against the bleak and dismal. There was a time when it worked. It gave people peeks into different kinds of lives, peeks into countries, and the men and women of those countries; it gave us peeks into customs and cultures and mores and taboos; it gave us ideas and mindsets and arguments; and more importantly, it gave us our own viewpoints reflected back to us, on where we stood as a human race and human culture, and so from this viewpoint, new ideas were shared, and revolutions and rebellions were born and nurtured. Great change came from Literature, once. Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, quipped, “I finally have the pleasure of meeting the little lady who started this war,” referring to Stowe’s classic and raw portrait of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its impact on the Civil War. To say that a novel started the American civil war is a humorous exaggeration on the part of President Lincoln, but it certainly was one of the war’s key components in its inception. Realism back then had the power to do this, as certainly the novel did as one of many shockwaves sent out among the country and the world on the heinous crime against humanity in the United States, bringing into people’s homes and minds the brutal truth of slavery.
It’s different today. There are no less horrendous things happening, but they are reported to us and described to us from two or so dozen other forms of media that have been developed over the years, not only in written forms such as nonfiction, journalism, and biography but in other forms as well, involving the heavily technological ones of the early twenty-first century of the Internet, social media, and smart phones. With every hit of the Refresh button, we are bombarded by shocking, disgusting, and disturbing and depressing images if we go looking for them. And that’s the important phrase there—if we go looking for them—because now that we have access to every portal of the humane and inhumane world via the 1nternet, this tidal wave of ever-changing data and 1nformation is overtaking us, making us more indifferent and more frustrated to understand it. S0 we ignore those very things with th0usands of games, v1deos, shows, mov1es, apps, and soc1al and artful med1a from that same Internet. 0ur machines tell us what t0 d0, and s0 we d0 them. S0 0110 01 what d0 1e d0 now?
In other words, Literature can never again shock us with portraits of reality. (I include in the title ‘Literature’ the short form—short stories and flash—the long form—novels and novellas—and poetry; the day-in-the-life tales about human beings here and now on this planet, dealing with the things that we’re dealing with in this human experience. I can only vouch for this particular genre because I only care and write and mostly read from this genre. If you want a piece on the future of non-fiction or the of popular genres, any of those writers in their fields can answer for you. Literature with a capital L is, was, and always will be what I’m most focused on, most worried for, and most excited about because Literature reflects the culture’s most lived self, where we’ve learned the best and the worst of each other, and it holds one of the keys to our humanity’s future together, if we are to continue to have one. Storytelling has kept us together so far because, at the dawn of humanity, it had (besides survival) gotten and kept us together in the first place. Literature is a more sophisticated level of this nature of telling stories, affording us the unique ability to delve into each other’s minds, bodies, hearts, spirits, and souls using the coded sharing system we call language. In other words, Literature is the greatest invention of all of humanity.)
The old Literature has become lazy. It’s become printed tv and cinema. Established literary authors and their own sub-sets and sub-sub-sets have become safe, lazy, formulaic, and the men and women they influence have become the same. When was the last time you read a piece of Literature that moved you, shaped you, clung to you in the waning minutes of your waking day while you were laying in bed? What novel scared you or surprised you with its unfettered honesty, its brilliance, or its mastery of imagery and style?
The old has at least some semblance of cause to become safe and lazy with their work: they were bold and young once. What of today? Who will fill the void? No one has yet, and no one ever will until we overcome the main obstacle in our generation’s past–fear. Our Literature has been infested with an existential ennui, an emotional distance of that of the voyeur, a thing which every single one of us has become. We are no longer a society of doers but watchers. I described this emotional distance in my review of Jesse Ball’s book Census, how I just wanted the narrator to feel something, anything, except the descriptions of his own mind. Does indifference in our society really need to keep on being portrayed in our Literature? Is it still essential to keep on being reminded that our lives are futile, bleak, and dying without the human and emotional responses that actually accompany this dread? Where is our passion? Where is our fire? Where is our soul in our poor art anymore?
Literature has fallen behind the arts. Look at every other art form and you’ll see dynamic, raw, creative brilliant men and women creating truly new and honest and passionate artifacts; art that explodes dimensions and space, labels and expectations and theories.
Some say it’s over, that the novel is dead for good now. Maybe for some it’s something completely different than what we need it to be, and so has become another distraction. Or maybe we’ve evolved past it and it has to catch up somehow. Maybe our Literature will occur within our minds as webs of media flashed like dreams from our unconsciousnesses. So the question is where does Literature fit into this new world of ours, of technology and eight-second attention spans (one second less than a goldfish’s)?
With great suffering comes the lashing back of innovative, inspiring, and passionate creation. An entire country of mine was engaged in a civil war that resulted in some of the most frustrated, bemused, and disheartened people in our history; and left with nothing but a ghost of a president after Lincoln’s death, they watched as their great government grew corrupt and their great country, split and sewn back together, pull itself away at the seams. But Literature filled up this void, and yes these men and women were mostly white, but their spirits claim them otherwise in the rebirth of every generation of Americans since. All around you are Henry David Thoreus and Ralph Waldo Emersons and Emily Dickinsons and Walt Whitmans. Take their spirit and create and complete with it, and do not be afraid for what people will think of you. Nothing creative has ever been made with the fear in mind of what people will think of you. Send it off to the world; do not be afraid.
Do that one true thing and do it the best way you can and with the best intentions. Be passionate and honest and stop trying to be clever and smart and right all the time. Be wrong and admit it. Then it’s not about just being black or white or brown or beige or grey, or male or female or trans, or bi or gay or asexual, it’s about being human. Ani Difranco once sang: “First we admit our mistakes/then we open our eyes.” We are not our labels, no matter how many categories we give ourselves. We are Earthlings, we our humans, and we must admit that to others and forgive them for their mistakes, but first we must dig deep within ourselves to first admit to our own. Literature will do this. Literature will heal us.
Don’t just write about characters, write about people. Pour into every one of your characters’ heads and hearts your own dreams, ideas, thoughts, fears, and hopes. Weave that chrysalis of hero-worship and then break out of it: become your heroes and then surpass them. Be your own Dostoevsky, Woolf, Mann, Camus and Eliot and Dickinson, and not society’s or the culture’s version of them. Show us your own symbols and pictures and metaphors. Be daring, be noble.
I firmly believe that if you write something that shows all of yourself—that shows you as both the fake and the scared and the frustrated and the clever asshole that you know you are while also showing the loving and the beautiful and the sensitive and the engaging and the compassionate genius you know you are too—then that is the honest beginning of the new Literature.
I don’t know what this new Literature will look like, I haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps I never will live to. I’ll be a part of it, I know that. And in our differences in both human makeup and writing style, we’ll seem so far apart from a New Literature that we won’t even be able to soon call ourselves ones anymore. We’ll grow out of our form the way the great creators have slipped out of labels and signs and titles that the masses have given them. So, in a way, I’ve called the end of this new literary revolution even before its begun; now all that’s got to be done is the thing itself. So get to work.
I will say this new Literature will be not about the showing things of the world and its people, with all their details and habits and traits, but will be more of what poetry is—the passionate and the emotional, the different states of the human being and its own styles of language to portray them, and the courageous endeavor to plumb the depths of our being for the answers of life. The physical state, the emotional state, the psychological state, and the thoughts and feelings and pictures of the mind are to be the new frontiers of this new Literature.
Because it cannot be about simple realism anymore. Our new Literature will be an artifact, not a model; a myth, not a story. Make your myths and create your stories. But it begins with us. We must stop treating our Literature as something as easy and pointless as a tweet or as stuffy and condescending as a Facebook comment. Because our language is changing. Even the ways of speaking in conversation, of describing people, of the jokes we tell each other, and of the labels we give our closest friends is coming under scrutiny, and long overdue. Language is power, and it creates more than just dreams in our heads to read at night, language changes minds, evokes revelations, and shatters beliefs. Language can twist and turn our worlds to the point of breaking or it can sing us to sleep. Language can flower our night sky with blooms of fire or blanket our eyes with sheets of lightning. Language is real, but language can be fake. Those in power exploit this and misuse us for their own gain. But I am one of those optimistic assholes that believe there is strength in dire times. I know this because I’ve read it—in Literature. There is strength in story, in characters, in plots and conflicts. There is strength in metaphors, in poetry, and in dialogue.
This mythology will not be built in an instant, but we can stake our lives on creating ourselves as the people or the instruments or even the bolts and rivets that will one day be hammered home in the structures of this new mythology. One very good way of doing that is to write passionately and truthfully. Be the beginners of this new mythology. Tell your story through stories of characters peripheral to you. Don’t you know the best of what literature can offer is to make a synthesis out of two opposing viewpoints? Write a truth and expand it. Or write a lie and exploit it. Be fearful, be weary, be hopeful, be silly, and forget the sarcastic, dry, oversaturated intellectualization that is still running loose throughout our beloved art form. What emotional walls must we break through? Break them; and if you can’t break them, try your hardest to weaken them. What characters will talk to you and how will they respond? Be wrong as long as it’s compassionate and loving and intended for good. Do not be afraid of being wrong! Why are we so afraid of today and tomorrow and the next?
Again I cannot tell you what this Literature will be just yet, but I can tell you that it can no longer be an insincere, snide, dry, and sarcastic voice hidden away in its own inflated ego of itself, with nothing to add to the form except its own emotional distance, indifference, and careless, pithy realism. It will live and breathe again because we will breathe new life into it.