Literary Offenses

So I have three business plans to write. I’ve downloaded a handful of templates, ranging from sixteen pages to more than twice that, and, of course, they’re mostly blank. When I’m done they’ll be mostly blank anyway, so that’s okay.

I decided to let them sit there and get blanker for a moment while I took a break to read Project Gutenberg’s somewhat spastic copy of “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Mark Twain.

God Bless Project Gutenberg, but there are some things that don’t render well to straight 8-bit ASCII. Also you should never trust any optical character recognition software to produce a text file without adult supervision.

With that as a caveat, I’ll sum up my impression of Twain’s work by saying he goes on for a bit about how Cooper, specifically in Deerslayer and other works of his “leather stockings” series, demonstrates an execrable ignorance of how to tell a story, how to devise and represent a character, how people actually talk, and how to choose the right word to convey his meaning. Cooper also, according to Twain, lacks any knowledge of or respect for Native Americans, woodcraft, watercraft, guncraft, marksmanship, and battlefield technology and operations–for all that his stories plots hinge on and revolve around such fields of knowledge–and obviously felt research to be either a waste of time or beneath him.

In fact, Twain himself can be summed up by the phrase “goes on for a bit.” Not that he’s not amusing. He’s just unfortunately dated by his assumption of literacy and attention-span in his readers. Or maybe things haven’t actually changed all that much since Twain’s time and he was just hopeful. Or not inclined to shut up no matter what he thought of his audience’s capacity to keep up. Or, like many others of his era, paid by the word, not the work.

It’s one of the reasons poetry is no longer published in magazines, that “paid by the word” thing. Speaking as a future publisher of poetry, I hope to find a better model for paying contributors. Speaking as a scientist, I’d much prefer to strap a handful of representatives of the target audience into MRI machines and pay contributors based on the amount of difference between before and after brain scans, regardless of the length or format of the piece contributed.

If a piece can’t change your mind even a little bit regardless of the wordcount, what’s the point of me showing it to you? What’s the point of you seeing it? But if it is capable of changing your mind, why should I pay less for a poem than for a story that’s a longer diversion but of lesser importance?

Why not pay full price for the best novel Hemingway ever wrote (according to himself), of which the text, in its entirety, is the following: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” That has some impact, doesn’t it? If so, then what’s wrong with paying $25 for a hardback edition? $15 for a trade paperback? $8 for a mass-market edition? $5 for the Cliff’s Notes? $10 for the movie starring George Clooney and Scarlett Johansen?

Because if we’re not paying for impact, for what you carry away from the experience, then we’re paying merely for the length of time we don’t have to think about something else other than what we’re reading. We’re paying for the escape from ourselves.

Not that an escape doesn’t have some value, I admit it, but as commodities, escape versus impact … well, one of them is sadder than the other. I’m just sayin’.

Maybe for poetry, I’ll just drop in enough blank pages to stare at afterward so readers can think about what they just read without having to put the book down, and I’ll pay the poet based on the thinking space the work warrants.

Or maybe I’ll just put in those blank pages from my business plans.


April 2, 2007 · by xalieri · Posted in Everything Else  


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