Monday, April 8, 2013
Marx, a Faustian Bargain, and the Novel as a Literary Commodity
My immediate thought is of a Faustian bargain. Will I sell my literary soul for potential monetary and bestselling-list acclaim? Now this purveyor of insidious intent is not a Mephistopheles, the devilish intermediary of Goethe fame, but one born of the utterly sincere desire to improve my literary and economic fortunes...and most decidedly, like Faust, the temptation exists; at least the lure of acquisition, the pinnacle of all supposed coveted literary goals - fame and fortune! Who would not want the monetary liberty to write at will, unconstrained by the grinding encumbrance of making-ends-meet-employment, the tedium of necessary engagement that pays the perpetual bills but inhibits and constrains writing time?
This train of thought, however, cast my mind along Marxian lines, with the essential assumption being that the literary work was a commodity that could be arbitrarily replaced by another in the authorial minds eye. The novel, at the end of the factory line, is indubitably a commodity in the sense that it is a product of human labor that is intended for consumption within the broader literary landscape. We write so that we may be read do we not? For a writer without an audience (irrespective of size) is, to my mind, a meaningless thing: an empty vessel which despite an attractive exterior lacks the substance which gives it functional purpose, a deprivation that stunts not only the work itself (unfiltered, unaffected, undiscussed by an engaged readership) but also the literary proclivities and passion of the author - for how does one write feverishly and fervently without the hope of reaching a minority, a minimum of few? Do we not all desire our penned-labors to make some modicum of impact? The ripples need not be widespread nor impressive of size - but we must feel that we are writing for a singular purpose.
But if the novel is (once transcribed in ink across the page, packaged and shipped, virtually available on all possible e-forums) indeed a commodity it was not always so. Before it becomes an item that is purchased for a sum, it is a living and breathing thing; a snugly intimate companion within the darkly pulsing neural framework; a fanciful invention of whimsical threads, a fabricated reality that has no roots in commodity, or use value, or economic imperative - produced instead by an immeasurable emotional engagement, by a painstakingly meticulous attention to words, to phrases, and the torturous need to depict the fluidity of action that is cast across the internal screenplay of the writer's mind. This commodity is birthed in passion, in the unmitigated desire to string words together in a meaningful way. For the toiling writer the subsequent manuscript is a soulful heartsong given literary wing; an improbably bejeweled insect in delicate flight.
Before emerging as 'commodity' this winged one is necessarily encased, confined, stamped, packaged and distributed. It is a version of solidity, a dragonfly immobilized in amber that is no less beautiful in the translucence of wing and the ambiguity of molten gold - arrested in the ethereal elegance of winged flight. But the novel is no longer the same as it was - it is now a collection of pages, stamped in ink, a series of like-spines on a bookseller's shelf, a meandering association of binary bits for sale at kindle prices. It is now subject to all the vagaries of the reading public - to be damned or elevated on the whims of the occasional reviewer - to be consigned to publishing oblivion or thrust forth into the spotlight of orchestrated literary applause.
But it is the beginnings that most intrigue me. I am after all a writer of prose; a fashioner of literary dreams; an avid collector of dragonflies before their flight is stilled. I do not merely write to demand, not do I construct with one eye to commercial viability, I write the lyrical song that thrums through my blood, that reverberates across the rhythmic thud of heartbeat, that echoes from the polished cavity of bone. So to the earnest interlocutor, to those who do not labor over ink-stained manuscripts as the darkness fades into dawn, to those who do not birth literary passions, but whom indubitably mean well - I simply smile and thank them. For as with a leopard's allocated spots, we as writers are just as indubitably bound by the uniqueness of our particular resonating theme; one that moreover seems to choose us more particularly than otherwise - a statement more readily comprehended by the scribbling ilk than not I fear. For this is not something I would say to my well-meaning interlocutor. They would gaze at me with irritable perplexity - as if I was deliberately choosing an obscure literary fate deprived of economic succor simply to spite them - but this is an understood thing. How could it be otherwise? Because they see only the commodity! It is one and the same; this book or that, this well-run theme or that commercial-success formulaic, and our obdurate refusal to comply is simply a self-defeatist masochism for which we should, at the end of it all, be thoroughly chastised!
For I believe that great writers are possessed of an inward-gaze; utterly focused on the literary endeavor (ofttimes it can be said to the utter detriment of subsequent marketing efforts). But it should be so. For that is where the wellspring lies, the much-belabored creative source, the seedlings that give rise to mightiest of literary oaks. So when tempted by the easy incline of commercial formula, of the 'guaranteed' publishing success of this other genre or that, or by this kind of writing or that, the writer must carefully consider their own internal imperative and whether or not they are utterly impassioned by the harmony of the literary song - to the point that they will expend an untold accumulation of time, each page hard-won and stained with the residual trails of blood and sweat. For at the very least, at the end of such Sisyphean labor (for does one not then begin again?) do we not want to look upon our literary offspring with maternal pride? To feel it an exercise glorious and an endeavor instilled with a meaningful truth?
For once the Faustian bargain is struck payment indubitably comes due - years or decades later, when all those delicate threads of potential literary marvel have become knotted and entangled, accumulating in acidic discomfort like a hard bellystone of unrelenting regret - yes one might achieve monetary wealth from novels frequently-churned, but is one's writing accompanied by a frisson of utter delight? Is the manifestation of the literary thing, commodity or otherwise. a piece of work of which one can proudly say "yes, that one in all it's imperfections, yes, that one is mine" ?