Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Long View

So anyway I was reading Agent Kristin's Pub Rants earlier this week, and one day she had one about the trends she was seeing in the her queries and the next day she had one about how, sure enough, she found one of those trends in the queries she was reading last thing before bed that very night. (Don't get into any aspect of literature professionally if you don't love it. It invades the lives of everyone who works with it in this all-pervasive way, so you're never not working. Maybe not the accountants, but everybody who deals with books as books is going to be working in their sleep, I promise you.) The comments on the first one are full of relief or agony, depending on whether the commenter has a manuscript that fits into one of the noted trends, and the comments on both talk about examples of the trends, how old they are, how bad it is to jump on a bandwagon and why, what to do when you were on the bandwagon before it ever started but no one believes you now, and so on.

It's obnoxious of me, but I want to pinch the commenters' little cheeks. Some of them are probably older than me, and write better, and will sell another book before I do; but talking about trends and fashions and what's new and what's classic and how things used to be different always makes me feel old. When people say they're tired of vampires and the market must be saturated by now, they've been so ubiquitous for the last couple of years, blaming it all on Ms. Meyer, it really is all I can do not to roll my eyes. I was thinking "Vampires must be about to trend out" during WorldCon 1997. (Which I attended walking uphill both ways after a breakfast of ice cold gravel. You think I'm linking to a Python sketch there; but click it and see!)

Vampires had a big mainstream hit in 1976 with Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, which I remember seeing read in my high school by the same girls who read bodice-rippers. The fashion was current enough and vampire tropes familiar enough for everyone to get the joke when James Howe started producing Bunnicula in 1979. Vampires rode the tide of the mainstream horror fad of the 80s; got big among the fen starting in the late 80s when my husband started accumulating vampire series; ran underground among teens with the Goth fashion in the 90s; invaded the romance/soft porn market with Laurel Hamilton in 1993, and thus was created the atmosphere in which Stephanie Meyer could make absurd amounts of money. You won't hear the names P.N. Elrod, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Jim Butcher, or Fred Saberhagen tossed around in most online discussions of the vampire bandwagon, but talk to serious vampire fans like Damon (who won't read Twilight and wants an abridged edition of Anita Blake in which four or five books have the sex scenes abstracted and are published as one slim all-story volume) and you'll see that the tradition has been developing right along under the mainstream's radar.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is often credited with beginning the connection of vampires with sex, but really John Polidori did that when he made Lord Ruthven a Byronic figure in The Vampyre (1819). Stoker's just the guy who took the sexy vampire mainstream. Take the long view like that, and it's much harder to get too excited about who's copying who, how long the trend will last, or how long it'll be possible to make money off of it.

Another of the trends mentioned, dead protagonists (as distinct from vamps) hadn't come to the notice of most of the commentors yet. Recentish examples I can think of off the top of my head: Neal Shusterman's brilliant Everlost (but Shusterman is usually more or less brilliant), Gabrielle Zevin's intriguing Elsewhere, and even my own The Ghost Sitter, though to be fair it has two protagonists and only one is dead. Some commenters traced the start of the fashion to The Lovely Bones (2002), but someone else compares that book unfavorably to Christopher Pike's Remember Me, 1989. I liked Lovely Bones, myself and don't see any need to force things into hierarchies; but that commentor is beginning to see the point. Only she doesn't go back nearly far enough. When I was in junior high my mother got me to read one of the few romances I've ever read: Tryst, by Elswyth Thane (1939), in which one of a pair of predestined lovers dies before he meets his soulmate but the romance carries on anyway.

The trope hit big once with The Amber Gods, by Harriett Elizabeth Prescott Spoffard, back in 1889. To be sure, it's more like The Sixth Sense the movie than The Lovely Bones the book, in that you aren't supposed to realize that the first-person narrator is dead until the realization hits you like a bucket of cold water in the last sentence of this warm, languorous, sun-drenched book. No one remembers it now, the prose style is hopelessly out of fashion, and only those, like me, who read voraciously and indiscriminately or, like the critic who brought it to my attention, systematically and historically, even know it existed. And this fate will befall Stephanie Meyers in time, and J.K. Rowling, and everyone else who makes huge money on trends.

It doesn't matter. We make a fetish of originality in our culture; but we don't know what it means or how to recognize it when we see it. I've seen Rowling extolled as a ground-breaker in children's literature (no, no, no - she wouldn't claim that for herself) and Shakespeare derided as a plagiarist (so what if he stormed folklore, history, and the classics for plots? Who doesn't?) and all you have to do is read a little outside a narrow window to see that it's all nonsense.

Back in the 70s, the "blank books" fashion started. Nowadays they're all hardbound journals, often better bound than real books, but in those days they were plastic comb bound with slick dustcovers and titles like "Some Incredibly Important Trivia." When I was satisfied with my verse (I hesitate to call it poetry these days) I'd copy it into one. The dustcovers had quotes on the flaps, formatted like blurbs: "I wouldn't care who wrote the laws if I could write the ballads" -- Thomas Jefferson; and "Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself" - James Stephens. I'm still not sure who James Stephens is, after googling it, but I expect he's someone to do with Virginia (Stephens) Woolf. Whatever, it's the best advice I ever got.

You can't control trends. You can't predict them. You can't worry about them. And if you don't limit your reading to the tiny narrow window of your lifetime, if you read broadly and deeply and alertly, you'll soon find that you relax about it all. The well of creativity is drawn from a deep, broad aquifer of experience and culture, most of it held in common. Of course trends emerge. Of course we are inspired by each other and draw from similar sources and get family resemblances among works.

What we read, we think about; what we think about, we write. The more vampire books there are the more vampire books there will be; because if you read a vampire book and like it, you'll get an idea for a vampire book. It's inevitable. So it's important to read the kind of thing you want to write. If you want to write children's books, read children's books. If you want to write fantasy, read fantasy. Stop worrying about what everybody else is doing. Stay aware of it, but stop worrying about it.

It's not easy to keep up the current publishing in any field, heaven knows, and we should be aware of what's out there. That's why agents post about what they're seeing a lot of. But stressing about it is counter productive. So take the long view and get back to work.

This, too, shall pass away.

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