Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Writer Stereotype

We see the writer stereotype in the movie, “Her,” with Joaquin Phoenix playing a character named Theodore Twombley. Wimpy, weepy, withdrawn, “walled-off,” crying at the drop of a hat. Reclusive. Soft. Dependent. To call him feminized would be an insult to women.

We’ve come a long way since the days of Ernest Hemingway and Jack London!

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Hemingway was like a rock star. He had a greater cultural footprint, as a celebrity and personality, than any actor, singer, or sports figure. That’s when literature still mattered.


Since those days, the position of writers in the culture has become marginalized. We had a recent example of this with the announcement of nominations for the NBCC awards. NBCC? What’s that?

Meanwhile, awards for the feckless and untalented, Golden Globes and Grammies, grab the TV space and headlines. Writers don’t try to compete. They’re, uh, withdrawn. They’re absorbed with the personal. Such careful, cautious, and withdrawn thinking is why literature in America is a declining cultural phenomenon and a dying art.


The writing game is well-regulated. If you try to make noise, the mandarins who control things can’t stand it. The entire system from top to bottom, MFA programs to editors and agents in New York, is designed to screen out dynamism and noise.

Philadelphia novelist Lawrence Richette didn’t fit the stereotype. He was, yes, egotistical and outspoken. He believed in himself. He didn’t make artistic decisions according to the whims of the Insider literary crowd. Book editors wanted nothing to do with him, despite his talent. Imagine if this philosophy were practiced in the worlds of movies, music, and sports!


One of the objectives of the Underground Literary Alliance was to turn the writer stereotype on its head. That’s why I brought larger-than-life macho roots authors Jack Saunders and Wild Bill Blackolive into the outfit.

To me, to be any good, and not just a mass of solipsistic sensibilities, the writer needs to be MORE engaged with the world than the average person. Outgoing and out there; amid human society and the organized chaos of nature. A public figure. The lit game needs public figures, of greater personality and larger presence than Jonathan Franzen and Alice Munro!


Sixty years ago, professional American football was a niche sport. On Superbowl Sunday tomorrow it will be the centerpiece of the nation—focal point of the economy. What happened?

It’s not that football is very intrinsically exciting. A few minutes of action punctuated by constant breaks. Football gained prominence through:

A.) New outlets; chiefly television.

B.) Unparalleled marketing.

C.) The creation of striking characters and storylines. Richard Sherman to Wes Welker to Peyton Manning. Quick: name one character from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

But as I’ve said, the literary world doesn’t even try to compete.


Anonymous said...

Maybe this is just a generational thing, but I struggle to finish Hemingway's books. They were probably edgy and fast for their time, but none of them have really grabbed me. I tried reading The Sun Also Rises again last year and I couldn't make it. I cared nothing for the spoiled characters... crass privilege on display, self-absorbed everything!!

Personally, I believe Hemingway was part of the problem. He was PAINFULLY C.I.A., and the stagnation problems in US Lit have a lot to do with the incestuous relationship between that organization and publishing. Keep publishing writers who push 'right-think', as well as a smattering of friends, lovers, kids... and you end up with 'boring'. Hemingway was the beginning of a flood of boring.

And now we watch football.

King Wenclas said...

No one alive today can fully understand the impact of Hemingway's prose when it came out. But we have to try to if we're to understand his importance. His writing, esp his stories looked and sounded unlike anything else.
The short story needs a similar change now-- that kind of upheaval. (Not the same style-- though it was recycled 30 years ago via Raymond Carver.) The idea that an art can never stand still. Yet our literature has been standing still-- witness the celebration of Alice Munro, who offers nothing new.
Hemingway was important for a second reason-- like him or not, or how he did it, but he kept the idea of "writer" before the public. Part of the greater culture. He understood instinctively the importance of promotion & publicity, though to a large extent it was self-promotion & self-publicity. He created his own myth about himself; something uniquely American, a la Buffalo Bill and Davy Crockett. Hemingway was part of Americana.
Yes, grittier and/or more authentic and intelligent writers were/are needed. Good luck finding them. When I tried to promote same ten years ago, my planned "stars" ran in the other direction!
The questions remain:
-Is literature marginalized in American culture?
-WHY is it marginalized? You touch on a couple possible reasons. The problem is broader, or at least deeper, than that.
-HOW do we turn the situation around? (Is it worth the bother?)