If these genre conventions had flesh and blood, I would fight them with swords. As it is, I am powerless. They win. If a book is not neat and square and laid out in rows, the market won’t have it. I still have to get my elevator pitch together. I still have to let the audience know what category I fall into, or they won’t know where to put me. If they can’t put me, they won’t even take a second look, assuming they see me at all.
I study the ways people can put me. Interesting. I’m not sure what “religious fiction” means. Is it fiction that creates living religion, or fiction that panders to the comfortably religious? Who reads this fiction? Those who seek to align themselves to reverence, or those who believe they have already figured reverence out? The former know they need stories. The latter prefer certainties in their breakfast cereal.
Sometimes I hate facts, numbers, budgets, research, categories—anything that holds me down with its insistence on certainty. Same with jamming my work into holes: it’s like trying to recork champagne. Rigid form will not hold joyous, expansive function. Once the cork is out, it’s out, and it grows in celebration. I grow weary of this logical world with its emphasis on corks that go back in nicely and just-sos and tests and gatekeepers and résumés. I just don’t fit back into the bottle.
Today I opened my music composition notebooks for the first time in four years. The transport to that creative period of my life was instantaneous. I’m there again, at the height of the construction of a style. Each successive piece that emerges is a frontier work for me. I am so alive back then, so unselfconscious, that I can still make things that are wholly new. This is because four years ago, I knew very little first-hand of the pressure towards conformity that the market puts on published art. Knowing nothing of this idiocy, I was able to write fresh literature and music with abandon. Look at me now: all of today’s work, spat from the grind of trying to make it as a writer, feels like nothing but a tired rehashing of my earliest, unpublished successes.
A remark that my music composition professor made after I had finished a large piano sonata has resonated in my mind for four years. It has come to define the neurosis that twists its way into every avenue of art I pursue. I can still hear my professor speaking behind me as I sit at the upright piano in his office: “Well, it’ll be interesting to see what you do now. Some people only have one big piece in them.” It came true in music, as I never wrote another big piece after that sonata. Will it come true now in literature, too?
How does a person with a muse get by in a world of grids and rigid logic and instant categorization? I am, like E.E. Cummings, “unfit for any kind of occupation.” That which I am most fitted to create, which flows from a prostrate fall before Beauty itself, is viewed as an entertainment commodity in the culture at large. When I publish a 70,000-word paean to the recklessness of divine love, the book will “compete” alongside subway reading about vampires and sexual deviants. And when I consider that the book will often be read on a device that lets the person instantly navigate away to email, social media, or even pornography, I lose all hope for the sanctity of art. This breakdown of categories is not good. Though we still are what we eat, we are now also what we click on; and if our clicking habits display a manic inability to focus on profundities, our minds must display the same thing.
I understand that we need content cues, a sort of lexical and visual shorthand for what we’ll find in a book or on a website. But I can’t figure out this particular communication ritual, this here branding thing. What is its language? How is it decoded, and how do I encode it? How do I sell without selling? Is anyone out there looking for something of value? Do I even have something of value? How do I put my work in a package that will communicate its value? How do I stick the needle of my work in somebody?
The clot thickens: generally a good thing, as it prevents bleeding to death—but here, I am, confronted with a culture that defines itself by its favorite TV shows, its love of Call of Duty. This culture is not ready for what I have to say, for the surgery I must perform. Should I bother making the cut, knowing that this culture’s immune system may reject my work as a foreign pathogen? Should I try to get through the emotional and psychological clot that this conformity achieves, or will no one really get my work anyway?
It isn’t even that great art is being lost in the noise; rather, for those unpracticed in contemplation, great art does not even exist. To them, my hymn to divine love probably sounds like the off-key mumblings of a psychotic. They lack the software to decode my file type. How do I get people to download the codec they need to make sense of the madness of beauty?
Maybe we shouldn’t even try. Maybe we should just keep saying what must be said, painfully squeezing it into something like a conventional format, and selling it. How sneaky to weave transcendent beauty into the entertainment product! Oh, is this criminal? Then send me to prison for life.