Monday, May 2

Portrait of the Author as Human Vendo Machine

I, Stevie Robot. Illustration by Jillian Tamaki.

Andre Mayer looks into the
phenomenon of the prolific author. He acknowledges that the (romantic) ideal of the writer is that of the reclusive, hair pulling brooder huddled in front of his typewriter, laboring to get a thousand words a day. Anyone who doesn't fit that ideal is seen as an aberration, a freak and at best, a hack. The Stephen Kings of the world are deemed to be not "literary enough." Their works--plot driven mysteries or horror pieces are relegated to that tissue paper slot of the "literary soap opera." Mayer concedes that "The books are amiably escapist, and because they’re crafted with something finer than the workmanlike prose of a John Grisham or Danielle Steel, they’re deemed serious fiction."

It's like taking off the veil from the illusion. Book writing is thought to be a serious business--if you're not angsty enough or if you view writing as though it's as mundane as doing your laundry, then you're probably not a real writer, and there's a stigma to that. "It hearkens back to this notion we have of how “serious” novels are created — that every sentence is the result of years of contemplation and agonized toil. Anything less is deemed half-assed — or purely for a commercial audience. " Or as David Foster Wallace, he of the thousand page tomes, once said of Updike: "Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

The dichotomy between hack and "serious writer" will always be there. Meanwhile, George Murray of Bookninja sees the one book per annum quota as something like a car crash. For him, it is “the literary equivalent of watching a skinny Japanese dude scarf down 100 hot dogs in an eating contest; you are kind of grossed out, but gotta hand it to him.” He also has a theory about the differences between genre writers like Stephen King and literary novelists like Joyce Carol Oates. “It seems with Oates the hotdog eater is a performance artist commenting on the nature of consumption and American hegemony,” Murray avers. “With King it’s just a guy eating 100 hot dogs, then looking like he’s going to die of nitrate poisoning.”

I can see this same thing happening in the local scene. You're a serious writer if you're doing any of the traditional genres--poetry, drama, fiction. If you write for popular media like film and television, then you're best viewed as a human vendo machine. There's a reason for the fast production: You very well can't have a single second of blank air onscreen. The only recourse is to pick yourself up every day and do the vendo. This is when craft can save you. You know what to do with plot and conflict? Then go. In television, you can't wait for inspiration or for the muse to descend from the heavens. You do that and there will be other people more than willing to take over. Of course, this sort of set up has its flaws. Television is not for the weak of heart or those prone to frequent self-actualization dramas.

On the other hand, people like Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America among other things, also believe that television is the perfect medium for writers. (I'm sorry I lost the link, I'll try to hunt it up next time.) I think tv has great potential. (Yes, I sound so Spiderman now. Come on, repeat after me:) With great power comes great responsibility. But you can only change that if you have the stamina to go with it. There's a reason why you can't be a Hamlet on tv.

UPDATE: Let me modify what I wrote in the previous paragraph. The Tony Kushner article was supposed to be found here. But when I checked it out, it has disappeared already. What's left is this quote which I got from bookslut: "I love television. As a playwright, I feel really comfortable working for television, which is a medium that I think in many ways has much more in common with theatre than film has with theatre."

If I remember it correctly, he said that it's because of the talking heads feature of TV. You can't really do that in film, or else it'll result in long winded, talky features (think Closer or Paraisong Parisukat) with not much action, and film thrives on action.

On the other hand, my plight is the opposite of Kushner's. When I first tried my hand at writing for the stage or for TV (or even now, actually), what they all said was that my writing was too frenetic, too cinematic. I had to learn how to slow things down and to do what I call the "echo effect"--something happens onscreen and one of the characters have to verbally state what was happening. The explanation was that people who watch TV are doing else--chopping onions, folding their laundry--while watching TV. If they miss the visual clues, somebody has to remind them. This can be a bit tedious if you're the sort of viewer who loathes repeating things, and some have pronounced this as "dumbing the viewer." But that's the way things go. So there.

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