Profession of Doubt

For a long time I worked in healthcare, an industry where the capitalism-socialism debate is a lively one. Why haven’t I jumped more actively into that fray? Though I doubt I’d have much to offer that’s not already been covered, it’s mostly because I’m not in that business anymore. I write novels now — I’ve changed industries. Fiction writing too seems ripe for exploring postcapitalistic alternatives, even if it isn’t the subject of heated public debate. As I wrote at the end of the “About” page on this website: This time it’s personal. This time it’s fictional. This time it’s real.

I worked in healthcare; I did a job and I got paid for it. When I’d work on spec as an entrepreneur, I did it with the expectation that eventually I’d get paid. Do I work in fiction? As writer I’ve been a speculative entrepreneur, but those bets didn’t pay off. Even if the postcapitalist scheme I’ve been outlining on Ficticities were to be actualized, I still wouldn’t be able to make a living from writing. With resolute frugality financed by 401ks, index mutual funds, and social security (a classic mix of capitalistic and socialistic revenue streams), we figure we can make it to the end of the race. Projected revenues from books? They don’t even factor into the equations.

Do I nonetheless deem myself a professional writer of fictions? I’ve had no formal training, don’t hold the advanced degree emblematic of professional status. Originally a profession was a public declaration of vows taken upon entering a monastic order. In professing oneself a writer of fiction a vow of poverty is required; chastity and humility are optional but generally frowned upon. When in public I admit to being a novelist it feels less a profession than a confession.

Once while walking in Nice I came across a young man handing out copies of his poetry, begging bowl on the sidewalk in front of him: a profession of poetic monasticism. That’s not me. Recently I’ve engaged in an extended email exchange with a professional poet: he teaches poetry in an MFA and Ph.D. program; a few volumes of his poetry have been published. He writes:

I try to be as creative as possible in my private life. Going around the house I will write out-loud. Whole scat-poems (maybe scat in several senses). There are only two rules: I write as best as I can at the very tip of moment’s tongue, and I don’t allow myself to remember any of it.

That’s not me either.

I don’t associate with other novelists, either professionally or socially, so I’m not motivated by affective solidarity to pursue postcapitalist fictional alternatives. Worse: I don’t much like what other novelists write. Of the novels on the New Release shelves at my local public library fewer than ten percent draw my attention, and most of those were written by foreign authors. My working assumption is that published American novelists are holding themselves in thrall, conforming to the bland expectations set by an industry that values return on investment more than excellence and distinction. There might be plenty of American novels out there that I’d want to read, but they never see the light of day because most likely they wouldn’t make enough money. Relax the commercial constraints and the New Release shelves will spontaneously overflow with American novels that I’d like to read. I acknowledge this is a kind of blind faith on my part, unsupported by any tangible evidence other than my own novels. But what if I’m wrong, and American novelists are already giving it their best shot? What if they’re already happy with what they’re writing, inspired by commercial standards rather than constrained by them?

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Profession of Doubt

  1. Great lines here:

    “Do I nonetheless deem myself a professional writer of fictions? I’ve had no formal training, don’t hold the advanced degree emblematic of professional status. Originally a profession was a public declaration of vows taken upon entering a monastic order. In professing oneself a writer of fiction a vow of poverty is required; chastity and humility are optional but generally frowned upon. When in public I admit to being a novelist it feels less a profession than a confession…”

    I like this definition. I am a writer for no other reason than that I profess to be.

    The idea of profession is even deeper than the New Testament Christian era. In the Hebrew scriptures, there was sort of this idea that if you name it as such it would occur. I think of the importance of the patriarch naming his children.

    Like the act of fiction there’s always this sense that the faithful can remake reality based on their imaginative vision of what it could or ought to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ficticities: ” My working assumption is that published American novelists are holding themselves in thrall, conforming to the bland expectations set by an industry that values return on investment more than excellence and distinction…But what if I’m wrong, and American novelists are already giving it their best shot? What if they’re already happy with what they’re writing, inspired by commercial standards rather than constrained by them?”

    I think it’s both. Americans thoroughly identify as capitalists, and as such I think that the psychology is one and the same. We sort of assume that the market is always working things out in the best way possible, more or less. It’s delusional but recently I’ve been thinking that since we have an element of choice as consumers we have a false sense of being able to control the market. It’s a democracy of the market, consumer choice.

    For years I wondered why Americans didn’t (and still do not) care that their political democracy has been dismantled, replaced by what is better described as something like a corporate oligarchy. I think that so long as the American consumer has choice in the market, they won’t care. Democracy occurs at the checkout line. We vote at the register.

    As such, capitalism is so thoroughly our way of being that it drives our creativity, and I think that most American artists are more or less okay with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s probably right. The commercial fiction writers are explicit about it, actively trying to position their writing in the accepted genres. The MFA practitioners are probably adhering to a different set of capitalistic standards: publish some arty short stories to build a CV that helps you eventually get a book deal with a small press. Your novel doesn’t sell many copies but it gives you street cred as a candidate for teaching creative writing and as an independent editor-for-hire.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s