9.01.2005

Cult of the Written Word

I was recently reading parts of The Short Oxford History of English Literature by Andrew Sanders. In the Introduction, Sanders talks about the development of the secular canon and how it was based on the idea of the Catholic Church's canon of biblical literature. In the early days, as the canon was just coming into being, writers would try to prove their credentials by comparing themselves to writers of the past and holding the acknowledged literary sages up as idols to be worshipped and revered. Wordsworth saw himself as standing in an "apostolic line" with Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton.


There's something to be said about knowing what's been written before--and having read it. That's how literature is lifted from dead archives into living conversation. Would Stephen King have as much to say without following Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson . . . ? Sorting all that out, and making note of it, using those prior works as context for your own also gives your readers the code they need to read you most effectively.

In later years, as the Poets' Corner was gaining status in Great Britain as the location to venerate great English writers either by interring their remains there or else by erecting statues and plaques in their honor, this sense of worshipping the literary greats of the past spilled out of the literary world and into the common culture. The middle class began acquiring busts and statuettes to place in their reading rooms and on their mantle pieces to show that they belonged to an elite, learned culture.

As I was reading, it struck me that this tradition of placing writers on a pedestal continues even today. From inside the publishing world, this may not seem to be the case. Writers, whether aspiring or published, know that writing is far from a spiritual endeavor. It is filled with blood and tears and heartache and long, sleepless nights. Almost every writer I have ever encountered has at least one friend or family member who is less than supportive of their writer's dreams, who suggest that the individual is wasting their time, and think it would be more realistic for them to get a real job and forget this writing nonsense.

As I read Sander's words, I realized this lack of support is in fact evidence that writers are still worshipped and regarded with a certain degree of spiritual mystery. What the naysayers are in fact showing is a lack of spiritual faith that someone they know, someone who without a doubt is only a fallible mortal, might actually be able to attain the veneration due to true writers and be accorded the same honors as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King.

Even within the publishing world, writers are encouraged to show their place in the apostolic line in the queries they send to perspective agents and publishers. Newer writers are instructed by today's sages to compare their manuscript to previously published novels. Its not that the newer writers are being told to suppress their own originality, but to reveal their place in the list of the literary divine so agents will know who might be willing to worship them.

Or at the very least to gamble a few bucks on a paperback by an unknown.

3 Comments:

Blogger jason evans said...

Some of that spiritual mystery bestowed on writers flows from the fact that, in a sense, writers are gods. We pick up a curiously glued and sewn object filled with cut paper, and we are swept up in a world of the writer's creation. Anything can populate that world--the writer has only to imagine it. Unfortunately for us (dare I call myself a writer), the process takes far longer than seven days.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Lori said...

Tell me, when you read a book that really works for you, do you find the world falls away? That when you are "swept up in a world of the writer's creation" that you temporarily forget that yours exists? How about when you're writing? If a scene is really working for you, can you see it as clearly in your mind's eye as you can see the computer monitor in front of you right now?

BTW, whether or not you call yourself a writer is up to you. What you do or do not call yourself does not change what you are.

12:34 AM  
Blogger jason evans said...

Lori,

Yes! The world most definitely falls away in a great story. That's why I write--the hope that I can make the world fall away for someone else.

When I'm writing, it's harder. Yes, when I'm on a high octane scene, I am actually living it. However, the slow act of creating the words and obsessing about them takes some of the luster off it. The greatest achievement for me is when, after a bit of time, I read something I wrote, and the magic comes alive for me too.

P.S. Up in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania this weekend, I heard a pack of wild coyotes howl in the night for the first time! What an experience!

6:29 PM  

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