In honor of the movie premiere of Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2, I provide here a passage from the first few pages of Twilight, the novel:
They came up through the stand of cypress that shrouded the graveyard, the pickup hidden off the road in a chert pit clotted with inkblot bowers of honeysuckle. There were two of them, a young woman and a gangling youth who appeared to be younger still. A leaden rain out of the first slow days of winter had begun some time after midnight and the cypresses wept as they passed beneath them, the tools the pair slung along in their hands refracting away such light as there was and the pair pausing momentarily when the first milkwhite stones rose bleakly out of the dark. Behind and below them the church loomed, a pale outraged shape, no more, and only impotent dead kept its watch.
That’s a seriously powerful combination of vowels and consonants. If you’ve poohed-poohed the thought of ever trying the Twilight books, you may now think you underestimated their quality. If you’re already a fan, perhaps you wonder why you don’t remember that part.
The above passage is from a different Twilight, the one written by William Gay. This Twilight does not have vampires or werewolves, yet it’s a freak-out creepy book. The antagonists are an undertaker who messes around with the dead (in more ways than one), and a murderous town bully.
Never heard of it? You have a lot of company. When I last checked, Gay’s Twilight was #308,655 on Amazon’s best sellers list (I hope to help get him back in the five-figure range with this blog entry.) The Twilight that started the movie franchise, the one with the pasty dude, the frozen-face, and the other guy who can’t find his shirt, was listed at #271. If you were an agent or publisher, which type of book would you want in your portfolio?
There’s the rub. Publishers and agents are in the business of making money. “In business” and “making money” have been inextricably linked since Ned Neanderthal operated Caveman Used Wheels at the corner of Hunter and Gatherer Streets. I don’t blame publishers these days for passing on something considered “literary” when schlock like a memoir on the Kardashians has a built-in customer base. If I were a publisher trying to put food on the table, I’d be right there with them.
So, what becomes of the literary genre? First, many writers, including me, have avoided that label. Despite what book sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble think, the term does not originate from the Latin meaning “all the other stuff.” Some books are considered literary because they don’t fit neatly in categories such as young adult, mystery, crime or romance.
According to a popular stereotype, literary is synonymous with highbrow, highfalutin’ or fancy-breeches. No.
Everyone seems to have their own definition, so here’s mine: First, not all literary books are high quality. But the good ones have unique story lines with believable dialogue and characters I can’t quit. If I really care about the characters, the plot becomes secondary. That’s not too highbrow, is it?
America didn’t quit producing great literary talent when Steinbeck and Faulkner purchased the farm. And there’s a lot of it out there today. Some of my favorites are Kentucky sons Wendell Berry and Silas House, as well as Donald Ray Pollock and the lately departed Mr. Gay. Daniel Woodrell, a Missourian whom I’ll forgive for attending the University of Kansas, even came up with country noir to describe his work because nothing else fit right.
That’s why I have such hope for independent/self publishing. Right now, there’s a lot of noise out there, a lot of writers trying their hand at the business now that they don’t have to run the agent/publisher gauntlet. Eventually, things will settle down. When they do, some fresh literary works will rise to the top. Few literary writers will make much money—that’s never been the case—but they’ll get a chance. Great writing of that type has never gone away. It’s just not obvious as a werewolf that can’t keep his shirt on.
P.S. I’m hesitant to mention my own work on the same page with some of these great novelists. (I’m embarrassed about Kris Jenner, too, but that’s for another reason.) Still, I must. You can find my books here.