Are You Being Served?

I was recently sitting between friends, a couple, at a movie theater, waiting out the seemingly endless stream of commercials for Peak TV filler. The he of the couple would lean across me to whisper “Yes” or “No” to his partner in regard to giving some series a go. They were usually in alignment, but when it came to Amazon’s Carnival Row, he vehemently declared “NO.” She worked in theater lighting; “Yes,” she countered. He was resolute: “Nothing—with—wings.”

His reaction owed to the fact that he taught an undergraduate short story writing course in which his students were solely interested in fantasy—lots of dragons and interspecies wing-flappers, lots of GOT homage. (This is a school where the tuition is well over $50,000.) His students explained their decisions as partly lucrative (“there’s a lot of money in YA fantasy”) and partly to express themselves, to put their “rampant imagination” on display. When responding in class to a story about a gender-fluid elf, my friend brought the Wrath of Kahn down upon himself by asking “Aren’t all elves gender fluid?”

You could argue that the fantasy short story makes perfect sense given that the genre has its roots in fairy tales. Back when life was nasty, brutish, short, and heavy on the putrefaction that TV showrunners find irresistible, stories were entertainments. And children needed to be both entertained and terrified into behaving. Grimm’s tales skewed heavily toward Westeros-caliber violence.

But the consignment of a form a fiction that has for generations been hardcore literary to genre-only is part of a seismic change in our culture. We may bask in the auteur mystique of showrunner, but we live in a world where consumers of creative content dictate how creativity is delivered based on the degree to which it satisfies their anticipations and enlarges their sense of self-worth. In short: Creative writing, like much else today, has become a service industry.

A major driver of this development is the ongoing democratizing of a pursuit that had long been thought to be based on innate talent, curiosity, and intellectual independence—characteristics that made writing a vocation, essential to one’s existence. A decade before the internet made everyone a writer, more and more people wanted in. We heard a lot about the tyranny of de facto publishing channels that favored white, privileged males at the exclusion of all others. But rather than open up these channels to talented and driven writers of other genders and colors, the graduate creative writing programs and writing seminars that flourished in the 1990s removed barriers for everyone, talent notwithstanding.

We tend to think that the internet created aggregators, but that pursuit was well underway before the turn of the millennium in the “teaching” of creative writing. You can’t teach someone how to express something with emotional depth, but you can teach techniques for the assemblage of derivative text into a chapter by chapter narrative. The workshopping culture of honing “craft” means that rather than live with raw ideas to see how they develop, you workshop them, reacting to the overlay of other people’s raw ideas. You essentially preempt what Flannery O’Connor considered a combination of mystery and manners for the randomized access of acrylic pour painting, the reassurance of collaborative scoring.

This development dumped on our culture an Amazon-like algorithm: much, much more of the same things currently selling. We were awash in craft-steeped practitioners with grad school connections, writing to the reader in the way that their teachers taught to the test. When Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books ushered in the commercial-literary hybrid of chick-lit, these practitioners went to town. Genre writers have always cultivated and curated their audiences, but the accessibility and interactive nature of chick-lit drew a more mainstream and demographically valuable base to literary fiction that only gained traction with Oprah’s Book Club.

The tandem rise of memoir as a literary genre leveraged the same chick-lit/Oprah popularity machine to take down the walls between creator and consumer. The success of books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2006) and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012) made extreme emotional experience rather than prose dexterity the fascination point. You could feel this growing in the book-reading culture throughout the aughts—the emotional excess of fandom that has nowhere to go. George Martin devotees could dress up as characters at signing events and trade shows, but what did Gilbert’s fans do to sop up unchanneled desire to be personally part of the narrative? And the internet and social media only abetted this process by diminishing the importance of expertise (wordsmithery subjugated to life experiences) and juries (publishers subjugated to Instagram followers) and making anything you enter into a keyboard look instantly “finished” and official.

With the current obsession for self-optimization, the compulsion to write is no longer a demanding life orientation to be continually assayed and reconciled. In fact, “the compulsion to write” has been exposed as an unsafe space. The mysterious recesses of creativity is not a place your audience wants to go. Instead, a writer’s appeal lies in the degree to which she makes her thoughts, her experiences, and foremost her vulnerabilities and bounce-back potential attractive to her readership, à la the Facebook confessional. Authenticity is measured by an enviable relatability rather than the degree to which the writer depicts conundrums and ambiguities that we wouldn’t want to live out ourselves.

Today’s version of the guy who shelled out $30,000 to write like David Foster Wallace in the 1990s wouldn’t look twice at literary fiction; authenticity lies in creative nonfiction, personal essays to fill several volumes, and memoirs with micro focus so that the door never closes on new installments. That’s because of the consumer perception that “real” experience is a commodity, something that can be applied for personal gain, while the experiences depicted in literary fiction cannot tell you how to become a better version of yourself or be living your best life. The only way fiction can truly serve you is as entertainment beyond the everyday—YA, fantasy, dystopias, the gamut of thrillers and police procedurals.

A recent New York Times trend piece tells how a certain strain of commercially successful writer (white, female, blonde, essay/memoir) has developed a lucrative income stream as writing coach via private seminars, workshops, salons, retreats, and spas. (Keywords: yoga; chef-cooked dinner; essays about relationships; dating app; volcano-surrounded Mayan village; mystical urban utopia on the outskirts of Atlanta.) In their “creative spirit” wizard hats, these writers take varying sums of money from customers. Students with either talent or a decent hook get some editorial pointers but mostly publishing connections; the rest, presumably, get a good girlfriend time.

Thus, it feels like the literary/service singularity is complete: writers like Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed—major category killers for literary fiction—are literally performing a service for their consumers rather than offering them a form of art. The new commodity in this transactional relationship is the consumer’s satisfaction in believing she has created art out of a motely assortment of experiences.

It would actually make a pretty good novel. §