Saturday, March 24, 2018

"Lincoln's doctor's dog"

Back in the days when book-publishing was more in vogue, there was a joke in the industry that a winning chemistry for any financially-successful book was contained in the quick-hit formula, "Lincoln's doctor's dog." Lincoln was popular; doctors were popular; and dogs were popular ... ergo....

As a further guarantor of sales, the first sex scene should occur no later than page 34.

In the same way that tourist attractions may be trite but there is a real reason for their popularity, these tongue-in-cheek publishing advisories were both ridiculous and true at the same time. Any author might wish to be wildly popular with his or her chef d'oeuvre and simultaneously believe that catering to someone else's formula breached an unspoken freedom to write any damned thing s/he pleased. Freedom, while threatening as hell, was part and parcel of the artist's palette: "Don't fence me in!"

And yet, and yet....

My mother once said that you couldn't trick readers. They would smell your farts under the covers if you tried to fake something you did not consider true. If Lincoln or doctors or dogs were a true passion or concern, go ahead and write the hell out of it. But if selling books -- which was what the publisher hoped for -- were the goal, steer clear: Not only would the reader not believe you, you, yourself, would be left with nothing but scruffy fart flavors. Or, if the reader did believe you, how sad would that be in the end?

Just noodling this morning, half-wishing Lincoln or doctors or dogs had somehow tolled my bells. If they had, perhaps I would have gotten to go to publicity shindigs I really disliked even when the product was not my own. Rich and famous and well-known and ... what the fuck was I thinking or pipe-dreaming about???!!!

Artists would like others to agree with them, but when those others do, in fact, agree, what, precisely are they agreeing to? Is it the same or different from the glowing orb that beckoned the next word off those dancing fingers? Isn't it like someone saying, "I believe in God," and yet no one is ever quite sure that that agreement with other believers is precisely the same.

Lincoln's doctor's dog ... how some part of me has wished for a winning formula. Applause. And yet if I had actually won, what sort of meal would that have provided? It seems lonely at the top and yet I wonder if "the top" is just another expression of the fact that there is no bottom.

Find your voice and use it. Of course the tricky part is finding it.

1 comment:

  1. I imagine that some styles can be reduced to formulas. Such formulaic styles are interesting for a while, then they become boring.

    Take popular music. Remember Doo-Wop? It actually lasted about thirty years — rise and fall. At the height of its popularity it was associated with hair styles, clothing and a kind of life style. Now it’s essentially nostalgia music for 70+ year olds. Just recordings played in Senior Centers and the occasional live concert.

    Here’s a little snippet:

    What was it? It was simple music. No sophisticated instrumentation. A good little (love) story able to be told in a few lines. The voices sound good. Roughly rhyming. It had a simple but catchy constant beat. It permitted a simple, casual dance.

    Art like everything else in life can be like that. Beginning. Middle. End. Revival.

    Still, I admire dedication to a an instrument, a form or a style. Excelling at it. Extracting new meaning and fresh feeling out of it. Without looking for formulas outside the form itself.

    Think: Guitar. Piano. Sitar. Shakuhachi. Classical Music. Jazz. Rock.

    Isn’t writing the same? Certainly there is the need to understand of the mechanics of a given language, of story telling or exposition, and dedication and finally, inspiration.

    Do you ever think it might actually take a few lifetimes to become a great artist? One or two life’s perfecting each aspect of truly great art, music or writing.

    Too metaphysical? Probably!

    Then there’s Grandma Moses....