For the last six months I’ve served as the coordinator for my MFA Alumni Association’s annual novel writing contest. The best part of this job was that it gave me an opportunity to work with our final judge, Rikki Ducornet, award-winning author of eight novels, three collections of short fiction, a book of essays and five books of poetry.
A couple of weeks ago, Ms. Ducornet selected our three winners from among the ten finalists we provided, and since we asked, added some comments about the quality of the entries. Those comments turned out to be not only an assessment of the finalists, but also an interesting critique of current novels in general:
It seemed to me that overall the work was done with care and thoughtfulness; I also felt (and this concerned me, given my own inclinations and passions) that it was undermined by an awareness of a “market,” a certain set of expectations. And, perhaps, a dependence on the kind of information the web supplies, as opposed to the magic hazards of the library—which are always so personal and unexpected. The writing is overall unusually “managed”—which is impressive and worrisome simultaneously. Too often I felt I was in old territory, the realm of received ideas, and longed, as I always do, to be taken along unknown paths. To be taken by surprise and enchanted. This happened once, with [the winner].
I was also one of three semifinal judges for the contest, and honestly, I had similar concerns about most of the entries I read, although I could not have expressed my feelings as succinctly. I admit I felt a little anxious about sending the ten finalists on to Ms. Ducornet, knowing that some of them just didn’t have the stirring prose or the emotional impact a novel has traditionally had. In short, they aimed low, at targets already shot through.
But maybe that’s a product of our 21st century culture, of which the internet is a huge part. Although the web can be a valuable information resource, it is mainly a great vat in which everything gets thrown.
What’s that droning noise? That’s the chaos of pure democracy you hear. Everyone is speaking at the same time and it’s hard to know who to listen to. The brilliant ideas and crackpots sound pretty much the same in this cacophony, and the measure of value has become popularity. But an idea’s value should be based on how much it improves people’s lives over time, not the instantaneous reaction to it. That’s how we can tell that the ideas of, say, Martin Luther King are worth more than the ramblings of Glenn Beck.
Literature has not been spared. The quality of books seems tied to this homogenization of knowledge, this mindless devotion to sales figures. The result is that mainstream agents and publishers select new books based almost exclusively on what they believe will sell, and that means the internet-addicted public ultimately gets to make the choice of what gets published, because they are the bulk of buyers. It creates a vicious, unimaginative circle in which publishing has become trapped—agents and publishers won’t take on anything different because they’re afraid the market won’t buy it, and mainstream readers can’t buy anything different because they rarely get exposure to it.
But while I find Ms. Ducornet’s comments sadly true, they are also inspirational. Words like hers inspire me to ignore the frenzy of the popular marketplace and try, every day to write something that someday might prove valuable to others, something more than momentary entertainment. I hope they do the same for you. Once in a while an important work sneaks through the pop culture filter. I’m aiming for that.
Those of you who remember Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” may be interested to learn that Ms. Ducornet was the inspiration for that song. I admit I did a quick Google search to verify her publishing credits, and I came across this: According to a March 17, 2006 issue of Entertainment Weekly, in an article titled “Back to Annandale,” “…it’s easy to imagine that Ducornet was the inspiration for one of his [Donald Fagan’s] band’s most famous tunes, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.’ ‘I remember we had a great conversation and he did suggest I call him, which never happened,’ says Ducornet, now a well-regarded novelist and artist.” I guess my fascination with this tidbit of gossip is further proof of Ms. Ducornet’s opinion of the internet, although even she might admit it can be a pretty cool gadget at times.
 Which is why representative democracy has always worked better.
 I have some personal experience here. Several agents have replied to queries by saying my book sounds intriguing, but they doubt they could sell it.