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Craft of Writing, Criticism, Fiction

Rikki Don’t Lose That Perspective– Ducornet’s Comments on Our Contest and the State of Novel Writing


Rikki Ducornet

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.[1] 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[2], 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.


steely_dan-rikkiThose 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.

[1] Which is why representative democracy has always worked better.

[2] 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.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


19 thoughts on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Perspective– Ducornet’s Comments on Our Contest and the State of Novel Writing

  1. I don’t know, Joe. I’ve read so many delightful and surprising books this year that I can’t really agree there’s nothing fresh to read out there. I actually think the scope even in traditionally published books is wider than it has ever been. Certainly I’m finding better books now than I did twenty years ago. (Also a shit-ton of crap books, but then we’ve always had to sift through those.)

    Posted by Averil Dean | August 3, 2013, 3:32 PM
    • But what if you don’t want to be delightful and you don’t want to write the swoon shit that passes for literature these days? What then?

      Posted by joplingirl | August 3, 2013, 5:09 PM
    • I guess I’m pretty old school about this stuff. It helps to remember that in every age there have been books that have found permanence, and many others of poor to good quality that haven’t. It helps also to remember that publishing is a business dependent on sales. But personally, given the choice to say “I wrote a book,” or “I wrote a great book,” I’d choose the latter. And maybe by trying to write a great book I’ll eventually produce a decent one that I’ll be proud of. But if I set out to write one for the market, I know I’m not attuned to those tastes, and I know how it will come out.

      Posted by jpon | August 3, 2013, 6:06 PM
  2. Thanks for sharing this. It’s nice to be reminded that unique perspective is part of what makes novels valuable.

    I find Cat Valente’s “Voodoo Economics: How to Find Serenity in an Industry that Does Not Want You” to be a nice counterpoint to this topic – http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/valente_11_08/

    (Clarkesworld also has a free audio version of her award-winning novella “Silently, and Very Fast” that is quite lyrical and haunting.)

    Posted by akhoffman | August 3, 2013, 3:59 PM
    • You have no idea how helpful this is. I just had a panel proposal accepted for the 2014 AWP conference titled “Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes.” You can be sure I’ll make some references to what Cat Valente wrote.

      I love this from the article, via Theodora Goss: “I think in the end all you can do is write to the standard that you’ve set for yourself, write the way you think you should, and hope that the work will be meaningful. The rest is up to whatever fate controls writers.”

      Posted by jpon | August 3, 2013, 6:20 PM
      • “And fate, all three of them, are stone cold bitches.” Can’t forget that bit! ;) Glad you enjoyed the essay.

        Posted by akhoffman | August 4, 2013, 3:54 AM
    • thanks for this recommendation! I will mosdef check Voodoo Econ out.

      Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 4, 2013, 3:16 PM
    • oops — thought it was a book. just read the article. the steel mill metaphor is instructive, for sure.

      Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 4, 2013, 4:29 PM
  3. What If you don’t write the swoon shit that passes for literature these days what then that is exactly the question. If you don’t write to stick a tit in a reader all soothing and just like they remembered?

    Posted by joplingirl | August 3, 2013, 5:13 PM
  4. This was one of the themes I heard again and again at the conference I attended in April: agents/editors like a manuscript, but it’s rejected because they’re afraid it won’t sell. However, the industry seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. Publishers want a new spin on a familiar theme, apparently as long as it’s not too new or too “out there.” Once again a dizzying array of conflicting information. I guess as writers we need to follow our hearts, write our best work, and hope it will sell (and in the meantime, don’t quit the day job).

    Posted by Gwen | August 3, 2013, 11:08 PM
    • Really, where’s the courage that agents and publishers used to exhibit? That’s what happens when an industry gets taken over by corporate greed. As for the day job, instead of quitting, is it okay to go part time? Meanwhile my writer friends and I are plugging away at a new kind of day job. We hope to be able to make a formal announcement soon, but you know how hard it is to get writers organized.

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2013, 10:54 PM
      • Joe, I’ve been looking forward to learning about what’s cooking with you and your writing friends. Can’t wait to hear about it.

        Posted by Gwen | August 4, 2013, 11:00 PM
  5. I fully agree that the marketplace can play too strong a role in determining what gets read, but we need our customers because without them we have no readers. Maybe thinking of innovative ways of dealing with the marketplace as you are trying to do will spur other readers and writers to think up solutions of their own which dovetail with yours, and as a whole community we can make things better.

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 4, 2013, 1:29 PM
    • I sure hope our idea works. If nothing else, we’ll give writers an opportunity to see their work in print.

      But on another thread, your comment about writers needing customers has got me thinking about that connection. Even great writers like Joyce understood he needed an audience (at least early on–later he didn’t care if readers could even understand his work). It’s yet another decision a writer must make for him/herself.

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2013, 11:01 PM
  6. thank you for this important post. some brilliant theorist whom I can’t remember (and don’t have time to google) has argued that one of the problems with capitalism, and with ideology in general, is that it seeps inside of you, and necessarily affects how you think, act, and — in this case — write. “combatting” it is not so easy, particularly since most of us need money to do our writing, so the “market’ necessarily inveigles itself into what we do. What we CAN do is talk about this — as you are doing — and try to devise ways to think against or beside or — as some have argued here — even with “industry.” thank you again.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 4, 2013, 3:21 PM
    • To show you how weird I am, I think a lot about the origins of capitalism in our nation, and what the founders truly intended. I suspect they believed the greatest opportunity could be created by allowing people to pursue their passions unrestricted. But I seriously doubt they envisioned that it would morph into the cutthroat greed that characterizes commerce today. I’ll keep talking about this, I promise.

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2013, 11:06 PM
  7. “It creates a vicious, unimaginative circle.” And how are the publishers and agents going to get out of that circle? That’s what I’m waiting (and hoping) for.

    In related news, I’m reading a book right now that refers often to “googling” and “tweeting” and I must say, even that disturbs me a great deal. I hear a warning *ping* in my head every time the main character suddenly needs to go on-line.

    Posted by Teri | August 5, 2013, 8:22 PM
    • And how are the publishers and agents going to get out of that circle?

      Oh, I think they’ll just continue to sit and spin.

      Posted by jpon | August 5, 2013, 10:37 PM

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