I like this government report saying that more Americans than before are reading novels and short stories, 113 million, in fact. Fiction is my cash crop, and that's good news. Too bad, though, that the report was issued by the National Endowment for the Arts. A deep-down aversion to a-r-t is one big reason half of America stays away from fiction.
They're afraid they'll come across a sentence like, "She looked out the window and saw the reflection of her own pale face against the drifted snow." Something girlish and moody like that.
These are guys who like to play video games in which you shoot people and spatter their blood on the wall. And what they might go for is manly fiction.
-- "Read my book, buttface," said the novelist standing in the dim doorway of Brad's garage. "Pick it up and read it." "I ain't gonna read your book, it's got a lot of weird words like 'languid' and 'luminous' in it," said Brad. He wondered if that was a real gun in the novelist's hand. It was. BLAM BLAM BLAM. Blood spattered all over the garage and his workbench. Blood glittered on the gunstock that Brad had been sanding for his shotgun. He wouldn't be sanding it no more. No sir.
Something like that.
People naturally want to be seen as sensitive persons of exquisite taste, and so America's creative writing programs churn out MFAs to write stories in which she sees her pale face reflected. And the National Endowment for the Arts subsidizes that stuff.
But what readers really want is the same as what Shakespeare's audience wanted -- dastardly deeds by dark despicable men, and/or some generous blood-spattering and/or saucy wenches with pert breasts cinched up to display them like fresh fruit on a platter. It isn't rocket science, people.
-- "Read my book," the novelist said. "Are there breasts in it?" asked Brad. "Oh, just grow up," the man sneered. He didn't notice Brad's left hand reaching under the workbench for the .357 Magnum he kept taped there for just this eventuality. "I'm a serious novelist," the man said quietly, "and I've won many awards." But those awards weren't going to save his skin from some serious perforation now. No, sir. BLAM BLAM BLAM.
You get the idea.
Unfortunately, writers are a gloomy bunch given to whining about the difficulty of getting published, the pain of rejection, the obtuseness of critics, etc. They sit at their laptops and write a few sentences about pale reflections and then check their e-mail and Google themselves. Maybe click onto a Web site where young women display their breasts like ripe fruit. They get busy messing around and don't have time to write fiction so they write poems instead.
Poems are easy. A haiku is three lines of five, seven and five syllables. You can crank this stuff out with one hand, so people do.
But nobody reads poetry, thanks to T.S. Eliot, whose "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" we were forced to read in high school, that small dark mopefest of a poem about whether or not someone dares to eat a peach or wear his trousers rolled. And we got the idea that Literature is a Downer.
T.S. Eliot had no friends at all and he married a ballet dancer and they slept in separate bedrooms and she had a nervous breakdown. She wished she could've shot him three times in the chest, but they were in England at the time and there are no guns there.
A guy like that can't be expected to write "Guys and Dolls," and old Tom led a million writers down the path to writing reams of stuff that nobody wants to read. Literary quarterlies that sit on library shelves and nobody reads them except poets who want to be published in them.
-- "You got a problem with that?" said the poet. The columnist turned. He saw a beautiful woman with a gun in her right hand. Her long auburn hair hung down over her pert breasts. "You wrote this?" he said. "The part about looking out the window and seeing your pale reflection against the snow?" She nodded. He was going to say that hers was a reflection he wouldn't mind seeing himself. But he never got that chance.
(Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, "Liberty," published by Viking.)
© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.