The Form of a Collection

9 Apr

As I continue work on a current project of mine, I reflect back on the time I started it, thinking it would be a quick affair. It is now April of 2014 and some variation of the project has existed since November of 2012. It is a collection of stories whose title has also existed in some form for the better part of a year—it is Artists go to Hell.

An unpublished novel of mine, a comedy about suicide, had been assigned the name God Hates a Coward after the Mike Patton song with Tomahawk (Not sure how to get a hold of Mr. Patton for permission to use his song name. How long did it take Murakami to get a hold of The Beatle’s legal team for his novel Norwegian Wood? Or how long did it take Douglas Coupland to get a hold of Morrissey’s legal team for his novel Girlfriend in a Coma?). Between that possible title and another envisioned collection, which I wanted to call Statesmen go to Heaven, I started to recognize an unexplainable theologically punitive strain to my tentative titles.

My intention for the collection Artists go to Hell is and has been that it would be a series of stories tied together by one theme. While some pieces were meant to stand on their own and had been written in isolation from the others (or had at least started this way) I wanted them to play off of ideas that had been of great concern to me. I found myself writing about celebrities and their idiosyncratic relationships with their public and the world around them.

I thought to myself, am I really concerned that much about celebrity and pop culture? Hasn’t this all been done before? Am I trying to write Bret Easton Ellis books now? It seemed puzzling that this would be a concern of mine to deal with in fiction, just as I think it puzzling that some artists spend an inordinate amount of time carping on the dangers of technology though H.G. Wells and J.G. Ballard had done it much better.

It occurred to me that there was a certain theme in this work of mine that ran underneath the more obvious, topographical one. Celebrities and their publics were mere stand-ins for ideas that transcend the borders of popular culture and run into our everyday lives. I was dealing with scapegoating and codependence. I was dealing with the way that society turns people into symbols that mean quite a bit more than what that society intended, and often when society doesn’t know it’s doing it.

Discovering about a third of the way through my work that the collection had this element to it, it was then easier to steer the other pieces in that direction, and to offer subtle variations on the theme.

I was looking for a sense of harmony that would be almost musical in execution. I wanted to think of the piece as a Rock and Roll record as much as a collection of fiction. The term ‘concept album’ gets thrown around a lot in music, but I think the term is a much more determined and rigorous version of what music albums already are. Every time an artist makes an album title that isn’t concurrent with any of the song titles, the artist is trying say something about the whole (that is, so long as the record company isn’t raping the meaning or pushing some agenda for marketing reasons).

I am committing myself to a certain unnamed tradition by making this collection. I am certainly not the first nor will I be the last. The cohesive, theme-oriented collection of fiction will survive and take on new forms, despite what the general markets have said in the past about collections not doing as good as novels and other genres. If you care about the money, you should probably create a different kind of fictive structure.

But for those of you trying to carve a form out of a formless wood, or for those of you trying to tie a certain set of obsessions together through means that have been so far invisible, I would encourage you to take a great deal of time to reflect on what it is that has dominated your thought life.

Perhaps it is books you’ve read. Perhaps it is past stories you’ve written. Perhaps it is music you’ve listened to. Perhaps it is a certain set of things that have happened in your social life, or any great number of harmonies between these different areas. If you are trying to find a form for a collection, I would encourage you to forget about the money, because, as past occurrences tell us (in other words, the statistical realm, which is a different subject altogether), collections don’t make money. If they don’t make money, you don’t have much to lose by giving it the extra moment needed to discover the harmony inherent in the stories or essays or posts you’ve been writing as of late.

If you dig into that substance of your life you are most curious of, you will find something worthy of you.

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