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  • Writer's pictureJ.B. Manas

A Writer's Look at American Fiction

I finally watched American Fiction, a film I'd been dying to see, and it didn't disappoint! Jeffrey Wright is brilliant in the role of Thelonius "Monk" Ellison, a serious novelist frustrated with what he considers a publishing industry that increasingly relies on reductive clichés to satisfy its audiences, especially as it relates to the Black experience.

His point is proven when his next proposed literary tome is overlooked in favor of a new book from a first-time author called We's Lives in Da Ghetto, rife with stereotypes and what he refers to as "Black trauma porn." To prove a point, he hastily writes the most crass, violent junk he can, calling it My Pafology, and insists his agent send it to publishers under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh.

Surprise, surprise, they love it. He's offered a $750,000 deal at a time he desperately needs money. Only one problem. His agent had concocted a persona of Stagg R. Leigh as an escaped criminal---the "real deal" as they say, and the publishers are dying to meet him in person. He's forced to play along for one brief meeting, but the book, to his dismay, becomes a huge hit and now they want to make a movie.

As a writer who's had books both traditionally and indie published, I found this a fascinating satirical take on the entertainment biz, and a keen look at a dilemma many writers face. For years, the publishing industry, much like the film industry has had the battle cry of, "Give me the same, but different." As long as consumers gobble up a certain genre and have expectations of certain tropes, it's simply good business to keep appeasing that desire. As they say, writing is an art, but publishing is a business.

Perhaps mega-selling author Nicholas Sparks put it best when he said, "Writing may be art, but publishing, when all is said and done, comes down to dollars. Keep that in mind. I say this because of the volume of mail I receive from unpublished writers who believe that 'having a good story,' is enough to guarantee success. It’s not. I hate to say it, I wish it wasn’t true, but it’s not."

Sure, there are exceptions, and if agents and acquisition editors discover someone with a unique voice or a gripping concept, then all the restrictive rules can go out the window. Personal taste also plays a role, and it's very subjective. But by and large, the path to success for most commercial writers is to be keenly aware of the tropes of the genre you're writing in and be as creative as possible within those tropes (unless your name is Stephen King or Dean Koontz, in which case you can break all the rules you want).

Now, an author might say a new, creative voice that breaks the rules and blends genres deserves to be heard. I've said that myself and I believe it. But I'll quote Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven" when (SPOILER ALERT) the dying villain (Gene Hackman) said, "I don't... deserve this... to die like this. I was building a house." To which Clint Eastwood replied:

"Deserves got nothin' to do with it."


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