“Once Upon a Time”

“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away …” Can you imagine opening a new book, turning to the first page, and reading those words?   Pick up any how-to book (do they still print those?) or go to any online forum, and you—the aspiring new author—are told to never, ever start a book with: “It was a dark and stormy night…” Or anything of that sort. Why not? Because any literary agent or publisher you are trying to woo won’t get past those first few words. Because, according to them, it’s wrong.

Someone needs to explain that to me. Isn’t writing a form of art? Since when was something artistic capable of being “wrong?” Was Monet wrong for breaking from tradition to help create impressionism? Was Picasso wrong for cubism? How about Tolstoy—War and Peace? Orwell? Kerouac? Salinger? Harper Lee? Tom Wolfe?

Art is like fashion: in today, out tomorrow. It is subject to the whims of society as it then exists. Van Gogh was hated in Arles and sold one painting during his life. Can you imagine if he listened to his critics and stopped painting his way? He may not have achieved fame and fortune during his lifetime, but his art is society’s treasure.

Not every budding author is going to find success or fame. In reality, very few will. But the problem in the literary world—the traditional literary world—is that it is all about the money and not enough about the art. Publishers and the literary agents who feed them their material are the traditional gatekeepers of the art. And they’re failing in that role. Who is to say there isn’t a brilliant author who purposely starts a story “once upon a time,” or “on a dark and stormy night,” who then spins a remarkable tale that is remarkable, in part, because the book began that way? Or is written in a unique voice, or with unique, convention-ignoring grammar? Is that wrong? Or is it art?

 

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