The literary world is dominated by fear and shame.
Not the whole world. Maybe not even the majority. It can be hard to tell. But studying creative writing formally for six years now has gradually brought Tracy and I to the perspective that fear and shame are far more powerful forces in writing than they should be. Uncanny Valley is the beginning of our attempt to change that.
It begins in high school, with the formal study of Great Books. Where do these books come from? School boards choose them. How do the school boards choose them? By surgically removing almost anything that's fun, interesting, weird, or remotely relevant to the kids reading them. They're being careful. They're watching their asses. These books teach kids that reading is a chore, that reading is for middle-class white kids, and that reading and writing are largely a thing of the past. Because they spend so much time being forced to read things they hate (not only in English class, but in their largely asinine textbooks as well) they're less likely to try out books of their own choosing in their own free time.
And should they want to read for pleasure in spite of all this, how can they find anything they like? Hardly anyone is talking about books as a way of finding pleasure and satisfaction in their lives -- if they're unusually lucky, they have friends and family who treat books as status symbols, the sort of people who "only read the classics" because it excuses them from the necessity of having thoughts or making choices beyond the decision to accept uncritically what everyone else is accepting uncritically, and because it means they have one more thing to brag about in a life full of trophies.
Come college, most people are excused from reading any literature what-so-ever if they don't want to do it. This is probably fine -- we are not about forcing reading on anyone. But what have English departments done to encourage students to spend their electives on literature? They teach the dread dead white dudes. They teach stale poetry and hideous prose. To be fair, they teach a lot of good stuff as well, and, in what is perhaps the ultimate embarrassment, college literature faculty across the country are teaching far more interesting and exciting texts by a far wider variety of authors than the majority of creative writing teachers, especially in the upper levels.
Shamed by the same trophy-hunters who read "only the classics" growing up, terrified of what would happen to their books and their favorites should students have the chance to see something else, faculty focus on the easy decisions, the obvious greats. I was taught King Lear at least three times before I had finished my degree. Tracy read it once in high school and two more times at the undergraduate level. Creative writing programs draw from a shrunken stable of obvious names and, if you're lucky, the occasional writer who isn't part of the club. These rare outsiders are treated like circus freaks: the question is rarely why they are great, but rather how they managed it in spite of themselves. Students are shamed, meanwhile, for all the things they haven't read, but should have: why not more Hemingway? Why not everything Alice Munro ever wrote? And so on. Reading for pleasure is not allowed -- or, if one does read for pleasure, it must be the right pleasure, approved in advance by the right people.
Escape the university into the world of contemporary writing and things actually get worse. Magazines and presses are fueled by guilt and self-loathing. As we've been documenting here for the last couple days, there are a thousand fears, anxieties and jealousies keeping writers and publishers alike from ever feeling real joy. If you write a story with a robot in it, congratulations: everything you do is garbage to the official literary community and all its institutions, which have been so arrogant and self-serving to define the word "literary" as referring both to a narrow set of guidelines concerning aesthetics, content, and structure and any good, worthwhile writing. That which is literary follows formula X, that which is literary is Good, all else is trash.
The fear and resentment this treatment engenders among those who write the "lower" genres can be ugly as well, of course.
Experimental and traditional writers eye each other suspiciously across the table.
If you submit to a magazine without subscribing for a year or two, get ready for a guilt trip, in spite of the facts that A) you've just offered to give your hard work to a magazine that needs it, usually for free and B) acceptance rates at quality publications make it impossible for any writer outside a fortunate few to follow this rule.
If you submit to a magazine with something unlike the material they usually publish, get ready for a guilt trip. Everyone has to mark their territory. No one can change or grow. If they aren't always publishing stories like yours, they'll never publish stories like yours.
If you study writing at an MFA program, here comes the guilt. You're part of a glut. There are too many writers! The unmitigated arrogance of it! If, on the other hand, you don't get an MFA? Well, that's not much better. Who do you think you are, going it alone? You think you've got it all figured out? Got nothing to learn from the masters?
If you don't buy enough books, if you don't buy them from the right people, if you don't also do whatever's been declared absolutely necessary in the past five minutes, get ready for a guilt trip. And if you have the gall to actually sit down and write a book? If you make something people enjoy and share with each other? If you find some modicum of success? Get ready for the guilt trip of your life.
It's not just novels. If you write long stories or poems or essays or whatever, almost nobody wants you anymore. Why? Because they're afraid people won't read long material online, in print, or next to other, shorter things. Because if you take up thirty pages, those are pages that can't be used to host other material, which means they can't be used to extend the table of contents, which means fewer writers will be shaming their families into buying copies. Or, well, honestly we don't know why. But we like long, weird stuff, and we want it to be published again.
Because we've gotten so tied up in our own fears and anxieties, literature today is perceived as being in decline, in mortal danger, even in its death throes. People are worried because they aren't sure there's going to be enough pie left for them when what's left gets divided. They lash out and hurt each other, devaluing everyone else's pitiful little stake, praying that if they can do enough damage there'll be a job or a book or a Virginia Quarterly Review slot hiding underneath the corpse. It's too much. People are stressing out way too much. People are hurting themselves and each other for no reason. They're forgetting to love writing, reading, and each other.
If anything is killing literature, this is it.
Uncanny Valley is here to live without shame, and to help you live without shame too. We are here to open the gates for readers who tuned out years ago because they knew they weren't wanted. We are here to publish great words, regardless of their genre, style, or tradition. We are here, in short, to rock your face. No guilt. No fear. Only writing. Only reading. Only the best.