Will 21st century authors of fiction produce any classics?
Perhaps we must first consider how a classic becomes a classic. We apply numerous reasons for such a coronation citing artistic quality, universal relevancy, emotional integrity, critical acclaim by the author’s contemporaries, literary influence, remarkable insight, imaginative style, effective use of language and a host of high praise that has been passed through time like a railroad car glides over a well-worn track pulled by the power of a locomotive.
The potential for a classic starts out in the author’s mind, and is then transposed into the published work. Readers read and react with awesome praise, critics review with ecstatic abandon, academics discover, recommend and insert the book into their curriculums and libraries, bookstores stock the book, and most who discover and study the work exult in its story and style.
At times, this acclaim happens instantly, but often the discovery of a work emerges mysteriously after many years of obscurity.
So it begins, the journey to becoming a classic, influencing other writers, readers, educators and critics generation after generation, taking on heft, powered along the track by the locomotive of authority. Passing through so many agile minds, written about, recommended, interpreted, analyzed and discussed until it becomes part of the literary canon.
In the 21st century, those well-worn tracks to reaching the heights of a classic have lost much of their traction. The locomotive has sputtered and encountered hairpin curves, and faulty signals.
In bygone days, worthy works of the imagination could be discovered in a much smaller literary pool. Literacy was hardly universal.
The serious reading public had finite choices in a world where an elite education in the liberal arts was a necessary preparation for the fulfilled intellectual life. Such a culturally fine-tuned audience was a distinct minority.
There were fewer distractions also. Only the live stage offered a more public literary outlet and the delights of poetry had their small but hardy band of followers. Discoverability by that refined intellectual taste, enhanced by a comprehensive literary education, was the key for a work to become a classic. Word-of-mouth operated in a smaller privileged circle as it engaged with the world created by the novels of Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Balzac, Twain, Richardson, Fielding and on and on to build the blocks of the western canon.
In the 21st century, with the rise of technology and literacy and the decline of the civilized glories of a liberal education, those natural candidates for the canon of immortality are drowning in an ocean so populated with offerings that discoverability is practically impossible. This is not to say that the talent is not there. It might even be in far more abundance than in earlier times.
As liberal education declines and occupational education rises, more and more people interested in finding the nuggets of literary output are frustrated by the sheer volume. Categories and subcategories abound.
Oddly, as the number of books of fiction produced each year approaches staggering numbers, and as genres multiply, readers hungry to be tantalized by insight and inspired by wisdom by those who quest to make sense of the human condition in the kind of books that populate the classics bookshelf must, as a consequence, find themselves frustrated in their search for the needle in the proverbial haystack.
Worse, reading literature, which has always been nourished in schools, has been severely cut back in favor of informational texts or material that is more specific to the purpose of employment. It is all part of a downsizing effort to make traditional education more attuned to the job market and less to the building of a mature mind able to cope with the moral, ethical and relationship challenges of modern life.
Out of his hodge podge one wonders whether the classics of the 21st century will come out of the genre fiction of romance, fantasy, graphic novels, mysteries, eroticism, vampire zombie, etc. categories, where books like Fifty Shades of Grey will be raised on the same pedestal as, say, War and Peace and Ulysses.
Nevertheless, I do sense that I have a sea of silent allies out there who know in their gut what makes a classic, and they worship beside me in our very private and increasingly isolated pew in a currently obscure location in the literary community cathedral.
The Warren Adler Short Story Contest, which started online in 2006 and continued until 2011, was an outgrowth of my three brief years running a short story contest for the Wyoming Arts Council when I lived in Jackson Hole.
As with all literary contests of this type, the idea was to encourage the writing of short stories and reward the authors of the best submissions on the basis of literary quality; a subjective assessment at best, requiring a panel of judges who have spent their lives contributing to a standard based on contemporary and historical sampling, and study of enduring varieties of the form.
Because I felt charged with such a serious assignment that could affect the career, and hopes and dreams, of those dedicated to creating short form fiction writing, I recruited well-qualified judges who had been teaching college level writing courses and were writers themselves.
We diligently read every submission. Wyoming was a small state, and the entries were manageable. For the first two years we discussed the submissions, pondered over them carefully, judging them on the basis of skill of presentation, emotional impact, style, narrative drive and other writing standards; knowledge jointly accumulated by the chosen judges over many years of reading, write and teaching as well as their familiarity with works that have endured.
Alas, submissions in the third year of the contest were of such poor quality that the judges, after wrestling painfully over each submission, decided that not a single submission was worthy of the grand prize. It was a painful outcome, but we felt that we could not sanction a winner that did not conform to the qualitative standards that we had set. Arbitrarily rewarding one of the submissions would subject the contest to ridicule and denigrate its purpose.
I was subsequently rebutted by the Wyoming Arts Council. The bureaucracy had decreed that a prize had to be awarded despite any standard. They were charged with giving a prize, and a prize, regardless of submissions’ quality, had to be awarded. Case closed.
Nevertheless, the first two successful years of the contest inspired me to open up the contest to the Internet — a contest totally financed by me out of a genuine desire to resurrect the short story, which had been in decline during the latter half of the 20th century.
Whether you call it a noble act or an exercise in self-promotion (take your pick), I was determined to promote a high standard and encourage authors to submit their work, and once again, I carefully picked experienced judges who would take the time to choose the best of the crop.
The one sacrosanct rule and discipline was that every submission was to be read carefully, discussed by the judges, and the cash prizes would be awarded on the basis of unanimous approval. The annual contest ran for seven years, and I eventually published the winners in e-Book volumes available via Amazon. Frankly, I loved the whole process, enjoyed reading the submissions, and I felt that I had picked judges who were dedicated and thorough, and that I was genuinely promoting the short form of fiction writing.
Yes, it was costly, but as with all noble grand gestures, I’m not sure I made a dent in the promotion of the short story as a literary art form, even though I felt satisfied that the winners picked were terrific practitioners of the art.
Has it helped promote the careers of the writers? Maybe. It was a not-for-profit objective, and in retrospect, sincere and heartfelt. I was very moved by the number of submissions and their quality. You may want to judge the quality of the winning entries for yourself at Warren Adler Short Story Contest Winners.
So why did I suspend it?
No good deed goes unpunished, the old chestnut asserts. The Internet is now awash with so-called “literary” competitions. There are now writing contests in novels, short stories, poetry, plays, screenplays and every genre in the publishing field known to man. All operate on a similar business plan, designed to produce revenue or to serve as a promotional avenue for the publishing business and its various offshoots.
Few, if any of the promoters of these businesses announce the names of their judges, and one suspects that those that do are merely window dressing rather than working judges.
Most, if not all, entries must be accompanied by an “entrance fee.” The contests are designed to attract the hopeful, the naïve and the serious aspirant, eager for praise and a measure of credibility that they hope will enhance their career plans, find readers and give them a leg up on their aspirations.
Indeed, there is an explosion of these “contests” all over the Internet. My purpose in this essay is not to cast aspersions on the motives of those who organize these contests, whether for profit or promotion, but to offer a warning to those who believe that their submission will bring them the magic bullet for fame and fortune.
The question I pose is not their legitimacy, nor am I implying some predatory motive. It would be an easy ploy to write these contests off as “credibility mills.” Indeed, the primary purpose of any writer is to find readers by hook or by crook. Any path to discoverability, whatever the cost and whatever the quality of the drum to beat the message, has its place in spreading the word.
Let this little essay be a shot over the bow of an emerging writer’s naturally overeager aspirations. Before they leap into entry into these contests, I would like to offer some words of caution in a universe where competition is cut throat and open to cynical exploitation.
I urge all entrants to ask the following questions before entering any literary contest offering a prize for artistic merit.
Who is behind the contest? Is it a business for profit? Who are the judges and are they credible? What is the method of their selection? Are they just window dressing to give the contest legitimacy? Will they actually be reading all submissions, or will they have an army of advance readers to screen entries? Who are these advance readers, college students or English teachers? What are their credentials? Will they copy the method of Hollywood readers’ concept of checklist coverage by so-called first readers? How will the winners be promoted? Will winning a prize enhance their reputation? What has been the experience of past winners? And on and on.
Considering the difficulty in today’s expanding publishing universe where books both, self and traditionally published, will eventually reach the multi-millions with discoverability, an increasingly elusive objective, writers must be even more creative in marketing as they are in their writing skills.
If one detects a note of skepticism in this essay, I commend them for their insight.
A poem by Warren Adler
I wrote two thousand words today and thought them fine
Until I read them over and erased them line by line
I understand the secret of the writers art
I knew that always from the start
There are times when you just can’t get it right
And often need a second sight
No matter, I never yield to sorrow
I’ll do it better on the morrow
Like every author on the planet, I’ve spent endless hours mulling over creating titles for my work. One strives, of course, to be both memorable and honestly descriptive of the content.
There are also marketing aspects to be considered. The marquee value cannot be neglected since the book, especially fiction, must compete in the market place and be “discoverable” to the searching eye of the browser and the impulsive book buyer who scans bookshelves of those bookstores still remaining and interminable book cover images that clutter the e-reader “shelves.”
Another wild aspiration that motivates the author is the possibility of a movie production of their novel and the limitations of the actual movie marquee. Anything more than a four-word title could be a dream killer. Imagine any great movie or TV adaptation based on a novel where the title of the novel is changed. I have been lucky in that regard with three of my works The War of the Roses, Random Hearts and The Sunset Gang.
The title’s suggestion to a cover artist was, and perhaps still is, an aspect that had to be taken into account. The book cover design and illustration has always been an integral part of the marketing process and many fine prize winning designs have been an essential marketing tool for books in both fiction and non-fiction categories.
For books in categories such as romance, science fiction, mysteries, fantasy, zombie and vampire stories, young adult and children’s books and all their sub-categories, the titles and covers must reflect the specific genre to clearly designate its content.
But for the author of mainstream fiction whose story line is not in any genre category, he or she must face the agony of choice. Many famous authors chose to name their books after a main character, and one can point to many successes such as David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Daniel Deronda, Nana, Mrs. Dalloway, Lolita, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Rebecca, Tom Jones, Clarissa, Robinson Crusoe and the most enduring of all, Don Quixote.
Some authors have chosen place names, countries, houses, streets, neighborhoods, destinations, bars, modes of transportation and myriad other categories as titles, too numerous to mention; Wuthering Heights and Tales of the South Pacific are typical.
Many of these, obviously, are classic novels that have stood the test of time but there are many character named titles that have passed on to obscurity.
Then there are the titles that are lifted from lines of poetry that the author believes are an apt choice to illustrate a theme of the novel, some of recent vintage like The Lovely Bones. Among the better known are A Handful of Dust, Of Mice and Men, Far From the Madding Crowd, Remembrance of Things Past, Endless Night and many others.
One title that always intrigued me was Catcher in the Rye, which takes its inspiration from Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet whose “Comin’ Thro’ The Rye” was a poem with obvious sexual overtones, a subject much on the mind of the main character in the book. Another is To Kill A Mockingbird, which takes its title from a snippet of dialogue from its main character declaring that to kill a mockingbird is a sin. That title truly encapsulates the theme of that novel.
Believe me, I have had many sleepless nights trying to come up with titles that accurately nailed the content of my work. I’ve taken them from snippets of poetry and quotations from Shakespeare whose work is a gold mine of fantastic possibilities. Indeed, I found the title of my latest work, The Serpent’s Bite, in that famous quote by Lear, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” It hits the mark about the content of this novel with deadly accuracy.
I’ve always admired the titles of Hemingway, masterpieces of accuracy, nuance and subtlety. Few are better than A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bells Toll, and an all-time favorite of mine is Gone With the Wind, which is beautifully said and chillingly accurate. Another all-time favorite of mine is The Red and the Black, by Stendahl, subtly delineating the central focus of the main character’s ambitions, the red of the Army and the black of the clergy.
Thomas Hardy was a master of titles: Jude the Obscure and The Return of the Native to mention just two of many. Some wonderful titles stick in my craw, not because they are not brilliant but, for some reason, I could never fully master their content. They are One Hundred Years of Solitude and Under the Volcano.
But then, by and large, a great title is an art form unto itself. Indeed, a great title does not necessarily signify a great book and vice versa.
It has always been a source of great curiosity to me to understand the psychology of “titling.” Do titles really help in making reading choices or are they merely identifying pointers? I’d like to hear what you think.
It may be time for the media that covers the book business to stop publishing best seller lists. They are, in today’s book choosing environment, disorienting, unhelpful and confusing, a valiant but failed attempt to make sense out of disorder.
For some time now the New York Times Book Review has devoted the best part of six pages of its shrinking section to various best-seller lists. They cover numerous categories; children’s books, how to, fiction, non-fiction, e-books, hardcover, paperback and trade fiction. They are a cracked mirror of the fractionalized, overstuffed and disorganized image of contemporary book publishing.
Once upon a time, they might have served their purpose for devoted general readers who based their choices on the premise that a book which sells best might be worth the investment of time and money. It was assumed, too, that what sold best might provide the reader with a better reading experience than what was not on the list. In other words, follow the crowd. They may know where they’re going. Or may not.
As everyone knows, popularity rarely equates with quality. On the other hand, quality is too subjective to be quantified and it would be the essence of snobbery to condemn all of the books on best-seller lists as potboilers. Many are. But some have stood the test of time and have introduced authors who have shown remarkable durability, and given pleasure and insight to generations of readers.
The goal of publishers has been always to get one or another of their authors on the top rankings of the various lists. They are, after all, in business. Getting them on those lists is essential to their bets on how they believe their books will do in the marketplace and they gear their print runs and promotional investments to these bets. The goal is to dominate the shelf space in bookstores and the Net.
If these books make it on the various lists, published week to week, not only in the Times but in other sources of lesser prestige and importance, readers will assume that their choices have been vetted by the public.
Like practically every business on the planet, technology has been a profound game changer and nowhere has it been more so than in the publishing business. We all know the scenario, the astounding rise of e-books, the precipitous decline of printed books, the ever-shrinking number of bookstores, the loss of the usual quality filters that appeared in newspapers and magazines, the rise of thousands of book bloggers world-wide, the proliferation of self-appointed book reviewers offering a myriad of opinions on the merits of books, and the rise of author factories that keep the output of so-called “branded” authors in production e.g. Patterson, Cussler and numerous others who slap their names on books produced by well paid “ghosts,” some of whom are modestly credited.
With approximately thousands of books published every week the pool of books available is rising exponentially. Today, anybody who can put a sentence together can publish a book on the cheap and get it on the technology shelf available for downloading inside of a few weeks or less.
For those of us in the fiction reader pool, the implications of the best-seller list in today’s world imply that there are “them” (those on the list) and “the rest” (those piled up in the cyber bins outside of the lists).
There has, of course, always been an intrepid band of talented writers buried in the so-called “rest” who, for one reason or another, have been crowded out of the contemporary sales arena by the over powering ubiquity of the best seller lists.
It can be argued that, best-seller lists aside, the true worth and power of, for example, a novel is passed from reader to reader by what is characterized as “word of mouth,” and the overwhelming majority of the most enduring works of fiction have never been best-sellers in their time.
As any author today knows, the business of attracting readers in today’s Wild West world of publishing is not only difficult, but often futile and heartbreaking. When one thinks of some great fiction writing by talented writers going unread and unheralded, crowded out in the marketplace by the harsh realities of commerce, one can only chant a sad melody of regret.
Yes, I am well aware that traditional publishers still in business depend, like the movie studios and distributors, on the one or two big hits that will make them financially whole in today’s commercial environment. And perhaps, like Don Quixote, I am fighting the windmills, but there are many of us around who passionately love books, great stories, wonderful writing, and whose lives have been enriched by being stimulated, inspired and informed by such stellar works of the imagination.
For readers like us, the best-seller lists are increasingly irrelevant, and they may actually be a deterrent in our never-ending search for great new books to enhance our lives.
Eliminating them entirely might not sit well for authors who have been branded into popularity and those who publish them, but the elitism of market manipulation through such lists does not, in the opinion of this dedicated reader, serve us as well as they did in bygone days.
Once the gatekeepers of the printed word, the power of the publishing community has been severely diminished by the indifferent scythe of technology. The e-book intrusion on their vaunted system of cultural filtration has been breached and they are now forced to compete with anyone who believes they have something to say that will add to our knowledge, entertainment and cultural advancement, once the exclusive purview of the publisher-chosen printed book.
For fiction authors who are published by traditional publishers and rely on advances and royalties for their living, the future is dim. There will be exceptions of course, especially in those books that attract youthful, computer-savvy genre readers and in certain categories, like romance fiction, which a largely feminine audience gobbles up like popcorn and currently represents a large chunk of the e-book consumer market.
But the destiny is in the numbers. There are presently multi-thousands of books published every week. This number is sure to rise now that the ease and cost of entering the marketplace has shrunk affordably. A growing portion of these books are self-published by mostly genre fiction authors. Many are priced at 99 cents and still others are given away free by self-published authors hoping to gain reader traction in the process. So far, there is no metric to determine the success or failure of such giveaways.
The best rule of thumb for the marketing of trade books is that 50 percent of readers are persuaded to purchase by publisher advertising and promotion, if any, and the other fifty percent by author familiarity and word of mouth. It is a purely arbitrary number since no one really knows the answer and the variables are legion.
The endurance rate of author popularity will most likely shrink rapidly in the forever-spinning universe of cyberspace. So called “Best Sellers” will have a much shorter lifespan than before. Entrepreneurial authors will proliferate in cyber space, especially in the genre fiction field.
The traditional publishers will probably continue to publish the non-genre authors, especially the serious novelists to whom writing is an artistic calling, as a matter of prestige and devotion, but the advances will, by economic necessity, continue to shrink. But then, serious novelists have always been on the bottom rung of the author income chain and yet continue to pursue their calling, despite the slim odds of making a living, by creating their brand of immersive reading.
Publishers and authors are now scrambling to find the magic bullet that will propel books sales. The process is bound to get hotter now that pricing has become a wild card. There is still, however, some robustness left in the traditional book business. But the changes that are occurring are swift and profound and what’s ahead is, to say the least, challenging.
Unfortunately, the traditional publishers either did not see it coming or did not react fast enough to their changing fortunes. Their reaction comes a bit late in the process as e-books have begun to take hold. Their agency ploy strikes me, with its secrecy and collusion, as a desperate act that they knew would fail.
My guess is that more and more authors will opt for their own promotion and depend on creating circles of interest that could proliferate and help to increase readership. Like everything else, what was once mass has now becoming splintered and fractionalized. Success may soon be measured in more modest terms.
But while my clairvoyance meter has run pretty high when it comes to e-books, I cannot discount the creative imagination that rarely fails to choose a wayward path to another, more satisfactory outcome. The fact is that immersive reading is a powerful motivator and important human need. It has proven its resilience time and time again.
There are certain bedrock givens that continue to stoke my optimism. Stories are created by the author and, however delivered, they are the very essence of human communications. Their value to culture and civilization is immeasurable. A way will be found to fulfill this need and what is important to the human condition will find its way to be profitable.
It is no small thing to write a book. It takes dedication, concentration, discipline, singleness of purpose, long hours of isolation and, above all, ideas. Years ago, before the rise of the Internet and the ease of digitization and the proliferation of e-readers, those who self-published were considered the bottom of the publishing barrel, rejected by mainline and established publishers, ignored by agents and dismissed as ego-centric wannabes.
For many who had hopes and dreams of obtaining authorial credentials by being taken on by the publishers who controlled the marketplace and the distribution chain, the prospects were grim to nil. Publishers and agents relegated their manuscripts to what the industry referred to as the “slush pile” and most, if not all manuscripts, were returned unread by clerks who inserted printed rejection slips and returned the manuscripts in self-postage ready envelopes.
For many, those days are over. The “Vanity press” has morphed into “self-published,” now a reasonably respectable process that allows anyone who writes a book to be digitally “shelved” with those authors who have passed the filters of the traditional publishing companies. The stigma that once relegated the army of “rejected” authors no longer applies.
The motivation to write has not changed. In fact, the new technology has encouraged people who held off pursuing their dreams of authordom for fear of rejection and humiliation to get into the fray, pursue their creative muse and live in hope that somehow, someway, their work would find an audience.
As a pioneer in e-books, I have been astonished by the vast avalanche of authors that have now published outside the well-trod path of the traditional publishers. I should have known. The desire to write, to communicate, to become known, to pursue fame and fortune, however illusive and almost impossible, is something deeply embedded in the human psyche. It is the same impulse that has made Twitter, Facebook and social networking in general an international phenomenon. Notice me. Watch me. Follow me. Here I am.
There is obviously a crying need for people to be seen and heard, to be known, to tell their life story, to chase the goddess of celebrity, to be understood, loved and admired. Millions want their thoughts and experiences to be preserved through the written word, to tell their stories, whether true or imagined, to offer others their point of view, to educate, instruct and elucidate. The urge to communicate is a universal impulse and in a literate society, the most personal way to do this, beyond face to face interaction, is through the written word.
This is not to denigrate other ways of communication through music, art and performance, but the written word is universally available and the means to disseminate these words and package them through technology is simple and affordable. Indeed, a vast network of commercial companies have sprung up to further simplify the process of bringing a manuscript into a respectable product, not unlike those books being published by traditional publishers.
That said, producing a book, whether an e-book or a physical book, is only one part of the process. Since a book is a one-on-one communication system, if it does not attract a reader, it is merely a static artifact. A reader must have a reason to take the time to immerse him or herself in an author’s production.
The obvious task of an author is to produce his or her work and, by using modern technology, make it available. Beyond that, he or she must figure out how to make it discoverable in a pool of millions of available books. Of course, the book must offer something to benefit the reader for his investment of time, whether it be knowledge, insight, entertainment, self-help, a compelling story or something else of perceived value.
In the area of fiction, there are well-worn genre paths. Even children and young adults, stimulated by the extraordinary success of Harry Potter, are getting into the publishing game on their parent’s dime. Why not?
Note I am making no judgments on the quality of these offerings and the demand they fulfill and I am ignoring the value of talent and skill in organizing and creating the manuscript.
The given here is that the urge to write is profound and that there are millions of people worldwide who desperately want to fulfill this need. I suspect that anyone who writes a book, especially novelists, believes in their gut that their book is an important and durable contribution to the genre or the literary canon. I’ll leave such judgments to others.
With fifty thousand books published every week in every category and no self-published books ever going out of “print,” there will be shortly millions upon millions of books of every category available to readers. How will a reader find and choose a book? How will an author get read or recognized? If there was ever an example of the old chestnut, finding a needle in a haystack, this is it.
For the self-published author with no visible track record, no public platform, no branded name, however small, the odds of making a readership dent are long. This does not mean there won’t be psychic pleasures, like being recognized as a genuine author, being given the opportunity to speak at book signings and book clubs, perhaps being interviewed for one’s hometown paper or being asked to a local radio and television show to showcase their book.
For many, that might be more than enough satisfaction. Indeed, there is surely destined to be some self-published author who breaks through every barrier and is lauded and lionized and well rewarded commercially for his achievement. After all, someone does win the lottery.
But beyond the writer’s hopes and dreams, beyond ambition and the secret craving for artistic respect or the thirst for recognition and commercial success, is the personal satisfaction inherent in scaling the toughest climb of all, writing the book in the first place. Just accomplishing that mission alone is certainly worthy of an enthusiastic high five.
Warren Adler’s latest novel “The Serpent’s Bite” will be published in September.
I have been baffled for years over what constitutes the definition of a “literary” novel. Over the course of my career, I have heard numerous definitions, but none quite resonate for me as the one gold standard, definitive answer.
In search of this definition, I am tempted to discount all of the various genre novels, many of which are well written and exemplary, but they do suggest formula and have been slotted by common publishing practice to fit a category that does not suggest “literary.”
Thus, I assume that mysteries, romance, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, zombie, vampire and various young adult categories and numerous others might be considered out of contention.
Well then, in what category will we put the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories? I’m sure there are other examples.
Most definitions of what constitutes a literary novel stress that the subject matter is strong on character and irony, with lesser emphasis on pure plot and offers more serious explorations of the human condition and is, therefore more meaningful and more philosophical.
Clashing opinions among intellectuals and academics are fiercely subjective and often open to bitter contention. Publishers have timeworn, fixed definitions that they adhere to and propagate as gospel truth. So-called “high brow” readers insist they know it when they read it.
Others will dismiss popular and commercial fiction as non-literary, especially if they are mainstays on best seller lists.
Some will say it is the author’s style, which they will often describe as “lyrical,” that is a key determinant and clue to the literary definition. Others will cite the use of metaphors, similes and references to classics, myths, and symbols as the ultimate marker.
Many point to the so-called “experimental” novel as a prized example of what is literary, which opens up academic questions on literary theory and various academic offshoots that deeply study trends and movements to determine how literature impacts thought, history and civilization.
One might point to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as the prime examples of the literary novel. In the case of the latter novel, the issue of accessibility comes to mind. Does this mean that a novel that is as inaccessible as Finnegans Wake available to a handful of ardent readers is a prime definition of a literary novel? Is obscurity another marker for a novel that is literary?
As an English major, I understand the wonders and joy of literary scholarship as a lifetime pursuit and have enormous respect for those who live in this splendid world.
Still, the definition is illusive. In terms of the novel, it is easy to dismiss what is popular at the moment as not worthy of being defined as “literary.” Still, some novelists have been enormously popular in their time and well beyond. In the English realm, we have numerous examples, like Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy and others. Then there are those authors that were less popular in their time like the Brontës, Jane Austin, George Meredith and others who have climbed into the literary canon.
Other books have been lifted from obscurity to world wide literary grandeur like Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which barely sold a few dozen copies when first published. There are numerous other examples, but I will spare readers the historical literary analogies. They are endless.
The definition gets even murkier when time frame makes its entrance. Does durability, for example, constitute an important definition of what is or becomes a literary novel? How does a novel become a classic? Who determines what becomes a classic?
If a novel is studied in schools and has relevance to its time, does that make it a literary novel? Is, therefore, To Kill a Mockingbird a literary novel? It is certainly popular and studied as part of many school curriculums. But then, so is Huckleberry Finn, which has been lauded as the seed from which all American novels spring. Was it conceived by Mark Twain as a literary novel? Is subject matter by itself another clue to what is a literary novel, especially if it deals with human rights or other hot-button issues of our era?
When I was in my late teens, I was in thrall to Thomas Wolfe and gobbled up his books with alacrity and deep devotion. I felt certain he would be celebrated forever as a truly great novelist of the literary variety. Today, he is dismissed by the so-called establishment as over exuberant and wordy, his books overwrought, overblown, over praised and overrated. At some point, I will revisit him and make my own assessment.
John O’Hara was another of my contemporary literary idols. Once popular, he seemed to have fallen over a cliff to obscurity. Would his novels and short stories pass the test of what is “literary”?
On the other hand Hemingway and Fitzgerald seem to continue unabated, both seemingly assured a place as literary icons well beyond their lifetime. Not so Faulkner, who seems, arguably and certainly undeservedly, headed to obscurity.
Perhaps I am straining too hard and put too much emphasis on durability and less on contemporary judgment, which adds to my own confusion on the definition of the literary novel. Does the Nobel Prize for Literature qualify to identify a literary novel? Or does enduring readership? Who but a small coterie of academics remembers Henrik Pontoppidan, Romain Rolland, Anatole France, Salvatore Quasimodo and numerous others? Am I being unfair by going back too far? Probably so.
After all, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Saul Bellow, and numerous other once popular writers were among the Nobel winners. Does such an honor automatically confer literary immortality?
My instinct is to opt for durability as essential to the definition of what is literary. To me, it is the master test and, unfortunately, may take many lifetimes to come up with a truly definitive answer. Indeed many a contemporary, hardworking, serious novelist secretly believes in his gut he might one day make the cut.
Which reminds me of that great quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak to me.”
You’ve spent months, perhaps years, composing your novel. You’ve read and reread it hundreds of times. You’ve rethought it, rewritten it, and revised it, changed characters, dialogue, and plot lines. Writing it is the most important thing in your life. The writing of your novel has absorbed your attention, almost exclusively. Both your conscious and your subconscious mind have been obsessed with it. You have read parts of it to your friends, family, former teachers. Most think it’s wonderful.
You have finally considered it finished. Armed with optimism and self-confidence, you obtain a list of agents on the Internet and begin to canvas agents. You agonize over whether to send your precious manuscript to one agent at a time or to a number of agents. You choose the first option.
Just in case, you send it electronically, unsure of whether or not this is now standard practice. You have high hopes. You are aware of the massive changes in the publishing business, but have chosen to take the traditional path as your first option.
Weeks go by, then months. The agents are, you believe, reading it in the office, passing it around, deciding to take it on. You live on such hopes. Finally you call the agent’s office. They haven’t a clue as to who you are. Somehow, they are reminded and search through the piles of manuscripts in their office, find yours and send you back a form letter, perhaps made to look like an original out of politeness.
Well then, you tell yourself, it is only one agent’s opinion. You send it off to another agent. A letter comes back swiftly, similarly worded. You get bolder, send your manuscript to two agents at a time, then three, then every agent you can find. Nothing happens. “Good luck on getting published,” they tell you. “Not for us.” Sometimes there is a personal, scribbled note that says something nice and you live in its glow for days.
Years go by. You start another novel, but you are less optimistic now, less confident, and unsure. You tell yourself you have not paid enough attention to the marketplace. You begin to analyze what is selling, what is not selling, what is being published. You read books on the bestseller lists and are certain you can do a lot better. You try to use these books as a guide to what is selling and you write accordingly. Nothing helps. You are continuously rejected.
You begin to read various pitches on the Internet about how you can publish your own books and get them marketed on electronic venues. Some sites promise that they can get your book in front of movie producers for a price. Some say they have the magic to make you a successful career novelist for a price, of course. For more of a price, you will be told how best to market your book. You debate the idea and as your pile of rejection letters mount, you give it a try.
You spend money. A book is produced in print on demand format and an e-book is created and placed on every electronic sales venue on the net. Your family buys copies and sends them to friends. It is even reviewed in publications that review self-published books for a price. There is a word or two of praise in the review and you send it around to the media and everybody you know. Unfortunately, there is little or no sales, no afterlife.
Despite your confidence in your ability, despite the fact that you truly believe your novel is certainly worthy of publication, you feel the full impact of rejection and failure. Still, you cannot shake the certainty or your talent. You write another novel. Perhaps a third. Perhaps more. You go through the same process. Again and again you are rejected. You begin to question your ability, your ideas, and your talent. Is it a fantasy, an exercise in unrealistic aspirations? You are becoming embittered. Your dream is crashing.
If you are fortunate, your wife, husband, partner, and family stick by you, continue to encourage your dream, help you keep it alive. Other realities begin to chip away at the dream. You have financial obligations. Your kids are growing up. You are losing out in the job market. Others are moving up in their jobs, while you are falling behind.
You feel lost, adrift. Rejection after rejection has beaten you down. You see this as the end of your world, the end of your hopes and dreams. Your high hopes and self-confidence in your own talent is petering away.
If you’ve read this far without your stomach congealing, I suppose you are awaiting some prescription offering a magic coping pill. Sorry, there isn’t any available your corner drug store. And you won’t find it here. Luck — that strange, illusive, heaven sent, burst of good fortune-has not fired a missile in your direction.
You have three choices. The first is personal surrender. You’ve been on a fool’s errand following an adolescent dream. Time to throw in the towel and concentrate on your day job. At least you tried. The second choice is postponement. You weren’t ready. You needed more experience of life. But you continue to believe it will come. Some talented people are late bloomers. Give the dream a rest. Wishing won’t make it so. There are enough popular clichés to give you courage.
Now, for your third choice, the clincher. It is not recommended for the faint of heart. Never give up. Never, never, never. It may be impractical, unwise, foolish, pure madness, but if you truly believe in yourself, your talent, your ideas, your calling, your personal mission, why not, as Lewis Carroll wrote, “go on until the end, and then stop.”
To do this requires a monumental ego, total self-confidence in your talent, and an unshakeable belief that you have been anointed with the right stuff. You will require obsessive focus, singleness of purpose, a draconian ruthlessness and total devotion to a belief in your artistic ability. Fancy words, I know, but with the absence of luck, you will need these attributes to sustain you through the process.
What this means for the true novelist is that he or she must continue to soldier on, keep writing, keep trying, taking the increasingly painful hits of rejection after rejection until … well, until someone out there catches on … or doesn’t.
We are all waiting for Godot. Sometimes he comes.