The Goodreads Zone

It happened on Goodreads.  I suspect she had no idea how much that simple “like” meant to me.  Social media is too big to be everywhere, so I primarily engage with those who reach out to me (without trolling), on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Goodreads.  Even with my activity on these venues, comments are rare.  Likes a bit more common, and always appreciated.  Several months after I posted a review of her book, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling on Goodreads, Anne Serling liked it.  That may not seem like much, but this was the actual daughter of Rod Serling himself, liking something I wrote.  If you feel the way I do about The Twilight Zone this will be a personal brush with greatness.  Almost as if Serling himself approved.

I’ve met a few famous people in my time.  Mostly they are ordinary people and act like ordinary people.  Only those of us around someone famous know that millions of people have heard of one of us.  Heard of and admire.  The rest of us manage to get along, but we do so without notice.  Unless someone “likes” what we do.  It’s kind of like having someone famous blurb your book.  In any case, my childhood consisted of many snippets of things that made me who I am.  One of those snippets was The Twilight Zone.  I watched a lot of television growing up.  We were not a reading family (neither parent finished high school), so the television was the item of choice after work/school.  Much of what I watched washed off.  Not The Twilight Zone.

Like reading through the Dark Shadows novels, I’ve been slowly watching my way through The Twilight Zone alone.  Nobody else in my family cares for it and since I don’t have much free time I only get to it on rare occasions.  Now that mowing time is here, those occasions are even fewer.  I guess I feel that I have to justify why I’ve come around to writing about horror as an adult.  You don’t get to be an adult without having some kind of childhood first, and mine involved The Twilight Zone.  Anne Serling’s involved being raised by the creator of The Twilight Zone.  To me, that’s a validating kind of fame.  To be seen by someone who could, if she wanted, have an instant and ready-made audience.  A reverie, started by something that happened on Goodreads.

Many Days

Science fiction.  I used to consume it by the bookful, and even now I occasionally turn back to it.  Having read Doris Piserchia’s A Billion Days of Earth, I do have a confession to make.  I don’t know why I read it.  Literally.  As I’ve indicated many times before, I keep a reading wishlist.  It’s comprised of books that others recommend and things that catch my eye.  Every now and again a used book sale will bring something unexpected into the mix, but overall, I rely on my list.  I can’t remember who recommended A Billion Days of Earth, or why.  The cover is striking in that 1970s sci-fi way, and it took me back to the actual seventies when I was reading sci-fi quite a bit.  Some of that cover art still mesmerizes me.  So, about the book…

I didn’t know what to expect and received what I was expecting.  This is a philosophically heavy novel that, in the style of some other seventies fiction I read, was a bit difficult to follow.  The main idea (and there will be spoilers) is that Sheen, a silvery, shape-shifting being, emerges a billion days along.  Evolution has taken multiple tracks with animals such as dogs and rats becoming essentially what humans are today (or were in the seventies) and humans evolving into what the other animals call gods.  Sheen slithers about the world taking the egos from all creatures, kind of assimilating them.  A rat person and a dog person resist the relinquishing of their egos while the world around them begins to collapse.  The “gods” refuse to help.  Then, at the end, the gods board their spaceship, and released by Sheen, leave for another planet.

Although I was confused most of the way through, the book leaves a lot to exegete.  This is definitely a retelling of Genesis 1–3.  Sheen offers people (and animals) paradise in exchange for their egos.  Nearly everyone, except those who think (a small number) accepts this offer.  Even the gods are tempted.  We’ve got the snake (Sheen), the expulsion from paradise, and the gods who separate themselves from humanity.  But still, I’m sure there’s something more that I missed.  There are subplots for Rik (rat man) and Jak (dog man) and the rich Filly family that seem to evade conclusion or resolution.  Or maybe once the gods are gone there’s nothing more to say.  This seventies classic left me thinking.  And wondering who it was that recommended it to me.


What really goes on in somebody else’s mind?  At best we can guess, and when that person’s been dead for a long time that guessing involves some reasoned speculation.  I enjoyed Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky’s reasoned speculation in Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving.  The book itself is a few decades old now, but it does raise many relevant issues.  For me personally, it was, in parts, like reading my own psychological profile.  Irving is an interesting study.  (Unlike me) he had early success as a writer but he was a continual self-doubter.  He was also a poor investor, making money on his writing only to lose large sums investing in ventures that failed.  He also had a sense of not belonging which would seem strange for a New Yorker today.  Although he finally felt he fit in when he settled, as a famous writer, in Tarrytown, this book really only covers his European years.

While traveling for seventeen years in mainly Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, Irving wrote four very different “Sketch Books.”  These weren’t really short stories as we’ve come to understand them, at least not always, but they affirmed his place in the literary firmament.  Adrift in the Old World covers these four books while bringing incidental mention of several others into the picture.  Irving must be a difficult writer to cover.  He was not only prolific, but he wrote about diverse topics and sometimes at great length.  Of course, he was trying to make a living as a writer and people in those days had more time to read.  Breaking out a set of only four of his books makes this more digestible.

Even though I learned a lot from this book, it wasn’t always easy reading.  It gets a bit academic in parts and the paragraphs are far too long.  Still, there’s good information here.  I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Irving for some time now, as a glance at the books I’ve covered recently ought to suggest.  Although he’s not ignored by literary scholars, there aren’t many general interest books written on him.  There are other writers that more capture the modern imagination.  Still, literary history of the early United States is a fascinating venture in its own right.  For those who like to try to figure out what other people are thinking (and I have to admit to that avocation) this is a good entryway into what may have been the mental world of Washington Irving.

Insane Illusionist

The Dark Shadows novels supplemented my early watching of the television series.  It’s funny, but when I remember watching the show, in my mind I watched it alone.  During a conversation with one of my brothers recently, he assured me that he had watched the show too, pointing to the selectiveness of memory.  What I do know is that I was the only one who read the novels.  I bought them when I could find them used, and I kept them in an old pasteboard suitcase (we had no bookshelves and my parents didn’t read).  I didn’t have the entire collection by a long shot and I can honestly say I don’t know which ones I read back then.  I am now, however, two novels from finishing the entire series—a project I began around 2006.

Barnabas, Quentin and the Mad Magician follows the usual formula, although this time around Barnabas is temporarily cured of his vampire curse and Quentin doesn’t turn into a werewolf at all.  They are on friendly terms and both are being set up by the rather obvious antagonist, the mad magician.  I guess you can begin to see the series winding down.  Most of the thirty-two stories are broadly similar and the writing is that rushed, breathless kind that seems characteristic of those who make a living delivering pulp fiction.  There have always been people like me who will buy it.  That’s the reason I typically use the phrase “guilty pleasure” when describing these novels.

As I note in my YouTube video on the phenomenon, Dark Shadows was quite popular in its day.  It’s what we might now call a cultural meme.  Television series, novels, two movies, comic books, lunch boxes—the whole coffin.  The monsters were likable.  That was true of some of the greats—you felt sympathetic toward them.  As horror began to “grow up” the monsters often became entirely reprehensible, with no redeeming qualities.  So as Barnabas and Quentin do their best to expose the true monster, their supernatural powers currently on hold, they have to rely on their money and connections.  Even at the end the “confession” is made suspect by the longer tacked on ending.  If you’ve read enough of these, you grow suspicious when there are ten pages left after the antagonist dies.  Stories such as this aren’t great literature, but they do fill a gap in the world of monsters that nostalgia leaves for those who knew Dark Shadows in the late sixties.

Finding Family

Sea Change is a probing story of learning to live with loss.  Of learning how to say goodbye.  I’m sure that I didn’t catch all that was being offered in this novel, but for those of us who did grow up without a father there’s a kind of therapy here.  I know that I eagerly awaited the end of work each day so that I could pick it up and read a bit more.  Framed as the story of the only child of Korean immigrants, the novel features Aurora (Ro), a young woman who has had to find her way ever since her father has gone missing.  And even before that, actually.  Her father, as a marine biologist, had captured an octopus (Dolores) who now lives in the aquarium where he once worked.  Ro, whose relationship with her mother is strained, takes a job in the aquarium after her father goes missing and befriends the remaining part of him—Dolores.

At the same time Ro’s boyfriend is accepted into a mission being launched to Mars.  (This isn’t science fiction, just to say.)  The loss is another deep cut to a woman who had to deal with the earlier significant loss of her father.  I won’t say much more about the plot since I think you should read the book, but it is a thoughtful, and from my experience, realistic journey through the mental states of those who cope with abandonment issues early in life.  Of course, I can’t speak to the experience of being a child of immigrants, but the novel shows we all deal with the same kinds of issues, no matter where we’re from.  At least we do in modern civilization.

Sea Change made me ponder, however, whether children raised communally would feel the same kind of loss if a parent they didn’t know was theirs left.  The mother-and-child bond is a deep one, so I guess it could be that fathers, after conception, would be expendable in such a situation.  It’s difficult to project how such a society would work.  The family unit is so deeply engrained into our experience that, unless a situation is truly dire, we know we can rely on our parents not to try to harm us, but rather to protect and love us.  Those of us who grew up without fathers (I’m not sure if that’s the case with Gina Chung or not) deal with insecurity issues that never quite go away.  This beautifully written novel was, for me, a healing kind of experience.

Golem Events

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It doesn’t have a title yet.  At least not one that’s announced.  Still, when a friend pointed out this article that Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, is writing a horror film about a golem, I sat up straight in my chair.  Since I don’t tend to dwell on children’s topics here, it may not be obvious that I was a real fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket, back when they came out.  Alerted to this series by a cousin who was my daughter’s age, we made this bed-time reading for a few years.  Handler, in the early days, did a pretty good job of keeping his identity secret.  He’s written some adult fiction, and those of us who write know that readers want more of the same thing from a writer—if you want to survive you do what they ask.

I’m a very eclectic reader—that may be one reason I don’t have many followers on this blog.  People like the same thing time and again.  (I’ve always been suspicious of genres.  One of the reasons, I suspect, that my students found my lectures interesting is that I drew from my eclectic reading, but that’s ancient history now.)  In any case, A Series of Unfortunate Events was formative in my own writing.  The movie remains one of the most gothic available, but it pales next to the novels.  Yes, they’re written for young readers, but they’re also very well written for young readers.  I discovered Snicket, or Handler, was Jewish when he wrote The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming.  And now he’s turned his attention to one of my favorite monsters.  The golem has been part of horror from the earliest days of the genre (that word!).

Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s The Golem, part of a trilogy, came out in 1915.  Before the Universal monsters.  Even before Nosferatu.  The legend of the golem—which may have inspired Frankenstein—has a long history.  While not biblical, the golem does go back many centuries.  Unfortunately these early horror films are lost, or mostly lost.  The Golem and the Dancing Girl, from 1917, is a lost comedy horror.  The third film, The Golem, How He Came into the World, from 1920, survives and is sometimes called “The Golem.”  I wrote earlier about the excellent 2018 film The Golem by Doron and Yoav Paz, sensitive to Jewish issues in the seventeenth century.  This sub-genre of golem movies may be starting to come into its own.  It remains to be seen what Handler will do with it, but if his previous work is anything to go by, we may be in for a real treat.

Funny about Irving

The successful writer, John Green, has been on a tuberculosis kick lately.  You see, writers swing that way.  As the writer of books few people read, I’ve had my own little Washington Irving obsession lately.  So it is that I read Martin Roth’s Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving.  Roth knew a lot about comedy and he framed Irving’s early work as burlesque, rather than the more usual categorization as satire.  In doing this, he groups Irving together with other writers in the genre such as Laurence Sterne (who sounds like a fascinating character) and François Rabelais, among others.  (Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith also make appearances.)  Irving is analyzed in comparison to these other writers and his comic style is considered as polite satire, political satire, and domestic humor, as well as burlesque.

Insightful while occasionally assuming quite a bit on the part of the reader’s background, Roth provides quite a bit of good chewing here.  Roth was, by reputation, an unorthodox thinker.  He sounds like the kind of professor you would’ve wanted to have had in the classroom.  A book trying to parse comedy is a good sign, I suppose.  I learned a lot from reading it, and was pleased to see that I had independently come to some of the same conclusions he had.  That signals to me, anyway, that I’m not too far off track.  The benefit for those interested Irving is that, while critical, Roth isn’t judgmental.  It has always seemed odd to me that the premier biography of Irving had been written by a scholar who really seemed to hate him.  Roth, on the other hand, likes a good laugh.

As a used book my copy had lots of pencil marks in it.  So many that I had to erase them so that I could spot my own.  When I worked in the theology library at Boston University one summer I was introduced to the electric pencil eraser.  This was a device for heavy-duty removing of the marks of thoughtless patrons.  Before working for the library I stared in wonder when I would see students (perhaps not the brightest) sitting in the library, underlining in books they’d pulled off the shelf.  I think I was always too well aware that library books were not my own.  Because such folks, I’m sure, the electric pencil eraser was invented.  None of this took away from my enjoyment of Roth’s book.  I learned quite a bit about Irving’s context and, as an added bonus, got to remember using an electric eraser.

I would like to have had an image of the book cover, but mine lacks the dust jacket and finding it without violating copyright was difficult. I tried to trace this image to its origin, but I found it on Pinterest and the link didn’t take me back to the original poster. If you see and own this and want me to erase it, just let me know.

What Kind of Night?

“It was a dark and stormy night.”  If you’re like me, this evokes images of Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse, clacking away at his typewriter, trying to write the great American novel.  Many of us have tried a hand at that.  And as a writer, finding that allusive incipit, or opening line, is a major preoccupation.  For many years I believed the sentence “It was a dark and stormy night” originated with Edward Bulwer-Lytton since his 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with this sentence.  Now considered melodramatic prose of the purplest kind, it may have been serious back then.  1830 was early in the days of novel writing.  Then I found the phrase from an even earlier work, Washington Irving’s A History of New York, from 1809.  Had Bulwer-Lytton read it?  Irving was quite popular in the pre-Dickens days.

This raises a question encapsulated in the other old phrase, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”  Unless someone tells us explicitly that they read something—journals and footnotes often convey this information—it’s difficult to know.  There’s a whole genre of history books these days that examine the libraries of deceased historical individuals to determine what they read.  I suppose in the days before mass book sales there was a better chance that owning a book meant you’d read it, but not necessarily.  In college I worked as the secretary for the chaplain, Bruce Thielemann.  When he read a book he wrote a category of note in the margin and paid a secretary to go through and write the citation under a heading in a set of looseleaf binders he kept, with several pages dedicated to each category.  For sermon preparation he’d look up his theme and immediately see what he’d read.  I knew he’d read those books.

So, was Washington Irving the origin of the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night”?  Many websites, many of them authoritatively, insist that the credit goes to Bulwer-Lytton.  I located an edition of A History of New York that replicates, word for word, the 1809 edition.  You see, Irving, like many writers, revised after publication and not all (or even most) modern editions tell you which version they use.  Irving indeed used the phrase in 1809, I confirmed.  The internet is wrongly giving credit to Edward Bulwer-Lytton for a phrase first printed by Washington Irving.  The two were contemporaries and ironically, Wikipedia points out that Irving first used “almighty dollar,” another phrased credited to Bulwer-Lytton.  It doesn’t however, point out that “it was a dark and stormy night” also belongs to Irving.  Something to ponder on a dark and stormy night.

Finally, Therapy

Like religion and horror, humor and horror can also get along well.  As an aesthetic, it’s not for everyone, but Grady Hendrix does it well.  It took some convincing for me to read The Final Girl Support Group.  I’d read one of Hendrix’s nonfiction books and was impressed, and that led me to his fiction.  It also demonstrates how an academic might actually be able to make a difference.  As you might guess, the novel features “final girls” from several fictional events, made into fictional movies, who get together for therapy.  It’s a funny idea and yet it’s not.  Hendrix clearly wants women to be treated fairly, but he’s also clearly a horror fan.  It’s sometimes a tricky balance to hold.  He does it pretty well in this novel.

The idea of a “final girl” comes from Carol Clover’s crossover academic book, Men, Women and Chain Saws.  This is the book that introduced the concept to the world.  As with most analytic concepts it’s only an approximation.  Clover noted the way that, in slasher films, the only survivor tends to be the virginal girl who doesn’t join in substance abuse.  Since the slasher genre is usually first credited to John Carpenter’s Halloween (Hendrix suggests in his acknowledgments that it’s Psycho), I’ve always wondered because Laurie Strode does take a toke in the car and we’re not really told much about her dating life.  I’m not a big fan of sequels, so maybe I’m missing something.  In any case, slashers have never been my favorites, and as sexist as it might sound, Poe’s observation about threats to beautiful women is something the “final girl” relies heavily upon.

The novel itself is pretty gripping.  I’m not going to put any spoilers here.  I was reluctant to read it but I’m glad that I did.  It’s classed as “horror” because of the theme but there’s definitely a lot of literary finesse as well.  It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really seem to be deep, but upon reflection, it has more to say than you think it does.  The resolution of the novel is messy.  I suppose that’s one thing that makes it literary.  The characterization is amazing well done.  I had trouble keeping track of the back stories of all the final girls but that’s part of the fun.  While there are definitely horror moments, Hendrix never lets you forget that you are supposed to be laughing too.  It’s a fine balance and he manages to hold it together throughout while giving agency to final girls.

Eternal Return

Amazon gets a lot of bad press.  For me, anyone that sends me books gets a warm fuzzy association.  Besides, returns are a snap.  Amazon has sent me the wrong item a time or two.  You simply let them know and they’ll refund you.  No fuss, no muss.  Twice recently, in my effort to support both the planet and used book vendors, I have received the wrong item.  Here’s where I praise Amazon.  The most recent vendor (reputable and an old player in the used book market) required a multi-step effort to even make the claim of a wrong item, and then wouldn’t pay for the return.  Let me get this right: it is your mistake and I have to pay for it?  Just because someone who apparently can’t read the title put the wrong book in the bag and it took two weeks for me to receive it?  Is there any wonder people buy from Amazon?

To err is human.  I get that, believe me I do.  But if you make a mistake you fess up, you don’t charge the customer for your error.  Have they not realized that looking at the price tag after a trip to the grocery store is more effective than watching a horror movie?  I can’t afford to pay for their mistakes.  Then my existentialist friends come to the rescue.  Yes, they remind me, this is all absurd.  A world based on inheritance and privilege, where an active and alert mind sees that when an error is made, the one who did not make it takes responsibility.  I’m no fan of capitalism, but Amazon doesn’t make me pay for what I didn’t order.  I guess size matters after all.

Perhaps there should be caveats plastered across the internet: buy at your own risk.  If we make a mistake with your order, you will be responsible for it.  It just kills me to complain about book vendors.  Probably I care for books a little too much.  I try to buy responsibly, otherwise there’d be no house to, well, house the books.  I just don’t like feeling cheated when purchasing a used book.  It’s out of character for book vendors.  They’re the modern saints, those who are looking out for the good of the world.  Eventually the seller relented, but not happily.  My associations of Amazon will always go back to when I first discovered that there was a website on which you could find just about any book and have it delivered, and often cheaply.  I miss those days and their optimism.  I need that warm, fuzzy feeling again.  I need to buy a book.

Literary Detective

A writer’s life can take many forms.  Alexandre Dumas, for example, (the father, just to be clear) had tremendous success with his novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.  Due to the politics in his lifetime, he was exiled and repatriated.  Of the upper classes, he had many affairs.  And finally, in 2002, was reinterred in the Panthéon in Paris with the president of the nation renouncing past racism.  You see, his father was a creole born in Haiti and apparently for that reason he’d been denied burial with France’s other luminaries.  I’ve been reading early European and American novels lately.   I just finished Dumas’ lesser known The Woman with a Velvet Necklace, which was originally published together with some other “stories” (this one alone is over 200 pages) in French, of course.

The story itself seems to have been based on a short ghost story by Washington Irving titled “The Adventure of the German Student.”  In brief, a student meets his dream girl in Paris during the revolution.  She wears a cloth necklace and when it’s removed her head falls off.  Tracing the origin of Dumas’ version on the internet took considerable detective work.  It involved learning the book in which it was originally published (long out of print), translating the title into French, and reading the French article in French Wikipedia since there’s no English article on it.  The story was originally published in 1850, some quarter-century after Irving’s tale, and logic compels one to conclude that either Dumas knew Irving or that Irving was using an old French ghost story that was in circulation at the time.

Since few internet sources exist on the novel, its origins remain somewhat of a mystery.  The French Wikipedia article doesn’t address them.  We know that Washington Irving was a writer appreciated both in America and Europe, having spent many of his years living in the latter.  We also know that Irving borrowed the basis of the story from materials he picked up while traveling.  There’s more literary detective work to be done here, but we live in an age when literary scholarship is devalued (it doesn’t bring in money) and until someone who’s an academic gets on this trail, Dumas’ use of Irving will always remain speculative.  The novel itself does reveal, after the first forty or so pages, why Dumas was a popular writer.  He has a way of drawing the reader in.  The story itself is odd and sad but has a message.  And, as it turns out, a mystery as well.

Living Through Writing

I’ve perhaps lived too long to be a great writer.  Of course, most of my fiction remains unpublished, much of it read and rejected by editors younger than myself.  I can’t help but notice that Poe died at forty and Robert Louis Stevenson at forty-four.  Emily Brontë at thirty.  All of them today considered literary geniuses, they caught publishers’ attention back when they weren’t such juggernauts as they are today.  Even the humble online literary magazine gets too many submissions and the editors advertise their quirky tastes.  Not that I’m any Poe, Stevenson, or Brontë.  I wonder if their awareness of the greater likelihood of dying young might’ve fueled their work.  Perhaps at a subconscious level.  I know, for example, that the pressure created by having to start work early leads to some of my own best writing, knowing, as I do, that time is limited.

Shortness of time is a great motivator.  One thing authors require is time, however.  If you roll out of bed, scarf down breakfast, then logon to work (how the world has changed!), you may have time at the end of the day but I’m so exhausted by work that I simply can’t produce anything at night.  I have to do my writing before the worries and pressures of work kill the inspiration.  I mean that literally—I can feel it dying as the worries of those seeking tenure, and the issues with which they surround themselves, suck the very vitality of my mind.  Serve and protect.  And although I’m not exactly old, I’m not young either.  I’ve outlived many and, to my way of thinking, it’s because I’m here for a reason.  It seems to have to do with writing.

You see, writing is a main identifier.  I was asked to take a survey recently by a group that wanted to identify people’s main sources of self-identity.  They asked about things like gender, race, sexual-orientation.  The usual suspects.  The survey wasn’t crafted, however, by a writer.  If it had been they’d have known that that is a category unto itself.  Those of us who write know that we are writers, whether published or not.  Whether famous or not.  It’s more than a profession—it’s an identity.  Sometimes we have to keep it quiet since those who hire others want the categories that identify themselves by to be race or gender or social status.  The writer may not be motivated by money.  Many work well but may not identify fully with their “job.”  They may, in fact, be watching the time slipping away and wish they were writing instead.

Becoming American

Image credit: John Wesley Jarvis, via Wikimedia Commons

I love reading literary scholars if they write accessibly.  William L. Hedges did, mostly, in Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802–1832.  There were several moments in my reading when I had to pause and consider the connections he was making.  This was his only book of note, but noteworthy it is.  You see, as a young person I had a difficult time figuring out what I was supposed to be as an American.  I read a lot about Europe and considered the various identities in the long histories there.  I tended to read European literature while having a lifelong soft spot for Poe.  Over time I began to read more American classics—ironically this wasn’t much part of my formal education in rural Pennsylvania.  Mostly I picked things up on my own.

Hedges, nevertheless, ties many of these things together in discussing Irving’s writing.  As he did so I started to realize that an American is a distinct kind of being.  Now, intellectually I’ve known that since childhood.  I was born and raised here, after all, as were the generations before me.  Still, recognizing the guilt of taking someone else’s land, it has taken many years to appreciate the literary accomplishments of the various writers who helped shape our national identity.  Hedges addresses many aspects of this through his analysis of Irving, but he’s at his best when he’s tying him together with Poe or Melville.  These early American literary lights offered a view of a nation haunted by history, but also funny at the same time.

This book was published three years after I was born.  Of course, I really didn’t start reading about Irving until about a decade ago.  You get the sense that he wasn’t sure of himself as a writer, but like many of us he had a thin skin when it came to criticism.  You see, writing is putting yourself out there for others to see.  It’s only worth doing if you believe you have something to say and you want others to hear it.  For many writers that means being discovered after death.  Today many make livings writing acclaimed novels.  They can only do so, however, because Irving and his generation suggested something new: you didn’t have to have a traditional job and just write on the side.  You could, if chance cooperated, create literary works that others would purchase and support yourself that way.  And then, more than a century after you’d gone, someone else would write about what you had written.  Thankfully, sometimes accessibly.

The Original

A dozen years ago, I had a novel under contract.  I write my fiction under a pseudonym, of course.  I was thrilled because I had never seen the conceit (in the sense of “concept”) anywhere before.  For once, I was going to be first in line.  But then the editor who’d responded “Loved it!” left the press.  After dithering for about a year, the publisher decided not to publish it.  This was a small, independent press—I wasn’t anticipating it would be a New York Times bestseller.  Then I saw a weekend add in the New York Times—just recently—touting a novel with the exact same concept as mine as “original” and worthy of being read.  Ironically, just the day before I had once again submitted my novel to an independent publisher.  I can’t blame the author, of course, but the system doesn’t work for everyone.

After the killing of my darling, I naturally tried to find another publisher.  I have been trying for twelve years.  I’ve been pushing the idea as original and of general interest.  Editors and agents disagreed about the “of general interest” part.  In fact, I’ve had rejections from nearly 100 literary agents over the years, one of them responding that I was a good writer but they couldn’t see where the story was going.  Maybe I didn’t handle it as well as this new book, with its glittering endorsements, but a guy likes to get credit for his work.  Now if it ever does get published I’ll be considered a copycat.  You see, my main driving force as a writer is originality.  My published stories are unlike others I’ve read and most of them go through multiple rounds of rejection before some editor “gets it.”

The publishing industry, however, is a strange one.  Most publishing houses want work that imitates bestsellers since they’re a known quantity.  Money in the bank (or what banks used to be).  The internet has changed that a bit, but not completely.  It does mean those skilled at such things as self-publishing can sometimes challenge the hegemony of the big five.  It also means a lot of sub-standard fare is out there as well.  I’m a little late establishing a literary reputation it seems.  Although being raised poor does qualify me as “diverse” it’s not in any way visible.  It is obvious if people get to know me because the poverty mentality never goes away.  So my novel has been waiting while the same idea occurred to someone else (not straight white male) and has received notice.  So I follow and hope to learn.

Book Writing

Not everyone wants to write a book.  A great number of people, however, do possess that desire.  Or that desire possesses them—that’s often more accurate.  For some it’s because they have ideas that feel compelled to share.  For others it’s the sense of accomplishment of having successfully strung together thousands of words and seen them encased between covers.  For still others it’s economic—books can be sold, and if done well, can become a living.  There are surely other reasons as well.  Since I read a lot, I frequently wonder about other authors’ motivations.  Often, I suspect, it’s because they underestimate how difficult it is to navigate this path to success.  You have to come up with an idea that is unfamiliar to your target readership—free advice: no book appeals to everybody—that has a hook that will make them want to read it.

I’ve read books where this hasn’t been thought through well.  Love them or hate them, this is what major publishing houses do well.  They figure out what likely will have appeal.  They make mistakes, of course.  Everyone does.  Still, they have a solid track record that makes them the hope of writers who have the burning need to, well, write.  One of the cases where this becomes an issue is where an author tries to be funny.  There is a lively market for humorous books, but if you’re trying to convey serious information but you find yourself cracking jokes along the way, you’re going to confuse, rather quickly, your readers.  What are you trying to do?  Make me laugh or teach me something new?  What should I prepare for when I pick up your book?

Don’t get me wrong—I clearly haven’t figured all of this out myself.  I do think that the combination of a doctorate (which teaches advanced research skills), and editorial work (which teaches how publishing works), should be a winning combination.  Ideally, anyway.  What I find is that it does make me approach books critically.  I look at the publisher.  I ask myself, what is this book trying to do?  You see, to read a book is to enter a relationship.  The book has an author.  That person is sharing what she or he has thought about.  By publishing it, they’re inviting you into intimate spaces.  That’s why I tend to be gentle in my book reviews.  I know the hunger.  I too feel compelled to write.  And if I don’t get the mix right, I would hope that any readers might, if they reflect on it, see that this is merely an awkward effort to begin a conversation.