Monday, June 04, 2007

The Greatest Unread Novel

If you ever want to read an author who won't be read, pick up a copy of the critically acclaimed "How Animals Mate" by Daniel Mueller. He's one of the writing elite, one of those authors cherished by a small portion of the intelligentsia, but ignored by the rest of the literate world. Why? Because he isn't commercial. He'll continue to be published by small press; his work will be discussed by the self important who pat one another on the back at how cultured they are...but the average person? No. The average reader will continue to pick up the fast and easily digestible. The average person will read the bestseller.

William Jones in a comment to another post wrote: "I had a stance before I read the responses. Now I'm no longer sure. :) I guess I'll take a different approach. Instead of guessing what the reader will skip, is it possible to guess what the editor will skip? These two I'd say are slightly different. Getting past the editor gets the story to the reader. Or is that too commercial, too mercenary?"

How many people do you know who have read "Gravity's Rainbow" by Pynchon? What about "Rabbit Run" by Updyke (Jon, I'm sorry, I tried reading it again and had to put it down). What about "Ulysses" by James Joyce?

Too commercial? Too mercenary?This comment inspired me to consider the different literature that is read by a large number of people and literature which is praised by the few people who critique for a living and a handful of academics. Should a person have to dig through a work, fighting and slogging paragraph by paragraph for meaning? Does that make it great? Can we argue that a novel which is easily accessible, with layered depth of narrative, has a greater chance of being a work of art?

After all, if a writer doesn't write to be read, then what's the point? Mercenary? Yes. Hell, yes. But making your writing marketable doesn't mean sacrificing quality. Maybe the greatest novel ever written is still out there, but unless it is readable (and that doesn't mean written at a sixth grade level), unless it gives people a chance to embrace it, then that novel will continue to go along winning the award: The Greatest Unread Novel.


Jon said...

As writing economy has nothing to do with word count, so quality has nothing to do with verbal density.

Ulysses is incomprehsible. Some say they know what it's all about but come on...

Updike on the other hand is both accessable and beautiful, sometimes a little thick in description, but none the less amazing. A style to be admired.

The marketable works should be those that leave the reader satisfied. Hell, books cost fifteen, twenty, fifty dollars (slightly higher in Canada...what did those poor Canadians do to deserve this?) The least the buyer should expect is a good solid dose of what they are expecting, whether it's carefully crafted mystery or a smooth and witty romantic comedy. (Or the story of two people, Buck and Tangee Crimmins, and their gutbustingly funny roll through life.)

In fact, Mr. Sternberg, Buck and Tangee: Things that Happened, is the great American (unpublished) novel. Do you suppose if I put bat wings on Buck and Tangee and had them rise from the primordial swamp, Mr. William Jones would be interested? Maybe for his next collection, "Cuthulu: The Doublewide Tales."

Hey...the long and short is that if you are NOT writing, then you have no style. Oops...that describes me. I'd better shut up. I"M far to tiredto write.

SQT said...

Jeeez, it's too much work trying to be profound.

The thing is, what I want from a book varies from day to day. Sometimes I want the epic or the book that provokes THE DEEP THOUGHT. After a day of chasing kids though, most often I want the literary equivalent of a sitcom and a glass of wine.

And if I'm being honest, I could live with being paid rather than being highly respected. Could I live with being J.K. Rowling? Hell yeah!

Susan Miller said...

And so we must work. Work to craft what is in us. Be aware of our readers and take the time to both love and loathe our own work. I think if we consider writing to be life and life to be writing then we must always attempt to try harder and learn more.

I find now more than ever that I don't have enough time to read everything but am less drawn to those works which are more commercialized. It is like sqt says, what we want from books can vary from day to day. Lately though I would rather read one great, hard earned chapter than ten spoon fed ones.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Jon, you don't necessarily have to put bat wings on your characters, but here's a thought, you might have better luck selling the thing if you actually create a proposal and send it out to agents. Not that I've had luck yet, but I'm not giving up. And I have another novel about to be sent out this summer. Of course, with the second novel being horror, I think I stand a better chance.

And here's something else. Send out short stories. You stand a better chance of being published if you have some sort of track record. You're a great writer...I'd pay to read your work. Don't start charging me..I mean theoretically.

SQT, there are different things to read at different times. I'll be pouring through non-fiction at times, and through "literature" at others. Sometimes..just gimme something fun.

And Sue, I don't know about spoon feeding, although there are a lot of bad books out there that do that, but if they sell...good bless them. I wanna sell. If that means writing about a wizard with bat wings whose also a crossdressing vampire and pirate, then I'm writing about that wizard.

Call me whore. I'll do the hootchie dance for you and enjoy it.

SQT said...

Stewart, I totally want to read about a cross-dressing wizard.

miller580 said...

I knew this old bell guy once who used to say that I like to take a stick and rattle the tigers cage. And I guess I do do that...I am also guessing so do you Stewart.

Because I know where this is coming from I am going to play devils advocate...And I may even be accused of being elitist.

At first, I thought you were writing a go out and get this book kind of thing here but I was wrong. I have read most of the short stories in Mueller's book and I didn't think they were elitist. In fact I found the stories dark and sad. It's not (no offense) an easy read like a Grisham screenplay...I mean novel, but I didn't have to trudge through it like the 1/2 chapter I read of Ulyses.

You say he is cherished by a small part of the intelligentsia and ignored by the rest of the literate world. I don't think that is fair to him or the rest of the literate world. How can he be ignored, if no one knows he is out there? He doesn't have a marketing machine to get him into the minds of the literate so that they can choose to ignore him.

Your right, Mueller will probably never get a five book deal worth 100 million dollars. He will never get so big that his name becomes a franchise where he can hire ghostwriters. How many really do, and if they many are good.

The world of publishing is no better than tv or cinema. They are not very interested in putting out books that reward a reader with good writing, but rather they want thinly veiled screenplays that have characters that can be stamped into 4 inch pieces of plastic and stuck in happy meals. They want to publish books for the 34 million people who tune in twice a week to watch American Idol. They understand that they are competing with ipods and video games and mega blockbusters. This is why most of the books that are big sellers are poorly written.

Case in point. I read Davinchi's Code. I was not interested in picking it up until the Catholic church got all upset. I became interested in the concept of a different take on the life of Jesus. I was intrigued by the concept of Jesus and Mary Magdaline hooking up. Pathetic I know. So I read the book. I suffered through the bad writing and obvious hints to the mystery. To me the concept was good, but it was poorly written. Yet it sold a gazillion copies.

That is not to say that there isn't good commercial books out there...It's just that they are hard to dig out when they are first stuck in categories like chick lit, goth, horror, soft core, etc, and then they are buried in all the shit.

Where am I going with this...I don't know. I like Updyke. I like Irving. And I like "How Animals Mate." I am drawn to the extended characterization that these writers create. I don't mind spending time with them-even if that time doesn't forward the plot directly or immediately. I don't mind a little extra reading because (for me) there is a payoff.

marsha said...

I like to read and I don't always look for authors that are commonly known. There are a ton of great books out there written by not so known people.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Ah Jim, you do know where this is coming from...gimme that stick.

I'm glad you enjoyed Mueller's book (I liked some of it, too). I'll bet you read it in a class of some kind, because I doubt you picked it up on a casual stroll through Barnes and Noble. My copy was given to me by someone who cast it aside as totally unreadable.

I'm not saying there isn't a market for his formless fiction, but whatever market exists, is quite small.

Some of these writers put me to mind of an artist who hurls a bucket of paint at a canvas and as the colors slide down in an undisciplined mess, they look to an audience saying: "Aren't I clever? Aren't I a rebel?" And if you can't access their work, well then, it's obviously your flaw as an audience.

I don't mind working to get through something, but I hate when I feel the elite's hand, heralding the arrival of the emperor's new clothing.

The gist of my earlier statements were: 1) I want to be published and 2) I want people to read my work. I still feel that way. I'm a member of the proletariat and I write for the proletariat.

Okay, who wants to take this stick now?

William Jones said...

Jon Said...
In fact, Mr. Sternberg, Buck and Tangee: Things that Happened, is the great American (unpublished) novel. Do you suppose if I put bat wings on Buck and Tangee and had them rise from the primordial swamp, Mr. William Jones would be interested? Maybe for his next collection, "Cuthulu: The Doublewide Tales."

Hmmm. Tales of the Doublewide: Rectangular Horrors in a Haunted World It has potential. :)

Jon makes a good point. "The Marketable works should be those that leave the reader satisfied." However, publishing is a business. Reader satisfaction is left to the author and/or editor, but most bookstores and publishers don't care about satisfaction -- they do care about dissatisfaction, which is different. Rather, they are concerned with return on investment. So which is better business model, selling 100 copies of a Harry Potter novel in 1 month, or 3 copies of To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf) in 6 months? Of course there are exceptions. I'm certain there are some bookstores not worried about profit, and some publishers who don't mind losses, but in general money controls the publishing industry.

Now to come to Joyce's defense, which I am loath to do, he was attempting to break away from the formulaic structure of the novel. His notion of art wasn't the "mercenary" structure that is considered non-genre literature. The idea is that "true art" does not imitate, it innovates and goes beyond the boundaries; it's original. This means using one of the popular 25 plots, the usual linear narrative structure, the typical quirky characters, the opening, middle, and end form, the rules set down by Aristotle in Poetics, and hitting a standard word count didn't seem very "artistic" nor original. Many other authors joined this movement as well. Yet, today, publishers of artistic fiction still have guidelines with requirements. Novels have the basic plot structures and form that have existed from the earliest writings. In the end, the non-formula fiction has a formula as well. In other words, one could pluck the wings from a monster in a H.P. Lovecraft story, kill some of the adjectives (or not), and have a non-genre tale that deals with the horrors of everyday existence. That's not a very long step between genre and non-genre. Perhaps it is too small a step.

What I was questioned in my previous comment was our notion of "good writing." Is it a structured, organized, and created by editors and publishing houses? What we don't read tends not to influence us. All books must past through the editor, and editors don't hold the secret to "good fiction." Joyce was unusual (he wasn't alone), but we tend not to like that because the work doesn't follow the form to which we are accustomed. So what is published and what is popular becomes our reference; in the end, writers are perhaps writing more for the editor than for the reader, although the writer might not realize it. And if the editor makes a living from strong sales, then we are back to some level of mercenary work in fiction writing.

miller580 said...

Give me that stick.

yes, I did study the book in a class. And yes, there were a few who hated it. Just as there are a few of us who think Mitch Albom is a bore.

Yes I probably would not have found the book in any B&N. In fact, one of the things I do now is go to the community college here in Tampa as well as both my campus bookstores, and I get the books the fiction teachers assign for the class. And most will not be in the B&N, but some are.

I'm with you Stewart. I want to publish and I want people to read what I write. This is why I thank Zuess for the small press.

I don't really consider myself a genre writer. I don't know where my pigeon hole is. (sorta like the great rev. Maloney) I know nothing of Fantasy or romance. I cannot figure out how a womans mind works in real life much less in fiction. And horror, which I enjoy reading, well I cannot put my muse on it.

So where does that leave my writing? and worse, this is what I like to read...and if no one is publishing this, then am I going to be forced to read only what has been printed and not what will be published?

Mr. Jones hit exactly what I was trying to say..except he said it without my angst.

"but most bookstores and publishers don't care about satisfaction -- they do care about dissatisfaction, which is different. Rather, they are concerned with return on investment."

This is why most good writers will never get published, never get a chance to share their stories with those still willing to pick up a book.

Virginia Woolf had a great plan back in the day. She started her own press so that she could publish whatever she wanted.

I think there is a need for such elitist as Joyce, Woolf, and Eliot. Some might argue that Shakespear was elitist, or Dante, or Franklin? or Poe?. Weren't they pioneers as well. If these elitists did not push the envelope we would all still be reading puritanical essays.

Charles Gramlich said...

Couldn't get through Ulysses. I could read the Updike stories and admire them in the short term, but to me they are meaningless beyond surface enjoyment.

Vwriter said...

Look, there are too many books out there anyway. Who cares if a couple of good ones (or even great ones) never see the light of day? The average person knows more imaginary people than real people. There is really too much writing and reading going on out there. And that doesn't count television.

I think that a moratorium on book publishing would in fact be a service to humanity. There has been an unprecedented, unwarranted, and in fact unhealthy explosion of imginary characters populating our mental words. Our minds- like our economy- cannot support runaway inflation. How many new characters were invented last year? One estimate places expressed it as 1.12 ch/sec, which is to say that 1.2 charaters are created world-wide per second. By the end of the day, this results in more characters created than our attention spans can support.

Last year in Toronto I watched in shock as a woman reading a book while walking politely stepped over a homeless person sleeping in a tattered sleeping bag and kept on going, thankful having not missed so much of her Harry Potter novel.

Writers and editors and publishers argue that their product (they are, after all salesmen pitching their printed words) enhance the quality of our lives. We know differently. We have precious little time in today's briskly paced world for indulging in additionaly fantasy since we live most of our day in them now. Between tv, movies, radio, CD's, computers and other electronic paraphenalia such as PDA's, we have so little time for the real world that books can and should just leave us alone. Why, we barely have time to keep up with blogs, much less with reading real literature.

As to the books that were pointed out in the original blog post: Were he still alive, Narcissus would have enjoyed Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" as it so clearly mirrored his own obsession with self-absorption. "Rabbit Run" by Updyke is a brilliant work worthy of its current reputation for dissipaation and turgidity. James Joyce' novel Ulysses should be studied by every schoolchild prior to acquiring the ability to read.

Having said all of this, the earlier point still stands: there is entirely too much writing and reading going on today. There's no room or time for more. Save some trees. We don't read much of what is already out there and what little we do read has as much effect on us as rain does to a rubber duck.

SQT said...

We don't read much of what is already out there and what little we do read has as much effect on us as rain does to a rubber duck.

I can't agree with this. I just can't.

Ask any child who grows up in a world that is violent and unpredictable if the excape of a book has no effect.

Vwriter said...

Following your point, I just did ask five children ages 6 through 10 that very question, SQT. We are talking nieces and nephews here so I shall keep their names out of it. Two asked me to call back when they were done watching TV, two would not answer because they were online, and the fifth (the 8 year old) was downloading music to something called an iPod.

Electronic media score: 100%
Books: 0

I have just come back from interviewing my next door neighbor's children (with their mother's permission, of course. As soon as I pulled her attention away from her talk show, she came to the door and said, "You want to talk to them about what? Reading? What for? Did they do something wrong?"

I explained that no, the children had not violated any reading laws. She agreed to let me talk to them, but asked if I could come back when they got off the computer. I asked- this is absolutely true, SQT- how I would know when they were done, and the mother told me to give her my cell phone number and she would have one of them text message me.

So, by text message, I was informed by the children that reading was good because it kept cell phone bills down. You know, cheaper than talk. Also, by writing smart (only strings of first letters), that saved money, too.

I asked what stories had most affected their lives, and, as a group, they responded by this text:


which, as I am sure you can imagine, meant "get real."

Vwriter said...

Quick correction: I did not ask my neighbor children which stories had most affected their lives, it was "which books."

SQT said...


That's sad. But I still don't see that it means books aren't worth anything. Just because the parents in your area don't encourage reading doesn't mean it has no value. My daughter loves her books and fortunately doesn't need them to escape a rough environment. I do limit her time in front of the tv-computer-video games etc. though.

No, I was speaking of myself. I couldn't have coped as a kid without books. I never liked video games and had no use for crappy tv. My room and my books were my refuge and those stories I read as a kid are hugely important to me even now.

I still refuse to believe that books and writing have no value. I just believe they are not valued as they should be.

miller580 said...

"Following your point, I just did ask five children ages 6 through 10 that very question, SQT."

Hmmm, I can honestly say that no book "Affected" me until I was 17 or 18 years old. But I read all the time. Should I have given up?

By this reasoning, I should stop my 5 year old from reading because she cannot tell me which book affected her life most? Or is the cut off age 8?

I asked her what her favorite book was and she pulled out (this week) Dr. Suess' Fox in Socks.

Why I asked.

Because it's a book about rhymes, and it has funny pictures.

I asked her what theme appealed most to her, what really moved her.

She said "the fox moves?" she looked inside her head a second and "he says silly things too."

So I think I will recycle these useless books.

I'd burn them, but then the tree would have died for nothing. At least by recycling they might become paper plates so that my daughter can eat her fish sticks while she watches the screen with pretty pictures.

(I am now standing on my soapbox)

Kids are a product of their parents. It is up to the parents to teach their kids the importance of a book. It's a sad day when people argue that because "alot" of kids don't read we should stop wasting time writing and reading. I mean jeez, why waste the effort for those that do?


Vwriter said...

Well, let me raise the point a different way- as a society we are buried by books and authors and smothered by their uncountable creations and characters. Reading robs us of the time that we can spend with people. Raise some hands out there- how many of you feel that you know more about Paris Hilton than the people the next block over from where you live? She's in every newspaper, magazine, ezine, and check-out counter tabloid that I see.

And read me, read me, read me. Writers want our attention. Too bad. They want us to read what they write. Too bad. Thgey forget that we have personal lives to live.

Writers need to be read? At my company, I get 250 emails per day (all must be read, of course) and I'm supposed to sniffle about not keeping current with an unpublished great novel? Give me a break. If I sit down today and start reading non-stop I doubt if I could finish half of the world's "great" novels before the Libertarian Party merges with the Green Party to elect a librarian President, and I think that's quite a way in the future.

Writers are saying, "I want to be read." So? I want to be tall.

There is simply too much writing going on out there. We have overplanted the fields of our written amusement.

Vwriter said...

SQT I owe you an apology. I just re-read your last post and I found it both thought provoking and moving.

Books clearly can have value, but for several centuries they have displaced the oral tradition of storytelling with not a thought for the lost value of person to person communication. They are produced and marketed to induced and perceived spending patterns with no thought whatsoever to our needs for consolation and/or instruction.

I find it oddly comforting to see that today's technology will return the spoken word to prominence as the pre-eminent tool for communication control. Viva voice recognition.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Rick, stop or this Saturday you'll be relegated to sitting in a corner with stale cookies and tepid milk. Sheesh.

Vwriter said...


miller580 said...

VWriter your a hard person to understand. In one breath you support the writings of Joyce, in the next your saying nobody should read, then in next you say we should all give up because our young kids don't care about reading and next you are jumping on the head of every writer who wants to be published. You are basically stating that because shit like Paris Hilton exists and takes up your time, then no one else should write more stuff for YOU to HAVE to read.

I think the gist of what has been said here is that some people like to read, some don't. Some that do prefer to read something more than sleazy rags from the grocery store. Some would like to see better quality words printed so as to elevate the consciousness of those that want to read rather than pander to the tv watching public who get frustrated when they have to put forth the effort to turn a page.

It seems to me that some here would prefer better quality writing but big corporations force feed tripe because it is more profitable. It seems to me that this is a critique of the business structure within our writing community. I'm not sure I saw too much of the whining or sniveling you allude to when you write: "And read me, read me, read me. Writers want our attention. Too bad. They want us to read what they write. Too bad. Thgey forget that we have personal lives to live."

I am guessing that you don't like to read, or don't have the time? That's easy to fix...don't. It's as easy as that. Then you can have your personal life back, you can go to buy one of those gagety ipods, fill it with tv and music and tune out.

No one here is saying you must read what we write, or what anyone writes. I think what is being said here is that not only would we like the opportunity to be published so that those that WANT to read have a chance to see our work, but that we would like to see better quality from those that are fortunate enough to be published.

Maybe I am not understanding what it is you're trying to say.

avery said...

Bah! to all of it. I'm gonna read what I want. I'm gonna write what I want. If The Machine feels compelled to bless me with publication, then people can either enjoy my work for what it is or walk away from it, lamenting all the while the disastrous state of modern fiction. It's not enough to get my panties in a twist.

Vwriter said...

Forgive me, Stewart

Actually, Miller580, I think James Joyce wrote like a bonehead, which is why I recommended that he be required reading for illiterate children.

And, I don't think that anyone should give up reading. I love reading. I read a minimum of three novels per week and listen to an additional three on audio casette as I travel.

As for jumping on the head of each and every writer who wants to be published, let put it this way- while it's understandable that writers want to be published, as a reader I'm not happy with the quality of what is presented. It's too easy to be published, not too hard. Pony up a few hundred and yet one more self-published author is ready to go.

And it's because I believe that the best way to affect the quality of what we read is to exercise care as to what we purchase, I do believe that as readers we have to be more demanding. The higher the bar for writers to publish, the better off readers are.

As for the basic point of contention re: the kids and the electronic media, it is that I believe (as someone who reads a great deal) that we as writers are forfeiting our potential readers' time and expenditures to electronic media because we do not work hard enough to carve out and retain our readerships. We have to work to take them away from personal life considerations when they have so many other considerations, and I don't believe we as writers put enough into that effort. Although it is impossible to prove an argument from silence, I believe it unlikely that there really is a great unpublished novel lying fallow, since I suspect today's writers lack the obsessive passion for their craft necessary to produce such results.

In a word, I believe today's writers have traded in their tropes for tripe.

Sorry, Stewart, I'm heading for the train station again and will be disguised as a farmer, so don't try to find me.

SQT said...

I'm with Avery.

VWriter, no apology necessary. You have the right to say what you feel. Heck, I think you have an obligation to say what you feel. Debate is a great thing. But I stand with Avery and Miller and anyone else who would defend the right of anyone who wants read or write crap. If reality TV is allowed to exist, then crap writing should be the least of our worries.

Travis said...

I don't know if I should be scared or amused by your threat to do the hootchie dance there Sir. LOL.

I actually did read Ulysses. I have a copy of the book in my library. And I can't remember a damn thing about it!

I don't necessarily want to be spoon fed. But I don't want to work real hard either. I work when I write. I work for my readers. The writers I read can work a little for me.

I wonder...if the meaning is so clouded in literary nuance that I can't find it, or I lose track of it, and I put the book down, then what's the point?

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, Vwriter..or Rick...was funning with a degree. He is a hardworking writer who constantly tells me to elevate my own writing, whatever that means.

Travis, I agree...I think there has to be a middleground between Ulysses and Danielle Steele.

Sidney said...

You know I think it's about the 30th anniversary of me meaning to get around to "Gravity's Rainbow."

I do question the value in writing brilliant things that no one will read.

I've attended conferences where they include in the introduction that the speaker's first novel sold 1,000 copies - implying it's because it's so profound and thus inaccessible to the great unwashed.

Maybe it was the right 1,000 people , you know the ones in think tankes who really pull the strings anyway. :-)

DesLily said...

from the non writer: towards the end of this debate when sqt mentions "reality tv" being allowed to exist so "crap writing" has it's place too.. very true sqt! and "crap sells"! (money talks)... hmmm dang.. I better get me an agent, I'm a fortune waiting to happen! LOL.. ok ok.. nevermind!

avery said...

Sqt, you're with me? Like in my camp? Wow! I've never had a camp before. I'm gonna call it Camp Hoochie, in honor of Stewart.

eric313 said...

My college creative writing professor used "How Animals Mate" as a text book. I've met Dan twice, though I bet he doesn't remember. But the collection made it's peculiar mark. Now I'm always looking for the shock angle, kind of like Dan.

I'm an amatuer still, but I couldn't sell out with out trying to sabotage those very efforts to sell out by sneaking in the garbage of life that editor's don't want me saying in the first place. Maybe that's why my SASE's are all perfect homing pigeons, but that's OK. I'm writing because I love it--short stories or poetry. Yep, i'm a poetry bum and proud of it.

Good blog(s).
You always have sharp responses, as well.

JR's Thumbprints said...

"How Animals Mate" is a short story collection. Book publishers are looking for potential bestselling novels.