Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

                Chapter 5 - Who Should Write Novels, and Why

               What makes the artist is that in his youth he was more deeply moved by his visual experience of works of art

               than by that of the things they represent—and perhaps of Nature as a whole.

                                 Andre Malraux, Voices of Silence

Scratch the surface on most people and you risk falling through into a hollow shell.  Those who creatively write are different: they ooze willful essence when cut; mountainous peaks rise within and echoes sound in the abyss of their deepest selves:

What abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing.  Seek?  More than that: create.  It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, which it alone can make actual [real], which it alone can bring into the light of day. (1)

This is the core of the (latent) novelist; create from the darkest interior, and make it shine.  Seek out the noble and the oblique, and bring them to life; startle yourself with discovery and surprise, and share it with others.  To do this, a prospective novelist should be:
Intelligent.  If you are stupid, quit writing and concentrate on your job at McDonalds.

Good fiction, traditional or experimental, is fiction the experienced, intellectually and emotionally mature reader recognizes, immediately or eventually, as intelligent and tasteful… (2)
Persistent.  If you don’t persist, you won’t succeed.  If you think this will be easy, you might as well quit now, because it’s not, never has been, not for anyone:

There are no mute, inglorious Miltons, save in the hallucinations of poets.  The one sound test of a Milton is that he functions as a Milton.  His difference from other men lies precisely in the superior vigor of his impulse to self-expression, not in the superior beauty and loftiness of his ideas.  Other men, in point of fact, often have the same ideas, or perhaps even loftier ones, but they are able to suppress them, usually on grounds of decorum, and so they escape being artists, and are respected by right-thinking persons and die with money in the bank, and are forgotten in two weeks. (3)

Well-read.  If you don’t read well, you won’t write well, if at all:

Writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading. (4)

In addition, it would help to

know about the truly permanent human problems; otherwise his works will be slight and passing.  There must be parallelism between what he speaks of and the most vital concerns of his audience; without that, his works will be mere tributes to the virtuosity of his techniques.  In the great work, one is unaware of the technique and even of the artist; one is only conscious that the means are perfectly appropriate to the ends.  The beauty of the words is but a reflection of the beauty of the thing; the poet is immersed in the thing, which is the only source of true beauty.....That audience is a complex animal made up of many levels.  To each he must speak, appealing to the simple souls as well as the subtle. (5)

In order to write serious fiction, it is necessary to possess a specific understanding of human life, a philosophy if you will: what can a person know?  What should he or she do?  What matters the most?  How do people—both real and fictitious—behave?  Some people agree with this perspective, while others do not:

If, as Camus once observed, Americans are the only novelists who don’t think they need to be intellectuals, one could add that European novelists are, on the contrary, those that consider themselves most under an obligation to develop a philosophy. (6)

Wright Morris agrees with this assessment:

In the American writer of genius the ability to function has been retained—with the exception of James—by depreciating the intelligence. (7)

Martin Amis goes so far as to insist that “a novelist needs to be unsophisticated, childish, even rather obtuse and naïve.” (8)   While this may sound like good news to many American novelists, anyone who attempts to render a serious work of lasting fiction will find that it cannot be done without the explicit application of the intellect, along with sincere aesthetic intent.  Novelists, Americans or not, need to be intelligent, and function as intellectuals.  This doesn’t mean they must know academic philosophy, or read the most prominent thinkers, or be the most intelligent people in society.  But if they wish to write something that will last, and avoid producing mere genre fiction, they will instill in their work intellectual substance, thoughtful critique, insightful cultural commentary, aesthetic design and structure.  On the other hand, Milan Kundera writes that

Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors.  Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work. (9)

So not too intelligent, then, if we follow Kundera; just intelligent enough to write novels more intelligent than oneself.   For the exceptionally intelligent novelist, a different literary trap yawns before them.  Once they immerse themselves in the canon, and become exposed to the vast range of imaginative fiction, the temptation to ‘make it new’ at all costs may lead to failed efforts that transgress aesthetic boundaries and lack artistic virtues.  “The serious writer,” George Steiner writes, “is a man or woman in an utterly paradoxical language-situation:”

He or she will be exceptionally attuned to the history of words and to grammatical resources.  He will hear in the word the remote echoes, the soundings in depth, of its origins.  But he or she will be auditive of and able to register the overtones, undertones, connotations, family kinships which vibrate around the word….Yet at precisely the same moment, the poet will be conscious, almost to despair, of the normative dictates of the lexical grammatical code, of the ways in which the coin in his or her hand has been rubbed flat, devalued, or altogether debased…by universal usage.  Sometimes, frustration, the compulsion to “make it new,” will initiate experiments in the invention of unprecedented words and even syntax. (10)

We must again disagree with Walter Benjamin when he identifies a bad writer as one who “always says more than he thinks.” (11)   Novelists, always express more than they think, or what they think to be true.  That’s one of the reasons to write novels, as it gives writers an opportunity to range beyond what they know, and the privilege to recklessly speculate through the actions, words and thoughts of their characters.  “Writing is the creature’s revenge,” Cioran writes, “and his answer to a botched Creation.” (12)   Not that there isn’t a cost to this revenge: “The writer is an unbalanced being who uses those words to cure himself.” (13) 

The characters may be stupid or brilliant; rich or resource-less; losers or lovers.  The plots may be simple or complex; convoluted or conventional.  The theme may be profound or painfully obvious.  The details are not important.  What matters is how the work is structured, executed, and the novel’s effectiveness in delivering satisfying aesthetic effect, all of which is dependent in part on the intellectual substance of both the author and the novel:

What matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself but one’s own judgment of the world.  Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long in America. (14)

Every novelist requires an intellectual framework to perform the necessary judgment, and the confidence to do so without hesitation.  “This artist is ambitious,” Nietzsche writes.  “Ultimately, his work is merely a magnifying glass that he offers everybody who looks his way.” (15)   It is incumbent upon the author to make what he magnifies worthy of attention.

Something to Say

The first rule, indeed by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style, is to have something to say. (16) 

If the novelist doesn’t develop a personal understanding of human life, along with a philosophy to go with it, or they haven’t experienced enough of the world to apply that understanding, or they haven’t read enough to judge what is worthwhile and what is cliché, what are they going to express? 

Are we not in the habit of putting this basic question to young people who are thinking of writing: ‘Do you have anything to say?’  Which means: something which is worth the trouble of being communicated.  But what do we mean by something which is ‘worth the trouble’ if it is not by recourse to a system of transcendent values? (17)

Young people who wish to write face a daunting challenge, as Sartre points out.  With few exceptions (we already mentioned The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) it is very difficult to write a substantial novel without the requisite time, experience and consideration that comes with age.  Jack Wheelwright asks, “What do you do when you want to write a poem [or a novel] and haven’t anything to write about?” (18)   I would suggest that under such circumstances the person is not yet a writer, as by definition, a writer has something—or believes he has something—worth expressing.  An idea, a key insight, the epiphany, a vision, aesthetic charm—something must exist prior to touching a keyboard (or pencil).  If it doesn’t, the prospective writer must bring it into existence before setting out to write.  Until then, the wannabe-writer should quit and do something else with his or time—at least until maturity spawns the appropriate aesthetic substance.

Ford Madox Ford suggested that the novelist “is a sensitized instrument, recording to the measure of the light vouchsafed him what is—what may be—the Truth.” (19)   I would add, ‘What may be made the Truth.’  Harold Bloom writes extensively about ‘creating the human’, and our literature contributes significantly to this creation.  There are truths that exist because our best novelists brought them into being, truths that didn’t exist in the past. 

The vast majority of us, though, despite our best efforts, will not succeed in revealing new truths.  We are more likely to rehash ancient ones, even when they seem quite fresh to us:

The “practical philosophy and poetry” of most people, who are neither originators nor on the other hand unsusceptible to ideas, consists of just such shimmering fusions of someone else’s great thought with their own small private modifications. (20)

Musil is no doubt correct (this entire book might serve as an extended example).  Most of our serious work will resonate with these small private modifications, as genuine creation gets more difficult as the ages pass, and few of us possess the requisite genius, skill or good luck to originate something absolutely new.  Still, ‘tis a noble effort, quite pleasurable, and one must continue to strive…

The Literary Life

There are a lot of us, some published, some not, who think the literary life is the loveliest one possible, this life of reading and writing and corresponding.  We think this life is nearly ideal.  It is spiritually invigorating, says a friend, who converted at eighteen from Christianity to poetry.  It is intellectually quickening.  One can find in writing a perfect focus for life.  It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment.  We see our work as a vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood.  As a writer, one will have over the years many experiences that stimulate and nourish the spirit.  These will be quiet and deep inside, however, unaccompanied by thunder or tremulous angels. (21)

Anyone can live a literary life, and enjoy the benefits Lamott describes, without having to pay membership dues, be born of a specific race or faith, go to college, reside within a wealthy district, mingle with distinguished people or win a prize.  It can be done entirely on one’s own, and on one’s own terms.  The literary side of existence can contribute to a healthy balance, one that includes raising a family, fostering friendships, traveling, staying fit, and earning a living.  And no one, even famous writers, need fall into the “persona of ‘the writer’” as Joan Didion describes:

As a way of being it has its flat sides.  Nor am I comfortable around the literary life: its traditional dramatic line (the romance of solitude, of interior struggle, of the lone seeker after truth) came to seem early on a trying conceit. (22)

Embracing the ‘literary life’ solely to live as the struggling seeker in solitude would be the conceit that Didion fears.  Doing so naturally, though, as a sincere part of one’s life, is anything but: the struggle, the solitude, and the wrestling with some form of aesthetic truth are legitimate parts of the writing life.  Living a ‘public’ literary life, as opposed to the private one described above, is really not a literary life at all, if it results in getting nothing done:

I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life. (23)

For Hemingway, a wasted day meant nothing was written, and no creative joy experienced while moving forward on something that mattered:

I remember living in the book and making up what happened in it every day.  Making the country and the people and the things that happened I was happier than I had ever been….But finding you were able to make something up; to create truly enough so that it made you happy to read it; and to do this every day you worked was something that gave a greater pleasure than any I had ever known.  Beside it nothing else mattered. (24)

A wasted day is one where no progress is made on something of lasting importance—educating a child, improving oneself, writing a book…  The most basic resource a person possesses is time and energy, and it’s a crime to waste it.  There are so few discretionary hours in any given week, and it’s important to use them wisely.  (In some cases precious hours can be recovered by reducing the time watching TV, canceling the subscription to the daily paper, and no longer gossiping with neighbors.)

Charles Darwin wrote, “He who wastes an hour, knows not the value of life.” (25)   Writing a novel takes a long time (for most of us) and cannot be done on a whim, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, casually at the last minute.  It takes time, focus, commitment and perseverance, and most people do not have enough time to waste on the superficial and unimportant, given what it takes just to live day to day.  Especially as “one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.” (26)

                                 Pink Floyd’s

     Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
     You fritter and waste the hours in an off hand way
     Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
     Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

     Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
     You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
     And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
     No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

     And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but its sinking
     And racing around to come up behind you again
     The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
     Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

     Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
     Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
     Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
     The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

The challenge is to avoid ending up with “half a page of scribbled lines’ and ‘something more to say’.  Make the effort to say it now, or in the near future, and fill out those pages.  Think it, plan it, work it, write it, polish it, finish it:

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me… (27)

It doesn’t matter, ultimately, how a novel stands as literature.  What matters is that the attempt is made and the novel achieved.  Once again, Goethe disagrees, as he indicates in Wilhelm Meister:

Because a poem should either be perfect or not exist at all.  Anyone without the ability to produce the very best, should not engage in artistic activity and should resist any temptation to do so.  Of course there is a vague longing in all of us to imitate what we see, but that does not prove that one has the power to achieve what one aims at. (28)

If people believed this, few would write.  Fortunately, we have Henry James to remind us that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister “is worth reading, if only to differ with it.” (29)   So don’t hesitate to differ with Goethe, and carry on creating imperfect works.


While many motives for writing exist, George Orwell believes there are four “great” ones:

  • Sheer Egoism.  Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood…

  • Esthetic enthusiasm.  Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.  Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

  • Historical impulse.  Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

  • Political purpose—using the word “political” in the widest possible sense.  Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. (30)

There are many more:  “At least for me,” Logan Pearsall Smith writes, “there is one thing that matters—to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.” (31)   “Of all the ways of acquiring books,” Walter Benjamin writes, “writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.” (32)   “The only conceivable reason for engaging in writing,” John Gardner asserts, “is to make something relatively permanent which one might otherwise forget.” (33)   Montaigne agrees:  “For want of natural memory, I make one of paper.” (34)

Writing as Life

Many people believe that writing and literature represent the principle source of human fulfillment and lasting satisfaction, depicting in its form the best that life has to offer.  The finest literature is slow and quiet and deep.  Once a person has developed enough literary contexts to understand what an author expresses, no boundaries remain.  As one delves deeper into the tradition, one gains access to even greater literary realms, realms absolutely foreign to everyday experience.  Only music, at its best, can possible offer more, and then only in the moment:

The written word is weak.  Many people prefer life to it.  Life gets your blood going, and it smells good.  Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.  It appeals only to the subtlest senses—the imagination’s vision, and the imagination’s hearing—and the moral sense, and the intellect.  This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.  The reader’s ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. (35)

Philip Roth points out that writing, and the activities that go with it, rank at least equally with what commonly occupies the masses:

Art is life too, you know.  Solitude is life, meditation is life, pretending is life, supposition is life, contemplation is life, language is life.  Is there less life in turning sentences around than in manufacturing automobiles?  Is there less life in reading To the Lighthouse than in milking a cow or throwing a hand grenade?  The isolation of a literary vocation—the isolation that involves far more than sitting alone in a room for most of one’s waking existence—has as much to do with life as accumulating sensations, or multinational corporations, out in the great hurly-burly.  It seems to me that it’s largely through art that I have a chance of being taken to the heart at least of my own life. (36)

Henry James considers all creative activity part of our biological life-blood:

In many ways [Henry James] expresses his charged sense that the creativity of art is the creativity of life—that the creative impulsion is life, and could be nothing else. (37)

Why Write?

You’re a writer, because being yourself isn’t enough. (38)

There are countless reasons to write.  To begin with, it seems perfectly natural for avid readers to aspire to create that which they so admire.  “We are born,” Robert Musil writes, “to create our own kingdom.” (39)   Writing allows one to conjure that kingdom into existence, and within it, cast spells more powerful than Merlin’s, as “Writing is magic.” (40) 

The process of writing a novel makes special demands on a person’s character, imagination and spirit.  George Orwell, the author of many novels, insists that

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.  Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. (41)

While some cannot resist, others require encouragement and motivation to make the effort, and a belief that doing so will ultimately be worthwhile.  For better or worse, whether one works hard to finish a book or is compelled to do it, the experience results in a very definite impact:

When a writer finishes a novel he is a changed man. (42)

These changes are an important part of the process, and contribute to ones maturity.  Most people find that once they finish a novel, they have gathered enough creative tendrils to write the next.  The more they create, the more that germinates, so they don’t hold back:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.  Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book, give it, give it all, give it now.  The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.  Something more will arise for later, something better. (43)

And then there are those who simply must write:

“Papa, why do you want to kill yourself?”
            “What do you think happens to a man going on sixty-two when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself?  Or do any of the other things he promised himself in the good days...—look, it doesn't matter that I don't write for a day or a year or ten years as long as the knowledge that I can write is solid inside me.  But a day without that knowledge, or not being sure of it, is eternity.”

Hemingway was like a god who lost his powers and found himself mortal, vulnerable and meaningless, when he discovered he couldn’t write.  As long as he could create, he could live, because

Craft, the solitary profession of writing, constituted a subduing force, a metaphysic of expertise.  What a writer, what a person, knew could hold off the darkness of historical chaos and personal moral confusion. (45)

Without the subduing force, nothing but nihilistic darkness: “I think how meaningless everything is,” Joseph Brodsky writes, “except for two or three things—writing itself, listening to music, a little bit of thinking.  But the rest…” (46)

The compulsion to write sets the activity apart from traditional endeavors, and unlike many livelihoods, is not ‘chosen’:

For Gardner, writing was not a “career.” It was not so pedestrian an enterprise as to be ranked among the various professions from which we might freely choose—doctor, lawyer, soldier, or stockbroker.  On the contrary, it was more like a calling…It was one way for men and women to make their stab at immortality, heal the conflicted human heart, transcend the idiocies of daily life (yet help us at the same time see how heroism can reside in ordinary living), and celebrate the Good. (47)

Then there are those, who, unlike George Orwell, enjoy writing, so they do it:

The pleasure that one has in creating a work of art is a purely personal pleasure, and it is for the sake of this pleasure that one creates.  The artist works with his eye on the object.  Nothing else interests him.  What people are likely to say does not even occur to him.  He is fascinated by what he has in hand.  He is indifferent to others.  I write because it gives me the greatest possible artistic pleasure to write.  If my work pleases the few, I am gratified.  If it does not, it causes me no pain. (48)

Immersing oneself within the central concerns of human existence, and working out how one feels about them, is highly satisfying:

The creative writer’s concern to render life is a concern for significance, a preoccupation with expressing his sense of what most matters.  The creative drive in his art is a drive to clarify and convey his perception of relative importances.  The work that commands the reader’s most deeply engaged, the critic’s most serious, attention asks at a deep level: ‘What, at bottom, do men live for?’  And in work that strikes us as great art we are aware of a potent normative suggestion: ‘These are the possibilities and inevitablenesses, and, in the face of them, this is the valid and the wise (or the sane) attitude.’ (49)

Fiction gives one free rein: the novelist doesn’t have to believe anything he or she expresses, nor are they obligated to take sides: the characters, and the situations they find themselves in, do that.  The novelist doesn’t have to remain within personal experience – he or she can roam the vast range of their imagination:

Vonnegut says he is impressed by the “insights which shower down on me when my job is to imagine, as contrasted with the woodenly familiar ideas which clutter my desk when my job is to tell the truth.” (50)

The novelist is not limited by that which is, or by character or experience.  He or she can change it, mold it, add to it, mix it up, make it up, and alter themselves in fictional projections, resulting in something worthy to behold.

When a novelist begins a project, they don’t know what they will discover, what they will learn: that’s the point.  As F. R. Leavis puts it, “the fullest use of language is to be found in creative literature, and…a great creative work is a work of original exploratory thought.” (51)   It is for the sake of this exploration that one sets out, confident that the journey will be worthwhile and rewarding. 

What the writer understands, though the student or critic of literature need not, is that the writer discovers, works out, and tests his ideas in the process of writing.  Thus at its best fiction is…a way of thinking, a philosophical method. (52)

Schopenhauer asserted that insights developed on one’s own are far more valuable than those learned from others. 

It may sometimes happen that a truth, an insight, which you have slowly and laboriously puzzled out by thinking for yourself could easily have been found already written in a book; but it is a hundred times more valuable if you have arrived at it by thinking for yourself. (53)

As we attempt to build an integrated understanding of the world, each new concept must fit snuggly with the continent of knowledge already existing within, leaving no awkward overlaps or sharp extraneous edges: 

A truth that has merely been learnt adheres to us only as an artificial limb, a false tooth, a wax nose does, or at most like transplanted skin; but a truth won by thinking for our self is like a natural limb: it alone really belongs to us.  This is what determines the difference between a thinker and a mere scholar. (54) 

And it is from this solid ground that we create, as “Only he who takes what he writes directly out of his own head is worth reading.” (55) 

Ideas must connect to something solid, or risk floating free and unrelated to that interior world.  This disconnect occurs when one accepts something on faith, or on authority, being unable, or unwilling, to integrate it as his or her own.  Writing a novel forces a person to develop a deep, integrated world-view.  Philip Roth provides the following summary of the process, and what it achieves:

One of the strongest motives for continuing to write fiction is an increasing distrust of “positions,” my own included.  This is not to say that you leave your intellectual baggage at the door when you sit down to write, or that in your novel you discover that you really think just the opposite of what you’ve been telling people—if you do, you’re probably too confused to be producing good work.  I’m only saying that I often feel that I don’t really know what I’m talking about until I’ve stopped talking about it and sent everything down through the blades of the fiction-making machine, to be ground into something else, something that is decidedly not a position but that allows me to say, when I’m done, “Well, that isn’t what I mean either—but it’s more like it.” (56)

If a project doesn’t contain this element, it should be set aside.  I did that with my third novel, as there was nothing thematically new in it, nothing new to learn (for me).  Originally planned as the final novel in a trilogy, it included closure with the characters and plot, but there wasn’t anything thematically substantial to warrant spending the time and energy.  So I wrote it as an original screenplay instead.

We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience.  We paint those qualities which we do not possess. (57)

As Joyce Carol Oates pointed out at the beginning of this section, we write to become more than we are.  Why settle for the accident of our birth, and everything it entails—gender, sexuality, race, nationality, physical attributes, unasked for contingency, tendencies and travesties—when we can create something entirely different, grander, more to our taste.  As Harold Bloom points out

Literature is not merely language; it is also the will to figuration, to be different, the desire to be elsewhere.  This partly means to be different from oneself, but primarily, I think, to be different from the metaphors and images of the contingent works that are one’s heritage: the desire to write greatly is the desire to be elsewhere, in a time and place of one’s own, in an originality that must compound with inheritance, with the anxiety of influence. (58)

Another approach to writing is to reflect aesthetically on one’s own life.  Proust, certainly the master of this form of literature, explains:

The greatness of true art…was to find, grasp, and bring out that reality which we live at a great distance from…that reality which we run the risk of dying without having known, and which is quite simply our own life.  True life, life finally discovered and illuminated, is literature; that life which, in a sense, at every moment inhabits all men as well as the artist. (59)

Most of us wouldn’t profit by such illumination, or magnification of our own life, although to some extent, anything we creatively produce will reflect elements of our individual essence, and the associated limitations:

If we ourselves produce the rules of production, the measures, the criteria, and if our creative drive comes from the very depths of our heart, then we never find anything but ourselves in our work.  It is we who have invented the laws by which we judge it.  It is our history, our love, our gaiety that we recognize in it. (60)

Given the intimate relationship between the writer and his work, it’s not surprising how powerful the connection can be:

What there is between an author and his book is more personal—and well, yes, sacred—than the privacy of a romance between a man and a woman.  Nobody else can enter.  No readers, publishers, critics or box offices. (61)

Along the same lines, Walter Benjamin writes, “Art…posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response.  No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” (62)   The artist benefits the most from the art objects he or she creates, as the performer gains the most from his or her performance.  Yes, as consumers we purchase art objects, and pay good money for them; yes, we attend concerts with pleasure, but a pleasure that pales next to the exaltation experienced by the players during live artistic performances.

In part, people write novels, and more generally, create art objects, out of a supreme sense of self, one of the most arrogant, selfish things a person can do.  They take on the mantel of a god in their creative activities, or at least that of a demi-god.  At their best, they strive to produce a new image, a unique object, a profound statement.  Some writers believe that what they express can even help others (a grand conceit).  Gardner argues that

True art…clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.  It does not rant.  It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons.  It designs visions worth trying to make fact.  It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes. (63)

As an artist, I remain skeptical that rendering morally sound art objects contributes to a healthy society or good individuals.  If it did, Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart might have prevented the holocaust.  As George Steiner points out, “There was many a lover of fine arts and classical music among the butchers, many a teacher of great literature among the sycophants.” (64)  Even so, Gardner still argues that

art…claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and society and some things are not….[T]he artist never forces anyone to anything.  He merely makes his case, the strongest case possible.  He lights up the darkness with a lighting flash, protects his friends the gods—that is, values—and all humanity without exception, and then moves on. (65)

The intent is admirable, and Gardner provides an honorable goal to pursue, but according to him too few of us do:

For the most part our artists do not struggle—as artists have traditionally struggled—toward a vision of how things ought to be or what has gone wrong; they do not provide us with the flicker of lighting that shows us where we are.  Either they pointlessly waste our time, saying and doing nothing, or they celebrate ugliness and futility, scoffing at good.  Every new novelist, composer, and painter—or so we’re told—is more “disturbing” than the last.  The good of humanity is left in the hands of politicians. (66)

Dostoevsky provides another reason to write: “Man is an enigma,” he asserts.  “This enigma must be solved, and if you spend all your life at it, don’t say you have wasted your time; I occupy myself with this enigma because I wish to be a man.” (67)   Nobody in Western society has occupied himself so thoroughly and fruitfully with this enigma, and he stands as a worthy literary model (though not necessarily a personal one).  As a writer, Dostoevsky’s best option, like ourselves, is to engage the enigma through creating imaginative works of literature.  One of the reasons for the effectiveness of this approach is that

Writing is thinking in slow motion.  We see what at normal speeds escapes us, can rerun the reel at will to look for errors, erase, interpolate, and rethink.  Most thoughts are a light rain, fall upon the ground, and dry up.  Occasionally they become a stream that runs a short distance before it disappears.  Writing stands an incomparably better chance of getting somewhere. (68)

As we struggle through the process, and strive to ‘get somewhere’, we attempt to create something of lasting interest:

I think that the self, in its quest to be free and solitary, ultimately reads with one aim only: to confront greatness.  That confrontation scarcely masks the desire to join greatness, which is the basis of the aesthetic experience once called the Sublime: the quest for a transcendence of limits.  Our common fate is age, sickness, death, oblivion.  Our common hope, tenuous but persistent, is for some version of survival. (69)

While we may strive for survival, Proust indicates that at the end of the day, our futures remain limited:

No doubt my books to, like my fleshly being, would in the end one day die.  But death is a thing that we must resign ourselves to.  We accept the thought that in ten years we ourselves, in a hundred years our books, will have ceased to exist.  Eternal duration is promised no more to men’s works than to men. (70)

Proust is half right: yes, we are destined to die, most of us in just so many years.  But God couldn’t kill his book.  In Search of Lost Time, unlike anything we are likely to create, will burn to oblivion when the sun expands and consumes the earth.  And perhaps not even then, if humans find a way off this planet, in which case they will certainly take Proust’s novel with them.

The desire to write solely for the future is fraught with peril:

Posterity is a permanent darkness where no whistle sounds.  It is reasonable to assume that, by and large, what is not read now will not be read, ever. (71)

Several exceptions come to mind: Nietzsche, Kafka, Schopenhauer, Melville – all had to wait decades to see their work appreciated, and some of them never did, having gone insane (Nietzsche) or dying before their literature was recognized (Kafka).  Even so, the basic point stands: readers now will determine who continues to be read in the future.  “Once upon a time,” Kundera writes, “I too thought that the future was the only competent judge of our works and actions.”  He goes on to say:

Later on I understood that chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty.  For the future is always mightier than the present.  It will pass judgment on us, of course.  And without any competence. (72)

A more important future to consider is ones own.  If writers take full advantage of their youthful energy and middle-age experience to express their creative essence, they can experience a Nietzschean joy later in life:

The thinker, and the artist likewise, whose better self has taken refuge in his work, feels an almost malicious joy when he sees how his body and his spirit are being slowly broken down and destroyed by time: it is as though he observed from a corner a thief working away at his money-chest, while knowing that the chest is empty and all the treasure it contained safe. (73)

The literary novel may exist a long time, and continue to be appreciated by new generations, long after the writer’s strength is gone, if he or she makes the most of their time and creative energy:

That author has drawn the happiest lot who as an old man can say that all of life-engendering, strengthening, elevating, enlightening thought and feeling that was in him lives on in his writings, and that he himself is now nothing but the gray ashes, while the fire has everywhere been rescued and borne forward. (74)

“He that writes to himself,” Emerson writes, “writes to an eternal public.” (75)  Or, as Nietzsche puts it, “The sensible author writes for no other posterity than his own, that is to say for his old age, so that then too he will be able to take pleasure in himself.” (76)   Unfortunately, Nietzsche never took pleasure in old age, as he went insane in his mid-forties, the same year he completed four books.  Thus ended the most significant and intellectually productive decade in Western history. 

What, then, should a novelist write once they become old?  I would suggest autobiography, an exercise in creative remembrance.  Creative, as it is impossible—and undesirable—to simply catalog one’s experience.  Unless the writer is someone truly interesting (Richard Francis Burton, say, or Lou Salome), they should take free rein, embellish, invent, and lie, because, as Jeannette Winterson points out, “There’s no such thing as autobiography there’s only art and lies.” (77)   Consider the examples of Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, Proust even.  When the novelist becomes old, he or she can take their best memories and make something of them: sweep up the detritus of a wasted youth and the crumblings of middle age and see what develops:

Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature, and life thus defined is in a sense all the time immanent in ordinary men no less than in the artist.  But most men do not see it because they do not seek to shed light upon it.  And therefore their past is like a photographic darkroom encumbered with innumerable negatives which remain useless because they intellect has not developed them. (78)

The purpose is not novelistic: there is no need to structure a creative autobiography within the conventions presented in this book, nor is there any reason to expect publication.  As a literary project, it just seems a fitting way to end one’s writing career and to cap an individual existence.

Nothing New?

John Gardner asserts that there is nothing new in literature, as all possible stories have already been told:

Insofar as literature is a telling of new stories, literature has been “exhausted” for centuries; but insofar as literature tells archetypal stories in an attempt to understand once more their truth—translate their wisdom for another generation—literature will be exhausted only when we all, in our foolish arrogance, abandon it. (79)

Perhaps every story has been told, countless times even, and that nothing essentially new can be expressed.  Or maybe Gardner’s claim is similar to the proposal made in the late 19th century to close the patent office, as everything had obviously been invented.  This of course prior to the automobile, the airplane, the atom bomb, the integrated circuit (or any circuit, for that matter).  So closing down the literary patent office might be a bit premature; there might yet be genuinely new stories to relate, new perspectives not yet imagined.

Catch-22, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five are good examples of something new in literature.  You would have to abstract things at a very high level to compare it to anything that was written prior to 1940.  Before this date, humans had never faced the unique conditions related to terror-bombing, and those who conduct it.  Heller’s novel confronts this new human condition in a remarkable way, as does Vonnegut.

Prior to 1940, it was considered a crime to indiscriminately target civilian populations.  Throughout human history, destructive battles normally occurred away from cities, and while civilians suffered terribly, it was generally from disease and starvation, and not directly from the weapons of war.

This changed after Hitler conquered France.  Prior to invading the Soviet Union, he considered occupying England. The Battle of Britain ensued, with the Germans pounding RAF airfields and slowing defeating the British in the air.  The loss of qualified Spitfire and Hurricane pilots hit the British especially hard, as the attrition slowly wore them down.  Out of desperation, Churchill ordered Bomber Command to attack Berlin – the first significant act of terror bombing.

It worked.  Hitler was so enraged he changed the mission of the Luftwaffe and ordered them to attack London, and other major English cities.  The Blitz was on, and while horrible in its own way, it diverted the Germans from proper military targets and allowed the RAF to regroup, and ultimately win the Battle of Britain.  As a result, the Germans gave up their invasion plans, and turned their attention to the East. 

While most of the subsequent bombing in the war was ostensibly carried out against military/industrial targets (ship yards, factories, oil refineries) the practical effect, given the inaccuracy of bomb-sights (and the attitude of bombardiers like Yossarian), was to bomb civilians. 

In marked contrast to what would be their policy in Japan, American planners tried in Germany for “precision” daylight bombing of military or munitions targets.  Britain’s Bomber Command, having suffered heavy losses in its early campaigns, came to prefer flying at night, when air defenses were much less effective—but also when their bombing was much less accurate.  As horrible as Germany’s air assault on London, Liverpool, and other British cities hand been, things were much worse when the tables were turned….late in 1944 huge fleets of British and American planes commenced virtual carpet-bombing of urban Germany…By the spring of 1945, nearly every large and medium-sized city lay in ruins. (80)

In some cases, such as the fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (both cities chosen as targets because they hadn’t suffered war damage prior to that time, so they served as good sites to judge the damage caused by the new weapon) the intent was specific and effective: kill enemy civilians in such massive numbers that the nation will lose their will to fight. 

General Curtis LeMay [the “bomb them back to the stone-age” LeMay], principle architect of this campaign in Japan once the policy decisions had been made, acknowledged that if the United States had lost the war, he and his staff would have been tried as war criminals….In all, American bombs killed about 400,000 civilians in Japan—roughly the same as the total number of American military deaths on all fronts during the war. (81)

Again, it worked, at least in the case of Japan, as the criminal destruction of so many human lives led to Japan’s surrender (although despite the destruction of two major Japanese cities, the surrender was a close thing, as the emperor risked his life to make the public announcement in the face of personal threats from militaristic factions), and the saving, according to most American military historians, of millions of allied soldier’s and sailor’s lives.  In Europe, however, such deliberate destruction was questioned at the time, and remains controversial today.  Martin Amis writes that

The shaping experience of Vonnegut’s life and art is easy to pinpoint.  It occurred on February 13, 1945.  On this night, Vonnegut survived the greatest single massacre in the history of warfare, the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden.  Over 135,000 people lost their lives (twice the toll of Hiroshima); Dresden, the Florence of the Elbe, a city as beautiful, ornate—and militarily negligible—as the city of Oz, was obliterated. (82)

Even though the death-toll of the bombing has been revised downward, the event remains one of the more tragic in human history.  This is how Vonnegut characterized it:

There was Dresden…a beautiful city full of museums and zoos—man at his greatest. And when we came up, the city was gone…The raid didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defense or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp.  Only one person benefited…Me.  I got several dollars for each person killed.  Imagine. (83)

Winston Churchill drafted the following memo in the bombing’s aftermath:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy.  The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive. (84)  

Having been given a version of Churchill's memo, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris wrote to the Air Ministry:

I ... assume that the view under consideration is something like this: no doubt in the past we were justified in attacking German cities. But to do so was always repugnant and now that the Germans are beaten anyway we can properly abstain from proceeding with these attacks. This is a doctrine to which I could never subscribe. Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier. The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things. (85)

It was none of those things prior to the bombing.  In fact, Dresden was the only undamaged urban center left in the country, the only ‘built up’ area that had yet to be torn down.  The city was filled with refugees; the bombing was an act of revenge, a virtual last stomping of a bloody dead body politic.  Even so, Churchill went on to write a revised memo, one far less critical of the strategy.  A report by the U.S. Air Force Historical Division analyzed the circumstances of the raid and concluded that it was militarily necessary and justified, based on the following points:

  • The raid had legitimate military ends, brought about by exigent military circumstances.(86)

The historian Alexander McKee has cast doubt on the meaningfulness of the list of targets mentioned in 1953 USAAF report and point out that the military barracks listed as a target were a long way out of town and not in fact targeted during the raid. The 'hutted camps' mentioned in the report as military targets were also not military but were provided for refugees.  It is also pointed out that the important Autobahn bridge to the west of the city was not targeted or attacked and that no railway stations were on the British target maps, nor were the bridges, such as the railway bridge spanning the Elbe River.  Commenting on this Alexander McKee stated that: “The standard whitewash gambit, both British and American, is to mention that Dresden contained targets X, Y and Z, and to let the innocent reader assume that these targets were attacked, whereas in fact the bombing plan totally omitted them and thus, except for one or two mere accidents, they escaped.”  McKee further asserts, “The bomber commanders were not really interested in any purely military or economic targets, which was just as well, for they knew very little about Dresden; the RAF even lacked proper maps of the city. What they were looking for was a big built up area which they could burn, and that Dresden possessed in full measure.” (87)

According to historian Sonke Neitzel, “it is difficult to find any evidence in German documents that the destruction of Dresden had any consequences worth mentioning on the Eastern Front. The industrial plants of Dresden played no significant role in Germany industry at this stage in the war.”  Wing Commander H. R. Allen said, “The final phase of Bomber Command's operations was far and away the worst. Traditional British chivalry and the use of minimum force in war was to become a mockery and the outrages perpetrated by the bombers will be remembered a thousand years hence.” (88)

  • Military units and anti-aircraft defenses were sufficiently close that it was not valid to consider the city “undefended.” (89)

In objective military terms, Dresden was not militarily ‘defended’, but in fact, defenseless to Allied air assaults.  Only by defining the whole of Germany ‘defended’ based on their regional air defense communications capability was this fiction able to be minimally maintained.

  • The raid did not use extraordinary means but was comparable to other raids used against comparable targets. (90)

The only difference being that, unlike Dresden, the other targets were presumably of valid strategic military interest, the only possible justification for such attacks.

  • The raid was carried out through the normal chain of command, pursuant to directives and agreements then in force. (91)

Which simply means everyone in that chain, from top to bottom, shared responsibility for the raid, and could have been prosecuted accordingly, with the possible exception of the actual air-crews that may, or may not, have been in a position of knowledge and authority to challenge the orders.

  • The raid achieved the military objective, without excessive loss of civilian life. (92)

So one must ask: if over twenty-five thousand civilian causalities [the lowest estimate of losses, a range that exceeds three times that number at the upper limit] is not excessive, what is?

The post-war response to this new human threat is summed up by Grayling:

Ever since the deliberate mass bombing of civilians in the second world war, and as a direct response to it, the international community has outlawed the practice.  It first tried to do so in the fourth Geneva convention of 1949, but the UK and the US would not agree, since to do so would have been an admission of guilt for their systematic “area bombing” of German and Japanese civilians. (93)

Despite the international efforts to curb terror bombing, the United States continued the practice against North Vietnam with even less military justification: the actual bombs themselves, let alone the B-52s that delivered them, were of far more value than anything they could possibly have destroyed – other than innocent human life – given the industrial backwardness of the targeted landscape.

Both Heller’s Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five treat this new human experience in remarkable ways, the former as a participant from the sky, the latter from a bunker on the ground.  Nothing like these experiences exist prior to World War II, nor is anything like these works extant in pre-war literature.  Terror bombing is just one modern example of something new in human experience.  Others examples include:

  • Newtonian physics
  • Darwinian theory of evolution
  • The Psychology of Freud
  • Quantum, Uncertainty and Relativity

Despite the fact that none of these are strictly true (#4 actually replaced #1 in comprehensively defining the physical nature of the universe, while #2 is questioned by many scientists and non-scientists these days, and #3 has been entirely surpassed by modern theory and practice), their impact on society, culture, art, the ‘zeitgeist’, has been profound.  We could add Galileo, Copernicus, Columbus, and countless others.  Who knows what will be happen in the future?  Visits from an Alien life-form?  Proof that evolution has been planned and engineered?  The second coming of Christ?  These are examples of events or discoveries that could radically change how we view ourselves as humans, and the universe we live in.

To Gardner’s point, it is very difficult to add to Homer or Shakespeare.  Even so, the thinkers, weapons and scientific discoveries listed above have altered our view of nature, the universe, and ourselves, providing new creative opportunities.  Much has already been made from this: who knows what else can be done?  There are things that have never been imagined, and now can, perhaps must be, if we are to survive and prosper in the coming ages.

While many reasons to write have been listed, Gardner points out two very good reasons not to:

Every person who wants desperately to write, or desperately enough at least to go through the enormous inconvenience even bad writing imposes on one’s life, and who, when he or she sits down to it, focuses all attention on finding for its own sake some new mode, some new bafflement for the defenseless reader, has misunderstood what makes one sit down at the typewriter in the first place.  He justifies his existence by showing the world, as if it cared, that he is a Writer.  But the style maker knows, even if his critics miss it, that the whole thing is a delusion.  He has not answered the voice of the wound—”You’re nothing, not even a writer”—he has merely drowned it out for a moment and unwittingly fed it ammunition—”You’re worse than nothing, a fraud.”  On the other hand, of course, the writer who does nothing to achieve a necessary and necessarily personal style, but speaks the banalities and rhythms of others, is in no better shape and stands in even greater danger of tumbling into nonsense. (94)

The literary artist should write in a style that is accessible to a reasonably well-educated individual, while at the same time, as Gardner points out, deliver a work that speaks in its own voice, a unique style, one that contains literary substance and aesthetic merit.  Mere words, ones devoid of this substance, no matter how artistically arranged, are empty, hollow, and of no value.  And anything trite is just that, and nothing more.

Stephen King makes a wonderful distinction when he divides novelists into two types:

Those who are bound for the more literary or “serious” side of the job examine every possible subject in the light of this question: What would writing this sort of story mean to me?  Those whose destiny…is to include the writing of popular novels are apt to ask a very different one: What would writing this sort of story mean to others?  The “serious” novelist is looking for answers and keys to the self; the “popular” novelist is looking for an audience.  Both kinds of writer are equally selfish. (95)

While there is nothing wrong with striving to be a popular novelist, there is nothing right about it either.  King is right about the value of making a ‘serious’ literary effort: to discover what the story means to the novelist, leading to ‘answers and keys to the self.’  The difficulty with writing a story with an audience in mind is that it

is simple enough for the writer who only seeks to amuse the public by means already known; he attempts little, and he produces…works which answer no question and leave no trace. (96)

Even so, I have great respect for the Kings, Crichtons, Clancys and Grishams of the literary world, and have enjoyed reading many of their books.  It’s just that I wouldn’t re-read any of them (accept King’s The Stand – the one book he wrote that I think transcends the genre).  The danger of this approach, and its limitations, are further pointed out by Umberto Eco:

If there is a difference, it lies between the text that seeks to produce a new reader and the text that tries to fulfill the wishes of the readers already to be found in the street.  In the latter case we have the book written, constructed, according to an effective, mass-production formula; the author carries out a kind of market analysis and adapts his work to its results.  Even from a distance, it is clear that he is working by a formula; you have only to analyze the various novels he has written and you note that in all of them, after changing names, places, distinguishing features, he has told the same story—the one that the public was already asking of him.
     But when a writer plans something new, and conceives a different kind of reader, he wants to be, not a market analyst, cataloguing expressed demands, but, rather, a philosopher, who senses the patterns of the Zeitgeist.  He wants to reveal to his public what it should want, even if it does not know it.  He wants to reveal the reader to himself.

Is this dichotomy solid, impenetrable?  Might it be possible to accomplish both in the same work, that is, to write novel with serious literary intent that also has popular appeal?  Ayn Rand thought so:

The novelty of what I propose to do—and I believe it is a novelty, for I have never seen it done deliberately—consists in the following: in building the plot of a story in such a manner that it possesses tiers or layers of depth, so that each type of audience can understand and enjoy only as much of it as it wants to understand and enjoy, in other words so that each man can get out of it only as much as he can put into it.  This must be done in such a manner that one and the same story can stand as a story without any of its deeper implications, so that those who do not care to be, will not be burdened with any intellectual or artistic angles, and yet those who do care for them will get those angles looking at exactly the same material. (98)

Every serious novelist should attempt something similar, and create a multi-layered work that can be enjoyed and appreciated in several ways.  If the effort was made to do so, and some success achieved, far more serious literature would appeal to the public, and reduce the quantity of boring, personal, commonplace literary work so often produced by new, young, smart, talented writers.  There are far more people who wish to write such serious personal literature than want to read it.

But why not just write a popular novel, one devoid of lasting interest but sure to capture momentary attention, and the money that goes with it?  Wouldn’t doing so allow the writer time and freedom to write something really good?  Herman Wouk provides the best extended answer to this question in his novel Youngblood Hawke, one I highly recommend to any aspiring novelist.  The thematic point of Wouk’s novel may be best summarized by Schopenhauer:

A man who tries to live on the generosity of the Muses, I mean on his poetic gifts, seems to me somewhat to resemble a girl who lives on her charms.  Both profane for base profit what ought to be the free gift of their inmost being.  Both are liable to become exhausted and both usually come to a shameful end.  So do not degrade your Muse to a whore. (99)

Anyone truly interested in serious fiction will find writing a genre novel a waste of creative time and energy.  They won’t be pleased or proud of the result, given its lack of substance.  Michael Crichton admitted as much when he said about one of his novels: “After all, it’s just a book.”  (Although I doubt he felt that away about his first novel, A Case of Need.  Although it reads like a first novel, it was obviously written with serious intent, as it, like Grisham’s first novel A Time to Kill, contained a measure of thematic substance.)  

Malcolm Cowley lays out the basic conundrum for the writer:

—the choice between freelance authorship and working in an office.  In the first case, I should be living by my own profession, yet everything I wrote would inevitably molded by the need for carrying it to the market.  In the second case, four-fifths of my time would be wasted, yet the remaining fifth could be devoted to writing for its own sake, to the disinterested practice of the art of letters. (100)

Yes, life can be crowded with jobs, families, and social obligations.  But many of us manage to write none the less.  My first two novels were written on weekends, during the evening and on vacations, in hotel rooms, and on airplanes.  It took three years for each one, but it was worth it.  Tom Clancy wrote The Hunt for Red October (arguably his best novel) while working fulltime.  Franz Kafka wrote everything at the kitchen table in the evenings after a full day in the insurance office.  It can be done.

The aspiring novelist can write for the commercial market, but Schopenhauer is probably right when he asserts that “every writer writes badly as soon as he starts writing for gain.” (101)   Dostoevsky hated it: “Being a needy writer is a filthy trade,” (102) he says (and he would know).   On the other hand we have Boswell asserting that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” (103) 

There are obviously popular novelists that do quite well, particularly selling their novels to the movies.  Take John Grisham.  He couldn’t get his first novel, A Time to Kill, published.  Later, after publishing the very popular and successful The Firm, he sold the movie rights to A Time to Kill for a record $7.5mil.  Michael Crichton has to be one of the most successful novelist selling to the movies:  The Great Train Robbery, Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, Disclosure, Congo, Sphere, just to mention a few.

Speaking of movies, if you are a serious novelist with the opportunity to sell the rights to your novel, consider Hemingway’s advice:

Let me tell you about writing for films.  You finish your book.  Now, you know where the California state line is?  Well, drive to it, take your manuscript and pitch it across.  First, let them toss the money over.  Then you throw it over, pick up the money and get the hell out of there. (104)

On the other hand, the serious novelist should understand that

The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programs, or cartoons.  That is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the nonessential.  If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in such a way that they cannot be adapted, in other words, in such a way that they cannot be retold. (105)

In summary, if your goal is to make money, work at something designed to create wealth, not artistic satisfaction.  If you are reasonably intelligent and educated, and willing to work hard, you are in the right place (USA) at the right time (21st century) as there is lots of opportunity to make plenty of money.  If you want to be rich and you are stupid, lazy and/or untalented, after your shift at McDonalds, go to the local 7-Eleven and buy lots of lotto tickets – that’s probably your best shot.

Why Publish

The primary purpose for writing a literary novel is the satisfaction associated with conceiving, planning and completing one:

In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratifications, is a curious anticlimax. (106)

Publication is a secondary consideration for the serious novelist.  The standard for success is how the experience impacts a person, not what other people think.  On the other hand, getting published at some point in a literary career is important because “while it is true that art presupposes the initiative of an artist, it is also true that it awaits consecration by a public.” (107)   This consecration is a valuable part of the process, and while I can offer no insight on how to get published (there are dozens of books that make guarantees), it’s certainly worth making the effort, as

An unexhibited painting, an unpublished manuscript, and an unperformed play are objects which do not yet have standing in the cultural world, which do not yet fully exist.  To be sure, the artist can say that they are his works and that they exist, since he has created them.  However, he would also like them to exist for others, to have their existence ratified by a public judgment. (108) 

Horkheimer and Adorno provide the following inexplicable analysis of the publishing process in their Dialectic of Enlightenment:

The process which a literary text has to undergo, if not in the anticipatory maneuvers of its author, then certainly in the combined efforts of readers, editors, sub-editors and ghost writers in and outside publishing houses, exceeds any censorship in thoroughness. (109)

Perhaps this was once true, but no more.  The only entity that can effectively censor anything is the government, and for the most part, at least today in the US, they don’t.  A person can write anything, and just about anything can be published.  The market for books, literature and material is larger than ever.  An author who blames the lack of publication on anyone but themselves is making excuses.  The principle reasons a novel is not published include:


  • The novel is never completed (probably the principal cause of non-publishing)
  • The novel is poorly conceived
  • The novel is poorly executed
  • The novel is poorly marketed
  • The novel is so extraordinarily new that nobody recognizes its inherent genius

For the literary novelist, it doesn’t entirely matter: the most important aspect of writing a literary novel is the experience of writing it, not in getting it published.  Nothing can diminish the satisfaction gained while involved with the literary project. 

I suspect that the experience of publishing a novel is quite different then writing one, the emotions ranging from exhilaration to fury, depending on how a book is critically and commercially received.  It’s even possible that authors find, after they have immersed themselves in their work over a long period, having expressed their deepest feelings in their most intimate language, and finally feeling the triumph of aesthetic completion, find themselves deflated, defeated, deeply depressed after publishing their book and having it ignored by the public or stomped by the critics.  After Thomas Hardy published Jude the Obscure he never wrote another novel, so painful was the response.  Ayn Rand was devastated after Atlas Shrugged came out, as it was universally panned, and she so certain she had delivered the most important novel in history.  It took years to recover. 

Then there are those who seemed ruined by early success, like Norman Mailer: 

Early success—that was the worst damn thing that could have happened to me. (110)

It’s easy to imagine how a young author can have his or her head turned by the critics, the public, and think it easy to duplicate an early ephemeral success. 

Early acclaim won’t harm a writer if he has the strength, or the cynicism, not to believe in that acclaim.  But Norman lapped it up, and is perhaps only now recovering from the deception.  True, he was very young, the success was very great—and the book was very good.  Reading The Naked and the Dead today, one is astounded by Mailer’s precocious sense of human variety, by the way he goes a step further into the extremities of exhaustion, yearning and terror, and, above all, by his ability to listen intensely to the ordinary voices of America. The novel was impossibly adult: the immaturity was all to come. (111)

Dostoevsky’s first novel Poor Folk made him instantly famous, and disdainful, but he failed in his next couple of literary attempts, and it was only after serving ten years in Siberia (four in a prison camp, six in internal exile) that he recovered enough to deliver his masterpieces.  Most early successful novelists fail to recover, and do little of note later in their careers.  (Has Norman Mailer equaled The Naked and the Dead?  Heller Catch-22?)  Some critics believe Hemingway never surpassed his first (successful) novel, The Sun Also Rises (although I tend to disagree).

Failure can be nurturing for an artist, as his work is gaining strength and inward authority; success, particularly premature success, can be devastating. (112)

Thus the silver lining of delayed publication: never satisfied, always striving to improve, straining to reach the depth and achieve the quality that will generate universal literary acclaim, the serious novelist never gives up and continues to write better and more significant novels until finally, after years of neglect and struggle, he or she is finally discovered…

“I want to do the grand job, Mr. Fipps—the job that Cervantes and Balzac did, that Proust and Dos Passos did.  The permanent picture of my time.  I know right now it must sound like megalomania.  I know I have a mountain of reading, a tremendous amount of traveling and living to do.  I know all that!  Meanwhile I can learn my trade and become financially independent.  I hope I can do that in about ten years.  Then I can get to work.
            “...The critics are going to compare me to Thomas Wolfe, I suppose, because I’m from the South and I write long books.  Please don’t think I’m crazy, but I think I can do better than Wolfe did.  See, I can’t touch his poetry, but I tell stories.  All he did was write his memoirs.  Beautiful, lyric, American, colossal, immortal memoirs, but Mr. Fipps, you know Thomas Wolfe never had the mortgage, the old folks going to the poorhouse, the lovely helpless girl tied to the railroad track, now did he?  Ah me, let’s save that poor girl, Mr. Fipps!  Look at her lying there, all beautiful, and trussed up, the wind blowing her skirts up around those pretty legs!  And that train thundering down the mountain pass back there, whoo-whoo!  Whooo!  Whooo!  Look, you can see the smoke!  It’s coming fast!  WOO-WOO!”
            “...No, Mr. Fipps, but don’t you heah that rumble, way up high on the mountain?  It’s an avalanche, by God!  Yes suh, a white roarin’ slidin’ avalanche, gettin’ bigger an’ bigger every second!  Will it bury our girl?  Will it bury the train?  Here comes that train!  There goes the avalanche!  Roar, scream, crash, BANG!!  Train ploughs into pile of snow, everybody shook up, nobody killed.  Girl saved!  Engineer jumps down, cuts the ropes, and you know what, Mr. Fipps?  She’s his own sister, by the Christ!
            “...Mistuh Fipps, Dostoevsky tied that girl on the tracks in the first fifty pages of every book he ever wrote, and in the last fifty he brought in that avalanche!  Naturally in his books the avalanche buries the girl.  Serious writer.  Henry James had the girl and the avalanche, why he never wrote about anything else, hardly.  Dickens had two avalanches coming down from both sides.  Joyce didn’t, no.  That’s why only English teachers read him, though maybe he was the best writer since Shakespeare.  No avalanche, Mr. Fipps, no avalanche—”

                       Herman Wouk, Youngblood Hawke

Notes for Chapter 5 – Who Should Write Novels, and Why

  1. Proust, Swann’s Way
  2. John Gardner, Writers and Writing
  3. H. L. Mencken, Chrestomathy
  4. Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story
  5. Allan Bloom, Giants and Dwarfs
  6. Edmond White, Marcel Proust
  7. Wright Morris, The Territory Ahead
  8. Martin Amis, The War Against Cliché
  9. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
  10. George Steiner, Grammars of Creation
  11. Walter Benjamin, Collected Works, Vol 2
  12. E. M. Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations
  13. Ibid
  14. Gore Vidal, United States
  15. Nietzsche, Gay Science
  16. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
  17. Jean-Paul Sarte, What is Literature?
  18. Jack Wheelwright, quoted by Malcolm Cowley in And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade
  19. Ford Madox Ford, quoted by Eudora Welty in The Eye of the Story
  20. Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
  21. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
  22. Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted
  23. Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
  24. Hemingway [writing A Farewell to Arms], quoted by Carlos Baker in Hemingway – the Writer as Artist
  25. Charles Darwin, in a letter to his sister
  26. Talbot Donaldson, paraphrasing Chaucer
  27. Shakespeare, Richard II
  28. Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
  29. Henry James, Literary Criticism – French, European
  30. George Orwell, A Collection of Essays
  31. Logan Pearsall Smith, quoted by Gore Vidal in United States
  32. Walter Benjamin, quoted by Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading
  33. John Gardner, Writers and Writing
  34. Montaigne, Of Experience
  35. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
  36. Phillip Roth, Reading Myself and Others
  37. F. R. Leavis, The Critic as Anti-Philosopher
  38. Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde
  39. Robert Musil The Man Without Qualities
  40. Walter Kaufman, Tragedy and Philosophy
  41. George Orwell, A Collection of Essays
  42. Norman Mailer, quoted by Nailpaul in The Writer and the World
  43. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
  44. A.E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway
  45. Daniel Hoffman, paraphrasing Hemingway, Harvard Guide to Contemporary American writing
  46. Joseph Brodsky, The New Yorker, 3/25/96
  47. Charles Johnson, John Gardner’s Writers and Writing
  48. Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic
  49. F. R. Leavis, The Critic as Anti-Philosopher
  50. John Updike, Hugging the Shore
  51. F. R. Leavis, The Critic as Anti-Philosopher
  52. John Gardner, Writers and Writing
  53. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
  54. ibid
  55. ibid
  56. Phillip Roth, Reading Myself and Others
  57. Emerson, Essays
  58. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
  59. Proust, quoted in Roger Shattuck in Proust’s Way
  60. Jean-Paul Sarte, What is Literature?
  61. Ayn Rand, Letters
  62. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
  63. John Gardner, Writers and Writing
  64. George Steiner, My Unwritten Books
  65. John Gardner, Writers and Writing
  66. ibid
  67. Dostoevsky, quoted by Joseph Frank in Dostoevsky
  68. Walter Kaufman, Tragedy and Philosophy
  69. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
  70. Proust, Time Regained
  71. Gore Vidal, United States
  72. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
  73. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
  74. Ibid
  75. Emerson, Essays
  76. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
  77. Jeannette Winterson, Art and Lies
  78. Proust, Time Regained
  79. John Gardner, Writers and Writing
  80. Thomas McCraw, Prophet of Innovation
  81. Ibid
  82. Martin Amis, Moronic Inferno
  83. Ibid
  84. Siebert, Detlef, British Bombing Strategy in World War Two
  85. Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, Wikipedia
  86. Wikipedia
  87. Ibid
  88. Ibid
  89. Ibid
  90. Ibid
  91. Ibid
  92. Ibid
  93. A. C. Grayling, Wikipedia
  94. John Gardner, Writers and Writing
  95. Stephen King, Forward to the Gunslinger
  96. Henry James, Literary Criticism, French, European
  97. Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose
  98. Ayn Rand, letters
  99. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
  100. Malcolm Cowley, Exiles Return
  101. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
  102. Dostoevsky, quoted by Joseph Frank in Dostoevsky
  103. Boswell, Life of Johnson
  104. Hemingway, quoted by Robert Hendrickson in American Literary Anecdotes
  105. Milan Kundera, Immortality
  106. Alfred Kazin, Contemporaries
  107. Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience
  108. Ibid
  109. Horkheimer/Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment
  110. Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, The Moronic Inferno
  111. Martin Amis, The Moronic Inferno
  112. Joyce Carol Oates, After the Road: The Art of Jack Kerouac