Something Novel

(While working on a presentation, I returned to this post for background and decided to repost and share it with WordPress bloggers who have only recently begun to follow “Growing Up Boomer”)

As an elderly gentleman writer, I have the impression, based upon the hundreds of wannabe novelists’ tweets that I have skimmed over the past months, that the driving (only?) motivation of many of those writers is to sell books, and not to create something that is illuminating or nourishes a reader’s mind. And I wonder how many of these young—and by far, most of those who frequent Twitter seem to be far younger than me—read novels, and if they do, do they only read those of their contemporaries and/or novels plucked from best seller lists? If my speculation touches truth, I wonder further as to whether such reading tends to make one mercenary, which causes one to write novels that do not spring from the deep well of the subconscious but are born of wanting to replicate work that has inspired a literary rep. I am certain that such an approach will extinguish flames of genius that would otherwise expose prose that is novel and beautiful.

Art is in the eye of the beholder: I am not attempting to define a standard here. I am merely suggesting that to some writers, the act of writing and completing a novel may be a more noble goal than making money. I write this a few days before the 52nd anniversary of a contrary inflection point in our history—The moment America lost its moral center—and know full well that calling for the ascent of artistic creativity over the accumulation of wealth is not unlike pissing into the wind.

And so it is that being fortunate in having lived long enough and wisely enough to have the leisure to both write and read, I spend most of my reading time with novelists who decades ago created enduring work. I resist reading samples from today’s best seller lists because I am tired of being disappointed in the quality of the prose and/or the creativity of stories. Todays novels are deemed successful based upon—by definition—the number of copies sold, and while some may have diverting stories and characters that provide momentary relief from the craziness of today’s American Life, reading those novels is not unlike the escape provided by a hit of Acapulco Gold. Too often, for me, the experience of reading a contemporary novel quickly fades to nothingness.

Since the age of nine, I have been a literary pilgrim, searching for and reading novels written before I was born with the hope of finding the trappings of genius, and like countless other such pilgrims, I have been enriched by the genius of Maugham, Dickens, Steinbeck, Conrad, Fielding, Dostoyevsky, and so many others, others like Thomas Wolfe …

But they danced there slowly in a gray light of dusk that was like pain and beauty; like the lost light undersea, in which his life, a lost merman, swam, remembering exile. And as they danced she, who he dared not touch, yielded her body unto him, whispering softly to his ear, pressing with slender fingers his hot hand. And she, whom he would not touch, lay there, like a sheaf of grain, in the crook of his arm, token of the world’s remedy—the refuge from the one lost face out of all the faces, the anodyne against the wound named Laura—a thousand flitting shapes of beauty to bring him comfort and delight. The great pageantry of pain and pride and death hung through the dusk its awful vision, touching his sorrow with a lonely joy. He had lost; but all pilgrimage across the world was loss: a moment of cleaving, a moment of taking away, the thousand phantom shapes that beaconed, and the high impassionate grief of stars. (From Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Clayton Wolfe)

Thomas Wolfe

I am far from being the first writer to encourage those who wish to write novels to read, but today, while reading the excerpt above, I was inspired to echo those who have given me that same advice. Read and absorb the essence of quality from those who have gone successfully before us. Listen to the voices inside you when you write. Write for the satisfaction that comes when you complete your work, not for the hope of financial success or the glory of recognition. Write for the sheer joy of doing it.

If you’re data driven and doubtful about my advice, be sure to continue to the Blogger’s Notes that follow


From Writing Books Is Not Really a Good Idea by Elle Griffin in The Novelleist (5/9/2021):

The New York Times caused a stir recently when, in an article about pandemic book sales, it disclosed that ’98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.’

“Though this statistic was shocking to many, it is not new information. People don’t read books—and the ones that do aren’t buying them. To make matters worse, ‘books that publishers released’ are only the ‘success stories’—those books that scored hard-won Big-Four publishing contracts—and those are already a small piece of the book publishing market.

“According to Bookstat, which looks at the book publishing market as a whole, there were 2.6 million books (titles) sold online in 2020 and only 268 of them sold more than 100,000 copies—that’s only 0.01 percent of books. By far, the more likely thing is to sell between 0 and 1,000 copies—and that was 96 percent of books last year.”

Anthony Burgess writes in the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

“It is to be noted that, despite the high example of novelists of the most profound seriousness, such as Tolstoy, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf, the term novel still, in some quarters, carries overtones of lightness and frivolity. And it is possible to descry a tendency to triviality in the form itself. The ode or symphony seems to possess an inner mechanism that protects it from aesthetic or moral corruption, but the novel can descend to shameful commercial depths of sentimentality …”

The featured image of Thomas Wolfe is a 1937 portrait by Carl Van Vechten that is now in the Public Domain.

3 thoughts on “Something Novel

  1. I am listening to a book about a movie that was profound. I recommend it to you, either way on tape or hardback. The Churche of Baseball. IIt does a very good job of making your point.

  2. I’m really glad I read this. Much of what you’ve said here is how I feel about books and reading. I’ve read a fair share of celebrity memoirs, and most of the time, I end up disappointed. I agree that we should read what inspires us, not necessarily what is best selling. By the way, I love Steinbeck, and I wrote my masters thesis on him.

    1. So cool Re: your masters thesis. I have to admit that I came to Steinbeck very late in life (except for the film The Grapes of Wrath) because my focus had always been on older authors. I’ve spent the past three years catching up!😊

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