Tuesday, November 21, 2006

JSB: An Invective Against Mere Fiction

Some writer friends and I were recently discussing the merits of Moby-Dick. I and another intrepid soul extolled the virtues of Melville's classic. It is the great American novel. The language is like the ocean itself, the highs and lows and storms and calms. (One of the other writers thought this sounded more like a Harlequin romance scene than a description of the book).
Anyway, comparing Moby-Dick to today's fiction is sort of like comparing the Empire State Building to the Dunkin' Donuts franchise. There's a lot of the latter, but only one of the former. And you only have to look at them to know there's no comparison.

It turns out that the loudest howls of protest came from those who had been forced to read Moby-Dick in school. Not many kids are ready for the great book. I can just see some harried juvenile back then, wanting to watch The Dukes of Hazard, but having to get to Moby-Dick instead. His mom sends him to his room as he kicks and screams, and he puts on the Stones and tries to read this novel.

He's a goner. No way he's going to like it. And that first, awkward introduction may shape his relationship with the book that lasts a lifetime.

Too bad. I was lucky to read Moby-Dick after college, because I wanted to. And loved it. (As an aside, if you do decide to give the book a try, or another try, be sure to pick up a version with illustrations by Rockwell Kent. They are the perfect meeting of artist and novel.)

I do think there is one point the critics and supporters of Moby-Dick can agree upon, and that is this: Melville can never be accused of writing mere fiction. He was going for it. In sports parlance, he was leaving it all out there on the floor. He could have made a good living writing penny dreadfuls, but he was after more than a living. He was pursuing a vision. He was about that elusive dream of literature as apotheosis. God love him.

By the way, that term mere fiction, and the title of this piece, come from an essay by the late John Gardner, a great novelist in his own right, but also a teacher and essayist. I like the title, because there is too little time for anyone to be writing mere fiction.

I had to laugh, then, when, a couple of days after what is now called The Great Moby Dustup, I picked up my new copy of Salem's Lot by Stephen King. I'd read it years ago, but my son got me a new, illustrated, hardback edition for Christmas last year. And it has a new introduction by the author.

At this point in his career, King was still an unpublished novelist. Carrie had yet to come out. But he had this vision for a vampire book that was breathtaking in its grandiosity, especially for a twenty-three year old unpublished novelist. He wanted to combine, he says, the vampire myth of Bran Stoker's Dracula with the "naturalistic fiction of Frank Norris and the EC horror comics I'd loved as a child….Did I really think I could combine Dracula and Tales from the Crypt and come out with Moby-Dick? I did. I really did….Was I daunted by the fact that Moby-Dick only sold about twelve copies in Melville's lifetime? Not I; one of my ideas was that a novelist takes the long view, the lofty view, and that does not include the price of eggs. (My wife would not have agreed, and I doubt if Mrs. Melville would have, either.)"

Well bravo for King. And Melville. No mere fiction for these two. And look! Melville, forgotten in his lifetime, is still talked about today and taught in college courses. King himself is taught right now, and has sold considerably more than twelve copies.

Which is to say, go for it. As a writer, may your reach exceed your grasp. Don't ever settle for mere fiction. You have a voice and a vision and we need to see it on the page.
Do not be timid or afraid. Have a little of the 23-year-old Stephen King 'tude. You won't fail. As the old advertising man Leo Burnett once said, "If you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won't get a handful of mud, either."

And now I give you the opening of Moby-Dick. If you think you can top this, friend, then go ahead and do it. I'll blog about you next:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin
warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

James Scott Bell's website is http://www.jamesscottbell.com/


At 8:25 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I woke up this morning and saw my post and realized it may sound like an addendum to last week's spirited discussion. I actually wrote this a couple of weeks ago with the UNpublished writer in mind. My primary thought was as follows: Don't write just to be published. Don't write with just commerical viability in mind. That's "mere fiction." Write because you believe in what you're writing and because you want to pull it off for the reader. Set your sights higher than simply getting that first advance.

The writers I know and like to hang out with (many of them contributing to Charis) are like that. They don't write mere fiction; in fact, the very thought of doing so would appal them.

Also, just by striving to extend your writing -- even a little -- each time, you're honoring the craft. Maybe you're starting with a certain genre and certain conventions. Nothing wrong with that. Work hard, make it your goal to write the best book you can. Then you'll have a new benchmark from which to measure. Lather, rinse, repeat!

At 8:59 AM, Blogger Carol Umberger said...

Oh my. Melville is pure poetry, isn't he? Perhaps as I write today I will set my sights just a bit higher than usual. While I've never pretended to be anything but a writer of commercial fiction, still I agree that reading Melville and others of a literary bent can't help but improve our own writing.

I never minded reading Melville, Hemmingway, etc. What I hated was having to anayze them instead of just being able to enjoy the beauty of the words. Professors expected you to "get" the meaning but heaven forbid if I "got" a different meaning than they did. That meant I was wrong because they couldn't possibly be. These would be the same professors who told me I couldn't write. Hey, no hard feelings. :)

Point is, most of us were forced to read classic literature and had a bad experience for one reason or another, which unecessarily turned us off to the beauty of Melville and his ilk.

Hmmn. Maybe I'll read a bit of Coleridge today. :)

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me preface this comment with this is nothing against anyone in the industry. This is not a criticism but an observation and a question . . .
Does anyone honestly think Moby Dick would've passed today's editorial processes?

At 10:43 AM, Blogger Heather said...

Thank you for this on two levels: first, I've just started a book that I don't believe would be of wide interest, but I feel I must write it. It will be hard to write, not free-flowing like my last. But I must, I know.
Second, I've never read Moby Dick. What do I have in common with a obsessed whale hunter? But that first paragraph caught me. It caught me with that part about wanting to methodically knock off hats. Some days, I have that same desire, and, like Ishmael, my cure is the ocean.

At 11:05 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

In answer to Nicole, no. Moby-Dick as written would not be published today. Nor would Dickens or anybody else in the 19th Century. ("Dear Mr. Dickens, if you can chop 150,000 words off this, and give the characters more realistic names, we invite you to resubmit.")

But the spirit of these writers, who were "going for it," is certainly needed in any era. And as has been suggested, just reading the "poetry" of Melville and others (even contemporary poetry itself) stretches us in good ways. Ray Bradbury says he reads poetry every day before he starts his own writing. He's a promising writer, too. He may just break out someday.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger Cara Putman said...

Thanks for the post. It's always a challenge when I'm writing to write the story in my head, rather than listen to all the rules that could stifle that. It's such a balance. Bottomline, I want to write the story that God has given me. If it finds a home, great. If not, I'll at least know I was faithful to the story He gave me.

At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pithy as always, Jimbo. You've given me a lot to think about...and to shoot for. Dang, it's been donkey's years since my college days; I'd forgotten what a fine wordsmith ol' Herman was. I may just have to dust off my copy of M-D and immerse myself again.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Jim. It's encouraging advice. I've heard it said to never hold back when writing your novel because you never know what will be published and what won't. This reminds me of that advice.

"Write because you believe in what you're writing."


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