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On Reading a First Novel

Taking on the Literary Establishment, a Page at a Time

Paul R Hundt

lmost a year ago, an old colleague from the days when I practiced law called to check my recollection about a matter we had handled together. In the course of our conversation, which included a lot of catching up, he announced that he had recently written a novel.

In part out of politeness and partly because I was curious in a competitive sort of way, I asked for a stray copy, which he proudly and promptly furnished. As with so many of the books that I receive with enthusiastic recommendations, or, indeed, with what feel to me like reading assignments, I stubbornly put off even opening his manuscript for the longest time.

I carried it around for months, lugging it back and forth on my weekly trips to Southampton, out to Yellowstone, and up to the White Mountains. There was always something better to read or to do that got in the way. Nevertheless, last Saturday on an Amtrak train to Washington with my wife, I pulled it out of my bag and with some ambivalence dove in. I was pleasantly surprised and had trouble putting the manuscript down when we arrived in Union Station. I finished it on the way home the following day.

Don't get me wrong. My friend's book is not terrific. It includes an implausible religious theme along the lines of demonic possession, and suffers from being written by a lawyer. There is a little too much exposition, the dialogue is occasionally wooden and it sometimes sounds like a legal brief; but those would be soluble problems in the hands of an intelligent and sensitive editor.

What impressed me was that my friend had cobbled together 107 pages of lucid prose. His plot was creative-it caught my attention from the start and then twisted and turned as it marched on to a satisfactory and surprising conclusion. From the perspective of someone who can hardly assemble 1500 words four times a semester for a creative non-fiction workshop, in my eyes my friend had accomplished something substantial.

However, in an Author's Note at the end, he included an apologia. He explained how he came to write the book, stated its intentions and expressed what I thought was a timid hope that readers would not think too badly of the time they devoted to reading it. My friend sounded almost as if he felt himself an embarrassed trespasser in the field of writing, a goat among the lions of the literary establishment. I couldn't see any need for that. The story stood on its own and was darn good for a first try.

The literary establishment takes a lot of fun out of life with its high-minded seriousness and I suppose all non-members are intimidated to some degree. Even Stephen King, who just received the National Book Foundation's annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, seems to have diffident feelings. When the award was announced, The New York Times scuttled around trying to stir up some controversy, anticipating that some of the literati would be upset that this enormously successful writer of "popular" as opposed to "literary" fiction was going to be given "their" annual award. The ever-quotable Harold Bloom obliged in a mean-spirited way by classifying King's books with the penny dreadfuls of the 19 th century and denying them any "literary value," "aesthetic accomplishment," or sign "of inventive human intelligence." Some other publishing notables were also miffed, but for the most part the negative comments were meager and the Times was obviously disappointed.

The result was sad, though. Instead of being able to just enjoy well-deserved recognition for being a gifted writer, a creative story teller and a master of the horror genre, this very decent man felt the need to expend his acceptance speech justifying his work and other genres of popular fiction to the assembled literary luminaries.

I suppose it's really a question of how big the literary Queen Mary should be, who should design it, and whether there should be much room in steerage. Joseph Epstein, who is almost always in the annual Best Essays anthology, wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times last year advising people who think they have a book in them to keep it there. David Sexton, Literary Editor of the Evening Standard in London, recently rang in that time spent reading mediocre novels is time subtracted from life.

But "Why waste everybody's time?"-especially theirs-is essentially a professional's argument. They forget that it's our language too. Writing is not just for high priests in sacred precincts. Writing is everybody's right. It is one of the most democratic of activities, not something best left to a professional class.

I cannot accept that amateurs should just sit in the stands, eat hot dogs and watch the "pros" perform. Sure, an exciting football game, a beautiful ballet, a well-acted play, a good painting may be interesting or entertaining. But how much better appreciated they are if the audience have themselves played, danced, acted or painted. The effort, the nuances, the art and the technical skill are so much more evident. So it is with writing. To read and never to have written, or to have at least attempted to write, is only half the experience.

In a sense, amateur writing is no different from gardening, woodworking, or model airplane making. It is a choice about devoting time, making a focused effort to do something creative and enjoying the process. If the garden is beautiful, the cabinet true, or the model plane flies, the amateur has achieved something. There may be better pieces by others, but so what? The joy is in the doing, the problem solving, the creative effort. It is not entirely in the end product.

Thus, even if my friend's first novel is an only novel, and even if it is only the equivalent of a 19 th -century penny dreadful, it is nevertheless a literary Everest for him, if for no one else. I am not even sure publication is necessary, although it certainly would be icing on the cake, recognition that he had something to say and said it reasonably well.

Isn't recognition what most of us really want? Most amateurs have no compunction about seeking it for things that they have thought long about and worked hard to craft. There are others, however, who for one reason or another have to be satisfied with the pleasure of writing. In my own case, for example, my literary reach has always been greater than my grasp. My aspirations have always been too high. Rejection hurts. It always has and at this late date in life I am seldom willing to risk what remains of my fragile ego for the sake of publication.

Nevertheless, I still ask myself why should Joseph Epstein and his buddies have all the fun? They announce what they think, skewer people and ideas, turn out a few good phrases every day, and enjoy the intellectual calisthenics of putting it all down on paper in a reasonably organized and polished way. They exercise imagination, disciplined thought, and verbal craftsmanship. Why can't I have a little bit of that fun too?

So my friend wrote a book. What was the harm in that? He is one of thousands trying to make their literary mark. He has organized and developed his own thoughts and presented them for all to see in a respectable way. He is no doubt better for it even if few should read him. He probably understands himself better. In the future, he may better appreciate another author's skill. He has written something big.

Let others, like Joseph Epstein and Harold Bloom, fulminate about whether work like that should be published. That's what editors and publishers are for: to accept, reject, commission, and improve the writings of others; to take the commercial risk.

The fundamental disorderliness of all these people having ideas, trying to express them, and jockeying to reach an audience is part of the human condition in a free society. It is wonderful, something Harold Bloom and his cohorts on literary Olympus can't quash or appreciate.


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