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Friday, 11 May 2012

FENDING OFF THE NEXT DARK AGE by John A. A. Logan


Somehow it amuses me to imagine all the wonderful books from the past that, if they had happened to arrive over the transom of a UK publisher in the last several years, would have either been ignored, rejected, or, perhaps worse, butchered and hacked at to make their contours fit some perceived quick-profit trend.

Robert Pirsig's ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, or its sequel, LILA, with that blend of philosophy and narrative that millions of readers enjoyed so much…I can hear the modern editors’ screams now as they open the package or “file” containing such work.
And then there are the literary mavericks of yesteryear, like the Scottish Highland novelist, Neil Gunn, who wrote 10 or so social realist novels which kept the editors and critics very happy…until he unfortunately took receipt from a friend of a copy of ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY by Eugen Herrigel. This injection of Eastern philosophy influenced Gunn so much that his next 10 novels were NOT so liked by the 1950s editors and critics, or perhaps even by the majority of the public who had loved his first 10 novels…
Much like Thomas Hardy after the public reception of his final novel, JUDE THE OBSCURE, Gunn reacted by declaring he would never publish another novel, and, like Hardy, he kept to his word, putting out only one more book, when he was 65, THE ATOM OF DELIGHT, describing it as his "spiritual autobiography".
It is so easy to see how the opportunities of epublishing, the possibility contained within it to establish direct contact with whatever minority (perhaps a very substantial minority) of readers who would absolutely love these more distinctively flavoured works, could have rescued and sustained Gunn, or even Hardy, rather than have them abjure the publishing or writing of fiction altogether.

Also rescued by epublishing, if we could only devise a way to go back in time and snatch him from the limits of his circumstance, would be the great New Orleans novelist, John Kennedy Toole.
Toole finished his novel, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, at age 24, only to embark on 8 years of heartbreak (including the protracted, teasing correspondence with CATCH 22’s powerful New York uber-editor Robert Gottlieb) during which he tried again and again to have his novel published, even to the extent of embarking on revisions he did not believe in, only to have them rejected also…until in despair and humiliation he committed suicide aged 32.
Was that novel suppressed and unpublished because of a lack of quality or a paucity of readers who would later love it? Or for the lack of it “really being about anything” which the great and powerful New York editor Bob Gottlieb asserted?
No, history proves that was not the truth. 11 years after Toole’s death, his mother took the book to famous author, Walker Percy, who very very reluctantly took a look at the faded carbon copy she presented…until he realised upon reading that it was a masterpiece and campaigned for its publication in 1980, only to see the book go on to receive the Pullitzer Prize for Literature in 1981, and be loved by millions of readers around the world ever since...
Epublishing might literally have saved John Kennedy Toole’s life.



It’s impossible for me to think of Toole without Mikhail Bulgakov coming to mind.
Perhaps Bulgakov is Toole’s Russian anarchic counterpart.
Mikhail Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGARITA was not published until Bulgakov’s wife got it into print 27 years after the author’s death.
In Bulgakov’s case the suppression of his great novel drove him so far from the path of self-preservation that, during the period where dozens of Soviet writers in Stalinist Russia were being murdered for their writings (as documented in THE TERRIBLE NEWS) Bulgakov wrote to the government in complaint at his work’s suppression! Resulting, bizarrely, in a return personal phone call from Stalin three weeks later, and Stalin’s offer to Bulgakov of work in the theatre, but not of his novel’s publication.
How important was it to Bulgakov that his novel, THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, be published?
He was still working on it when, terminally ill, he had to retire to bed permanently. He kept working on it, dictating corrections to his wife, after he had gone blind. He worked on the book right up to his death aged 48, the dream of that book alive in his eyes perhaps as he took his last departing blind blink.
Had he despaired though, like Toole, at not seeing his novel published through eight years of work on it?
Oh yes. Once, he set the book on fire, burned it, to be done with it.
Only to later rewrite the novel from memory, from his subconscious, from his soul, entering the line into the book, “manuscripts don’t burn”.
And yet, after he died, it still took his wife 27 years to get the book published in Moscow.




Inhuman lengths of time, and inhuman suffering really, lying behind some of our world’s greatest novels. And both books containing scenes of great comedy!

Lastly, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa should not be forgotten here.
Lampedusa was reading the rejection letters from the leading 1950s Italian publishers for his novel, THE LEOPARD, while on his deathbed.
“Too old-fashioned,” an editor wrote to the dying Lampedusa.
“This novel is not publishable,” said another.
Wonderful last words to read for Lampedusa, about the only novel he ever wrote.
But were the editors right this time?
No, Lampedusa’s novel, THE LEOPARD, published posthumously in 1958, became the top-selling novel in Italian history, never out of print since its publication, and also regarded artistically as one of the greatest ever Italian novels.



It is a huge thing then, not just a convenience for authors who have been abused on a lesser scale than Toole and Bulgakov and Lampedusa…an enormous thing, a privilege for us, to be writing now when the epublishing door is opening a way to readers that for long and long was a completely lockable and locked door to many.
There are still threats on the horizon, those that would love to censor the internet or literature itself and return things to a deadly status quo…but again, that makes our job even clearer, the job that Toole and Bulgakov struggled so hard and bravely to fulfil…to do honest, quality work that we love and believe in…and to seek ways to pass it on to readers, by whatever method…always trying to keep open that sacred window of transmission, whatever and wherever it may be…our way then of fending off that next Dark Age that we surely sometimes sense could come…whether it’s a Dark Age of censorship…suppression of work…proscription of certain books or voices…control of content…or whether it’s just the gradual succumbing to a general and longstanding process now of dumbing down and homogenization…
We’ve been handed the baton by gentle saints and brave giants who’ve gone before, to fight against these petty evils, word by word…book by book…and…hehheh…like Toole and Bulgakov and Lampedusa also knew right to their dying bones…it’s the best fun in the world too, isn’t it?









21 comments:

Susan Price said...

'Manuscripts don't burn.' A wonderful post, John. Thank you. You've almost written us a manifesto!

Dan Holloway said...

What a marvellous, moving post. And I can feel your gently insistent presence in every sentence. Wonderful.

Linda Gillard said...

People don't even have to read THE SURVIVAL OF THOMAS FORD to see what a brilliant writer you are, John. They only have to read this.

A timely, inspiring & moving post. Thank you. Off to share it on Facebook...

Dennis Hamley said...

John, that was indeed a marvellous post. Hardy's refusal to write any more novels after Jude got such a terrible reception is completely understandable. And he also said words to the effect (I haven't got the exact quotation by me)that he was ashamed at how poor a thing it was compared with what was in his mind. We all know about that as well.

You are living proof of the rightness of your own post. Yours are inspiring words. And I think to myself - I have had at least two books published of which I'm thoroughly ashamed. They didn't work, they're ill thought out and their plots are manufactured and faked. In retrospect I'm horrified that they were accepted, though at the time I was of courseoverjoyed. They didn't sell, went out of print incredibly quickly and certainly won't be revived on Kindle. Publishers 0, Public 1 I think. And I have at least another two unpublished novels, plus endless proposals, which I believe in so completely and gave me that amazing feeling of being charged up when our imaginations are in full flow. But no publisher has touched them. Well, now's my chance. It seems a big jump from this to saying that we can help to ward off the coming teraccenew Dark Age but nevertheless, that's what, in our small way, we're helping to do.

Jan Needle said...

i agree with every word, john - and yet. i read the confederacy of dunces when i was young and very receptive. and it bored me rigid. i was given bulgakov's black snow as a birthday present by my friend, the dear departed playwright mike stott (funny peculiar) who told me it was the funniest book he'd ever read. i hardly managed to finish it. and, lazy git that i am, therefore never read the master and margarita. and to get nearer to home (don't take this badly; it's a discussion) i got two of my closest human beings to read your thomas ford because i thought it was so fantastically brilliant, and have said so in print as you know. neither of them liked it much at all.

so where does this leave us? clearly, the people who turned down your cited books (and all the others that hit the scrapheap) didn't JUST do it for commercial reasons, but because they didn't rate the books. and some of us think marlowe's a better playwright than old shakespeare by a pretty large margin, and while jude the obscure suits me, i recognise why it brings others out in spots.

it's complicated, criticism. there's a tendency to think our opinions are by some mystery correct. see f.r.leavis for the apotheosis of arrogant crappery.

which leaves your panegyric to electronic books absolutely spot on. if someone turns you down - get it out there and let the kindler be the judge. i stick my books out at 99p for that reason among others. the fact that amanda hocking sells a million may not mean that she is crap. i've met people who even enjoy jeffrey archer. the importance of electronic books is because they make it possible. everything.

and i still think your book is a massive tour de force, and an inspiration. and now i've got to DO SOME BLOODY WORK!

Linda Newbery said...

Excellent post, John. How heartbreaking to think of Lampedusa reading rejection letters on his death-bed ... could there be any sadder end to a writer's life? But I love the idea that we've been handed the baton. And can run with it in new ways.

Kathleen Jones said...

Bravo John!! You've said it for all of us.
What's going on in publishing now is a form of censorship (capitalist censorship) as rigorous and damaging as anything under repressive regimes. I always remember Solzhenitsyn's incredulity, on coming to the west, that -yes, you can publish almost anything you want, but first you've got to find someone who wants to publish it! He discovered that, as we all know, it's P D difficult.

madwippitt said...

I love the Master and Margarita: I first read it in my impressionable teens and it's one of the few that made a massive impression on me then and which I still love just as much today. I've only met one other person who has heard of it though, so I'm excited to see it mentioned here - I never knew about the burning of the manuscript though, which gives that quote such additional meaning.

CallyPhillips said...

Oh no, a load more books I have to read. THAT is one of the great things about our Revolution.... finding writers and writing we'd never have found before.
I agree with everyone about John's writing style - it shines through in posts, in emails as well as in his literary output.
And Kathleen, I cheer your comment on publishing (well, your view, not the fact of it) To the barricades.
To that end, this morning I sat down and JUST DID IT. Tomorrow is World Fair Trade Day. I believe in Fair Trade (it'd be nice to see it applied to writers) and I have 5 short fair play dramas which have been kicking dust since performance in 2008. Not any longer. A morning of sweat, formatting and the rest and TOMORROW they'll be available FREE for the world. That's some power isn't it? Don't worry, I'll be shouting out the links as soon as it's actually out there.
But mainly, thanks John. You are the literary equivalent of a kick up the arse and yet, such an eloquent kick up the arse!

Christine Miller said...

Excellent and inspiring post, John, I agree with your analysis and can feel your passionate commitment to the subject matter.

As Linda Gillard says, your gifts as an author shine through here, and I join you in picking up the baton to ensure publishing remains open and accessible now. No More Dark Ages!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

John, thanks for a wonderful inspirational post! And how very right you are. Over the past year or so, I've read and loved a number of books from only ten or fifteen years ago which people in the know - and I believe them - have told me 'wouldn't ever find a publisher these days.' Miss Garnet's Angel was the most recent - I loved it, but I could see that no, it wouldn't find a publisher now, because it's main protagonist is an elderly woman and it has a genuinely spiritual quality that wouldn't slot neatly into any particular genre. I read The Master and Margarita years ago - my dear late dad handed it to me and told me that I MUST read it, so I did, and loved it. Laughed and cried, was mostly gobsmacked by its originality and daring. Thanks so much for such a brilliant rallying cry!

julia jones said...

YES!

dirtywhitecandy said...

Great post. It's funny how these spurned books are the books we most value as readers - and the ones we are most hungry to learn from as writers. Here's to more disruptive, wonderful influences in our new e-age.

John, I've especially enjoyed your company here today as I'm 80% through Thomas Ford .... and wondering how on earth I'll concoct a review that does it justice. A pleasure to know you, sir

Pauline Fisk said...

Thank you. Am dashing off to Facebook with this now.

Alison Wells said...

A really super post. Yes we are privileged to live in this age and let the reader decide, especially when we write stuff that's in-between.

Ann Evans said...

Wonderful post, John, and so touching to learn of these writers' struggles. I wasn't aware of John Kennedy Toole and his terrible despair over rejection. I wonder if Epublishing has already saved lives of other unknown authors as passionate as he?

Lee said...

It's a fine post, but I wish I could be as optimistic about the life-saving potential of ebooks as you. In a world where anyone can publish, rejection takes other forms. And as someone who has seen suicide a little too close up, I'm rather careful about oversimplifying its causes.

Stu Ayris said...

It's posts such as this and fine people like yourself John who keep drunken dreamers like me going. Cheers mate for everything. Keep on keeping on and long may you flourish!!

Anne Stormont (@writeanne) said...

Wonderful post - says it all

Hunter said...

John, what a great article! I'm friends with Cory MacLauchlin, JK Toole's biographer, and he pointed me to this great article today. I love it. In fact, I've order "The Leopard" today, just because of it.

I'm also a novelist. I've submitted two novels to agents in NYC and have been receiving rejections for four years running. It's obscene how many times I've been turned away from an agent's door.

In consequence, I have finished my third novel and started my fourth. While I'm seeking publication, I will not stop writing. It's in me like blood. I can't NOT do it.

I related so much to Toole's bio ("Butterfly in the Typewriter) because of his struggle to be heard. Here's the review I wrote of it: http://deepsouthmag.com/2012/05/new-orleans-would-have-its-bard-yet/

Thank you for your insightful article and here's to the future of writers!

All best,

Hunter

Elizabeth Jasper said...

Interesting, pertinent and thought-provoking. Now all I have to do is find enough time to read more to expand my horizons further.

Thank you for your insight.