Someday I would like to write a book, a real book, the kind that people purchase to read while sitting in an airport waiting for their flight, or while seated in their favorite chair with a cup of Jo on the end table and a noble beast asleep on the rug. I mean a novel, the sort of book that reviewers after reading it refer to the one who wrote it as an “author.”
I am frightened by the thought of attempting to write fiction. Writing ordinary prose such as you are reading is something anyone can learn to do. It is all about technic, whereas fiction requires talent.
Not long ago, I joined a local group of individuals interested in writing. They call themselves the “Clinton Ink Slingers.” The purpose of the group is to encourage each other by gently critiquing each other’s writing. Shortly after joining the group, I tried my hand at writing a short story. I even took a chance and posted it on my blog. A few individuals read it and complimented me on it, but they were mostly friends, relatives, and members of the Clinton Ink Slingers.
I have written books, all of them history books. Most are read by students forced to slug through them by a frustrated and disillusioned professor ever on the quest for the perfect text dumbed down enough to hold, however briefly, the limited attention span of today’s “young scholars.” My use of “young scholars” is a humble attempt at sarcasm. I do not think there is a textbook on the market with enough bells and whistles to draw the average student away from his or her iPhone for more than a fleeting moment.
What started me thinking about writing and my dream of one day writing a novel are several things. The first was a visit to the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, in a small church cemetery in Rockville, Maryland. One of the priests at the parish church assumed I was just another of many pilgrims who stop by from time to time. One such pilgrim who preceded me left an empty wine bottle, two mini whisky bottles, also empty, a single red rose, and a hand written letter to Scott and Zelda.
A second stimulus came in the form of an advance readers’ edition of a new novel by Therese Anne Fowler titled Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD. It will be on-sale in April. Although fiction, it is well-researched and very interesting. Anyone who has seen and enjoyed Woody Allen’s recent movie, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011), will enjoy reading Z. Ms. Fowler does an admiral job of communicating to her reader what it must have been like to be among that group of American expatriates known as the “Lost Generation.”
Finally, it was 87 years ago that the Book-of-the-Month Club was born. Its first selection was LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It is an early feminist novel about a woman who sells her soul to the devil, and in return becomes a witch. The novel is still in print. There is even a Sylvia Townsend Society which seeks to keep interest in the too often neglected author.
The Book-of-the-Month Club was the creation of Harry Scherman, Max Sackheim, and Robert Haas. At a time when books were sold through bookstores in urban areas, Scherman looked for a way to sell books to people in rural areas. Scherman was a member of a group of bohemian intellectuals living in Greenwich Village during and after World War I. They had in common a love for fine literature and the desire to find a means of marketing books to the literate masses beyond the big cities.
The first Book-of-the-Month Club selection, LOLLY WILLOWES, was mailed to 4,750 members in April, 1926. Membership rose to 46,539 by the end of the year, and stood at just under 100,000 in 1928. Record numbers continued over the decades. In 1946, the club mailed its 100 millionth book. More than 22 million books were shipped to over 3 million members in 1993, alone.
A book’s success was virtually guaranteed if selected by the club’s editorial board. The board’s original function was to “select the best new books each month.” Sales were important, but for many decades the editorial board selected books that were likely to endure as “literature” rather than be remembered, if remembered at all, as “best sellers.” During the board’s first sixty years the Book-of-the-Month Club offered books by 25 authors who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and 79 who won the Pulitzer Prize.
A case in point is J. D. Salinger’s novel THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (1951). At one point in the story, Holden Caulfield makes a disparaging remark about “guys who belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club.” Salinger had no idea at the time that that “goddam Book-of-the-Month Club” would help establish THE CATCHER IN THE RYE as one of the all-time great American novels. After having sold more than 65 million copies, it remains on the shelf of any respectable bookstore or library.
I do not expect to ever win a Pulitzer Prize or become a Nobel laureate, but I do continue to dream of writing a novel. Two members of our little group of Ink Slingers recently signed contracts with “real” book publishers. Dreams do come true, but not if one merely sits dreaming. Persistent hard work is necessary. I think I will write a short story beginning with the line: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always walk under the mercy.
- Learn How Writers Do It (cowpasturechronicles.wordpress.com)