Once in a Century

We are writers. We write novels. We’re not rock stars. We don’t suffer from the delusion that what we’re doing will change the world. We don’t string together words like “four dead in Ohio” and hope that it will spark a revolution of change.

If we have any pretensions at all, it’s that what we’re doing is “art.” Which it is. But we’re also selling it for money. There’s a certain cachet to the novel – it is verified only when it is published. I play guitar, but would be content if I live out the rest of my years without playing Carnegie Hall. But let my fiction go unpublished? Horrors!

Thus, there are things to be considered. Some call it “commercialization.” We call it “making it better.” Yes, it’s art, but it’s still art when the publisher sends you a check and many trees are killed and you hold the results in your hand. There’s an art to making commercially feasible fiction.

The reason you can’t think of the greatest non-commercial piece of art ever committed to the English language is because it’s still in someone’s closet under a pair of old bowling shoes. And will remain so.

(Which reminds me of the great, odd band The Residents, who recorded an album, and allegedly did not release it until they had forgotten that it existed – the album, Not Available, is quite good – if you’re into the kind of thing that The Residents do.)

But every now and then something happens. A novel – that is, a work of fiction – transcends itself, and it does what every rock star wishes one of their songs would do. It becomes an agent of change.

I think I have pinpointed the frequency with which this happens. It is once in a century. In the 1800’s, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a novel about slavery that was widely published. When she met President Abraham Lincoln, he said something like, “So you’re the little lady who started this great big war.” The book was of course Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it brought the realities of slavery to the attention of people in a way that hadn’t been seen before.

At the dawn of the 1900’s an angry young writer penned a book about appalling conditions in Chicago’s meat packing plants. When published, it sent shockwaves through the nation. President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly received 100 letters a day demanding reforms during the book’s peak of readership. That book was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I don’t know if Roosevelt ever met Sinclair, or if he said something like, “So you’re the little man who started this great big hoo-hah.” But he might have.

So what novel is going to be the agent of change in this century? I don’t know. I suspect it hasn’t been written yet.

There’s a lot of hoo-hah over Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code right now, but it’s the result of people putting their faith in a work of fiction. I know, Brown claims the work is based in fact, but you don’t suppose that this could have something to do with his having the same sense of self-promotion as Madonna, do you? The Coen brothers claimed their movie Fargo was based on fact. It isn’t. I see the buzz around this novel as the same kind of get-a-life wish fulfillment that has some people in the UK trying to get the Jedi Knights recognized as an official religion.

Back to the novel that changes the 21st century. What will it be about?

Good question. We’ve 94 years to find out. Were I to look in my crystal ball (which either works frighteningly well or misses the broad side of a barn when I’m writing SF), I’d say to look for a shattering novel about abortion. Of all the hot button issues we’re facing (including cloning, bioethics, other aspects of reproductive rights, and the dilemma of our view of the world of Islam), it’s the one we’ve lived with the longest and is the most contentious as a result.

But the time isn’t ready for this novel. Yet. Whatever issue lends itself as the subject, at this moment it’s still simmering. It hasn’t reached the boiling point, the flash point, critical mass.

When that happens, the time will be ready. The novel will come. And when it does, let’s hope that the war that ensues as a result can be fought in the courtroom and not the streets.

Listening:
No one ever spoke to Noah
They all laughed at him instead
Working on his ark
Working all by himself

(via iPod Shuffle)

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One response to “Once in a Century

  1. Interesting essay. Personally, I don’t care much about novels that change the world. They tend to be important and do good, important things, but as novels I’m not as interested. Neither The Jungle nor Uncle Tom’s Cabin have called to me as something that needs to be urgently read. Maybe I’m a philistine for saying that, and maybe I’ll change my mind down the line, but I’d rather read books that don’t promote a message. I prefer the questions. As for The Residents, now I have to find “Not Available.” I love the Mole album and God in Three People (er, not sure that title is quite right) and Duck Stab. I’ll have to go find that.

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