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August 23rd, 2001

  Scribble, Scribble, Scribble


Kindly glance to your left. [Note: My web column has a sidebar with my books shown on it.] I have a new novel out. The generous and public-spirited editors of National Review, ever anxious to promote the cause of literature, and knowing how hungry my children are, have permitted me to give over today's column to promoting this new book, whose title is Fire from the Sun. And which, of course, comes with some explanations and apologies attached, as follows.


One of the Roman authors observed that writing is neither an art nor a science, but an illness. He was not wrong, and I am a chronic sufferer. It's been scribble, scribble, scribble since I was old enough to hold a pencil. In the fullness of time I advanced from Letters to the Editor and ponderous pieces about the Fate of Civilization in college magazines, to entire books, which of course nobody wanted to publish. Until, one day, somebody did want to publish one of them, and I became an author. That book was a jokey little novel called Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, which was lucky enough to get some good reviews. (That word "lucky" is no false modesty. Fiction writing, as anyone involved in it will confirm, is an ocean of injustice, in which gold frequently sinks and poop even more frequently floats.)

Seeing this, my publisher and agent started calling me up to say: "What else you got?" Were they kidding? I had a shelf full of stuff. Most of it, however, had been comprehensively rejected on two continents. (If rejection bothers you, do not go into fiction writing.) The only one that hadn't was Fire from the Sun, which I was just finishing up after fiddling with it for a couple of years. I shipped it in.

There was a long silence. I called up my agent to ask what the matter was. "Well," he said, a bit nervously, "this manuscript you sent in … "Derb: "Yes? Yes?" He: "Well … it's a bit … long, isn't it?" Derb: "Is it? I don't know. Three hundred thousand words … is that long? It'd only be 1,100 pages printed up. Vikram Seth just published a novel 1,400 pages long. Got reviewed in the Times." He: "Vikram Seth, yes. See, the trouble is, John, you're not him."

And there we got stuck, with my manuscript being too long and me not being Vikram Seth (who, by the way, I admire tremendously). Sure, I did everything you would think of doing in such a situation. I tried to trim the thing down: by some odd, and I think hitherto unknown, physical effect no doubt rooted in the unfathomable paradoxes of quantum electrodynamics, the more I tried to make it smaller, the bigger it got. I tried breaking it into three normal-size books: but a book, at any rate to its doting author, is a living thing, and will not survive dismemberment. My agent, God bless him (Hi, Andrew) did his honest best for me, reporting back at intervals that nobody in his circle of contacts even wanted to read a 300,000-word manuscript from a very-nearly-unknown writer. For his efforts (unpaid), I dumped him, and got another agent, who did no better. At last I gave up and got on with other things.

Then P.O.D. came up. P.O.D. is still a new thing — so new that when I got talking about it recently in the offices of a certain leading conservative magazine whose name is an anagram of "I WANT RENO ALIVE," one editor (whose name is an anagram of "O, RANDY JINGLER!") confessed that up to that point he had taken "P.O.D." to stand for "post-orgasmic depression." P.O.D. actually means "print on demand." It's a new technology that lets you order a book and have one copy printed off just for you. Publishers no longer have to order print runs of 10,000 copies and try to sell them (though, publishers being conservative folk, they still do). Once the technology was worked out, firms came up offering to take any manuscript you had and turn it into a P.O.D. book that people could buy. I started getting flyers from these firms.

For a long time I filed those flyers with the others that promised me a foolproof new way to pick stocks, get rid of crab grass or improve my sex life. Being an old hand at the unsolicited-manuscript game, I knew the rules, and the first rule — printed in boldface on page 1 of every how-to-get-published handbook — is: Never Use a Vanity Press. Vanity presses are firms that will turn your manuscript into a very nice book … if you pay them to do so. That's how your Aunt Millie got that little book of poems published. The names of the vanity presses are well known to literary editors, book reviewers and the like, and anything that comes into a newspaper or magazine office from a vanity press gets filed with the crabgrass flyers. Then they put the author's name into a world-wide publishers' database with the annotation: Never, Never Have Anything to Do with This Person. (It was not always thus, by the way. There is a long and honorable roll-call of great novelists who published at their own expense: Walt Whitman, James Joyce, Marcel Proust … Whitman, in fact, not only published his own stuff, he reviewed it, too! But that was then, and this is now.)

P.O.D. looked to me like vanity publishing, so I turned my face away from it in haughty disdain … Until, one day, in an idle moment, with one of those flyers in front of me, I did the arithmetic. P.O.D. is awfully cheap — some of the firms charge essentially nothing. With a web link to the firm's bookstore, it's very easy for people to buy your book. And I still had the manuscript on my hard disk, I needed only to email it to them … It was painless, and I calculated I only had to sell 180 hardbacks to come out ahead, even after choosing some of their pricier options. After that I'd be making money. Why would I not do this? Because I would kill my name with "real" publishers if I P.O.D.'ed? But the flyers said, and I was able to confirm, that some very respectable, established authors are P.O.D.-ing. It has that New-Economy glamor, you see, that even literary people cannot resist. So … Why would I not do this? Reader, I did it.

There were a few wrinkles. Fire from the Sun was too long even for a P.O.D. firm, so I had to do it as three volumes, listed as three separate books in their catalogue. (I have just put the first here on NRO; the others are in the same bookstore.) If you order it, you have to wait a couple of weeks while they print it. Production quality, with all due respect to the vendor, who I am sure do their best, is less than terrific: like a 19th-century reader, I have had to cut a few pages with a steak knife on my author copies. It's a real book, though — three in fact, hardback, trade paperback and e-book. Best of all, I have got the damn thing off my chest — which, according to Vladmir Nabokov, is one of the main reasons people write books.

Is the book any good? That I can't tell you. The two professionals and two friends who read through it offered wildly different opinions (they always do), so nothing can be deduced from their readings (nothing ever can). You can read about Fire from the Sun on my web site and also on the publisher's site. I will only say this: it was not intended as a literary novel. I am not, to tell the truth, a very literary person. I am not very well-read, not in the literature of the last hundred years anyway, a fact that is brought crushingly home to me when I go partying with seriously literary people. My attitude to fiction is close to Benjamin Disraeli's: "When I want to read a novel, I write one." I do not read much current Lit. Fic., except when paid to. My impression is that not much of it is any good, though since I read so little, that is no doubt an unfair judgment.

I rather frequently have the experience of being told that such-and-such a newly-published novel is wonderful, only to pick it up and browse it in a store and find myself thinking: Nah. (My speed record for rejections of this sort happened a couple of years ago when someone gushed to me about a novel dealing with the fate of aviatrix Amelia Earhart. I picked it up in my local bookstore and read the first sentence, which I still recall in all its gassy pretentiousness: "The sky was flesh." I got out of that store faster — as a Texas friend of mine would say — than a dose of salts through a widder-woman.) My models for Fire from the Sun were the big Pop. Fic. page-turners that I myself enjoy: the works of people like Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon, Dick Francis, James Clavell. Don't get me wrong. Fire doesn't talk down to the reader, and I wrote it all as well as I know how to write fiction. But it's just a story.

It is possible, of course, that I have written a literary novel without intending to, like the poor guy in Henry James's story "The Next Time" who longs for a big Pop. Fic. success but whose every effort comes out as hopelessly Lit. Fic. I doubt this, though. I can't see much that is Lit. Fic. about Fire from the Sun. The narrative proceeds from the past to the future. There's a pretty equal balance of dialogue and récit. None of the characters is an angel, a space alien, or a coprophagic dwarf. Nobody lives to be 200, turns into a faun, or becomes intimately involved with a rutabaga. (Magic realism? I shall die happy if I can believe I have got real realism right.) Most to the point, nobody is me — not even approximately. I made it all up. That's what fiction writers are supposed to do.

So there you are. Check it out. Then, if you think it's the kind of thing you might like, buy volume 1 and give it a try. Heck, buy all three volumes — nothing looks untidier than an incomplete set, you know.