site author: Anthony Wheeler email: email@example.com
April 10, 2012
After twenty years, I have decided to retire.
I began writing my first novel in August of 1992, and finished my final one, Beached Whales, last week. In total, five novels, one major creative cycle, a total of 670,000 finished words. Millions upon millions of words drafted and deleted in the process.
I began writing novels with a general idea of what I wished to accomplish; twenty years later I exceeded those expectations by a full magnitude. I have succeeded far more than I ever hoped.
I wrote novels because I admire them. I would be happy having written any one of the five. I like all of them. Each one is a favorite, in a different way.
Kafka insisted we shouldn’t write books that “make us happy”, but I did. He goes on to say that “A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” I strove to do that as well, by engaging what I consider the most important questions: What is the meaning of life? The nature of good and evil? The future of humanity? The proper way to live one’s life? What values should we pursue? What really matters?
Not everyone considers such things, or believes they are important or even decidable. Often they simply accept what they learn in nursery school. Or later in life they adopt a system wholesale (Christianity the most obvious example in our culture, but Marxism or Rand’s Objectivism might also serve). Some people struggle with these questions their entire life, and ultimately decide that answers do not exist. “It’s the journey that counts, not the destination.”
Well, I found answers. Made discoveries. Learned the truth. After twenty years, five novels, and millions of words, I know what matters. What makes evil, and why. What it all means.
That’s right – for me. While the questions are universal, the answers brutally personal. Singular paths, distinctive destinations. My long creative journey was unique, as unique as the novels themselves. While I carefully planned each novel, I didn’t plan—or necessarily expect—the subsequent discoveries.
Not that I claim any particular originality, in thought or fiction. Certainly what I have expressed has been expressed before, has been thought before, in ways arguably similar.
What I now know doesn’t necessarily pertain to anyone else. Pieces of it might. But you cannot simply be told the truth; probably can’t be told anything of genuine value. Such things must be created within. The material for the internal construct might come from elsewhere; another mind, a striking experience, a treasured book. But before a crucial insight can be harvested, it must be fertilized and grown within one’s own internal fields.
The danger of course, in thinking that I know, is that I proceed into old age as a stiff-minded dogmatic fool, unable to consider anything new. I hope that recognizing this danger, and willing always to test my hard-won knowledge every day, will inoculate me from such intellectual hubris.
But why quit now? If I consider myself a novelist (and I do) why not write more?
Sure, I could make stuff up, structure new plots, invent characters and scenarios, and write them out. The trouble is, they would no longer contain me, my authentic soul, the substance of my creative being, my heart. Or if they did, they would simply repeat something I have already expressed.
All five of my novels are thematically unique, as is the entire cycle. They all integrate plot, character, structure and theme in a pleasing and compelling way. They are—individually and collectively—aesthetically significant.
All these attributes pertain to the best in literature. When an author writes from the head and not the heart, the work becomes common, diminished. Ayn Rand put herself in everything she wrote (four novels in almost thirty years) and then she rightly quit (living another twenty-five years). Proust poured himself into one long novel, and we can hardly imagine what he would have written beyond it, had he lived. Hemingway lives in all his work, not always successfully. Jeanette Winterson continues to fill her novels with her special self. Joseph Heller should have quit with Catch-22. Harper Lee did with To Kill a Mockingbird (she was genius to do so). Robert Musil left unfinished his one great masterpiece. Emily Bronte. Zora Neale Hurston. Carson McCullers. Malcolm Lowry. These authors gave themselves in measured portions through creative remembrance and transfigured their soul into literary permanence.
On the other hand, writers such as James Michener and Arthur Hailey pick a subject, research the heck out of it, and produce one best seller after another, none of which you know (for good reason). Michener was best when most personal, and by extension, most authentic – Tales of the South Pacific, Sayonara, The Bridges at Toko-ri, Caravans (my favorite), The Drifters – mostly his early work, done prior to Hawaii, and all the subsequent work (Centennial, The Source, Space, The Covenant, Texas,etc.).
Another example you may find more familiar: Michael Crichten. Andromeda Strain; The Great Train Robbery; Disclosure; Jurassic Park; Sphere; Rising Sun; Timeline. He has to be the king of the novel-made-into-movie.
Stephan King. John Updike. Gore Vidal. Philip Roth. Iris Murdoch. Henry Miller. Toni Morrison. Henry James. William Faulkner. Each of them wrote a slew of novels, spreading their souls uber thin, leaving their genius difficult to discern.
Two exceptions might be Dostoevsky (his literary genius spreads earlier, deeper and later than anybody else) and Graham Greene, who seemed to inculcate his unique sensibility across a wide range of people and places. Saul Bellow might also be added to the list of exceptions, as I have yet to encounter a failure of his (Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Humboldt’s Gift).
Two intermediate cases: John Cowper Powys and Kazuo Ishiguro. In the first case, I find Glastonbury Romance and Wolf Solentspecial, and perhaps filled with the author, while Weymouth Sands less so. Owen Glendower is a historical novel that doesn’t leave much of an aesthetic mark.
Ishiguro is such a fine writer that his special creations The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go succeed despite the lack of his sensibility. The rest of his novels are pleasant literary candy that fail to leave much of an impression (When We Were Orphans, The Artist in the Floating World, Pale View of Hills) and The Unconsoled a failed experiment (sort of what would happen if Proust and Kafka collaborated).
Bottom line: I have expressed everything significant I wish to express. Anything else I might do would be redundant or meaningless.
As far as not having had anything published throughout my novel-writing career, there are advantages. For one thing, I was able to complete the entire cycle with five fully integrated elements. Without the influence of a public or editor, the cycle is uniquely mine (for better or worse). Finally, I have completed the cycle absent any commercial considerations (again, for better or worse). See what happens to Youngblood Hawke – he never finished what he set out to do, having succumbed to such pressures. Well, I did: I finished my literary life’s work.
It’s not that I haven’t offered my work to the public. I have exerted a good-faith effort to get them published. If my works are valuable and/or profound, something worthy of critical attention, than the publishing industry (agents, editors) are now responsible for bringing them out. It’s my job to write the things – I’ve fulfilled that responsibility. It’s up to the agents/editors to decide if the novels are worthy of commercial investment. Not my call to make.
If my work is unworthy of critical or public attention, then nothing is lost or won by offering them up to be published. It doesn’t matter to me, one way or another. In fact, I am ambivalent to publishing my work, as I gain nothing by doing so:
At this point, I gain nothing by publication. I have made my statement. I have borne witness to my place and time. Whether it ever gets heard is irrelevant (to me). It’s all a person can do.
Does this sound like sour grapes? Perhaps. Perhaps my perspective changes if my work gets published (I have received 4 out of 12 rejections for my final novel so far, so it’s not looking good), and am proven a hypocrite.
But I don’t feel like a hypocrite. What I feel is incredibly fulfilled. I have succeeded in ways I never thought possible. I truly don’t know what could contribute to that feeling, how it could be made better in any way. I could die tomorrow and never miss a beat.