The Place of the Novelist

“I feel that with my decision to devote myself to the novel I took on one of the responsibilities inherited by those who practice the craft in the U.S.: that of describing for all that fragment of the huge diverse American experience which I know best, and which offers me the possibility of contributing not only to the growth of the literature but to the shaping of the culture as I should like it to be. The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it.”

-Ralph Ellison

I often turn back to Ralph Ellison when I’m starting something new. I can’t help myself. Invisible Man, for me, is the great American novel. If even there is such a thing, then Ellison’s work is it. Perhaps it was the time in which I read the book – in College, at San Francisco State, while enrolled in my Black Studies classes. This one was taught by Dr. Mary Hoover. I cannot remember reading a work of fiction that floored me in both technique and story as this one. It is, I believe the most of all American Tales.

It was the book that affirmed for me that writing novels was the way to communicate with the world, and to a large extent, I haven’t gotten it right yet, but it’s not going to keep me from trying. After all, if one bangs their head against the wall long enough, we’re either going to knock down the wall or knock ourselves out. Either way, there will be result of action.

The above quote is from a Paris Review interview with Ellison who goes on at length about writing and what he set to achieve with the book. It is interesting that he distinguishes writing “The American Novel” instead of just a novel itself. Perhaps though, he is right. Most of the work to come out of this country, from what I have read at least, is about that conquering of a frontier, and at the same time, with that conquest, actually creating some form of reality from the novel. Perhaps that is why so many Americans want to be novelists.

We may be looking for a myth to call our own. While other countries in the world have thousands of years of tradition, religion, culture, etc. to fall back on, Americans have a short time frame in their history, with most of it being created on realities that are often overlooked or thought best to be forgotten (slavery, stealing of land from native Americans and Mexicans, etc.) Perhaps then, in a nation without a stable experience, we need to find our place by creating myth.

“…shaping of culture as I should like it to be”. That quote has really been sticking with me. If this is indeed the fact, our novels are all attempts to put our visions of the country out there in the world. The American novelist, more than any other country then, is creating a foundation to draw upon for it’s own material. I wonder if that is true. If we look at the novels that we read in High School, for what was required reading, it does provide an interesting foundation. I’m not sure what children are reading in High School these days, but for me, the novels that set my foundation for myth were:

1984, Catcher in the Rhye, A Single Pebble, The Collector, The Stranger, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Looking at these now, I realize that the only two American novels out of the bunch are Catcher in the Rhye and A Single Pebble. Both of those, in some way, are indeed about conquering a frontier. It appears in this brief sampling, that Ellison was right. Though the frontier that’s captured in Catcher in the Rhye is more of the conquering of youth in the form of New York City while A Single Pebble is about an American trying to conquer a foreign being, there is that sense of journey to discover something outside of ourselves.

Is that what the purpose of the American novel is? If so, it brings me back to a conversation I had a with a foreign student while teaching English a few years back. When I was talking about how Walt Whitman went away and wrote in a cabin on Walden Pond, about how he wanted to go and discover himself, she remarked how “selfish” the act was. How one man took up so much time discovering what he wanted for himself. How he wanted to define himself. Is that something that is inherent to the American novel? That we are trying to figure ourself out?

In this past Sunday New York Time’s book review section, when Jonathan Franzen was asked what kind of books he enjoys reading, he remarked “I like fiction by writers engaged in trying to make sense of their lives and of the world in which they find themselves..” This would seem to back up Ellison’s answer to the following question:

“Would you say that the search for identity is primarily an American theme?”

“It is the American theme. The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are. It is still a young society, and this is an integral part of its development.”

So then, so far, the American novel has been concerned with the question “Who Am I” or simply, answering the first lines of Hamlet: “Who’s there?”

I cannot and do not wish to answer for the entirety of  the ever-growing list of American novelists as to whether or not the big question everyone is trying to answer is “What the hell am I doing here in this country and how am I going to live with myself as an American”, but I can at least answer for myself, and try like hell with my next work to move away from that question. The American novel may be in a state of stagnation because it continues to ask the same question over and over again.

I, as much as anyone with the 3 books I’ve written, is guilty of the very same thing. How then to move on and away from such things without being untrue to who I am: An American searching for some kind of identity. And, more than that, to take some of the importance away from the novelist themselves, as being the shaper of myth. Perhaps it is now more about an exploration of the rest of the world by taking the American and their importance to it out of the picture.

I would be an interesting dive to say the very least.

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Books That Inspire, Part 1

Going to take a break from Character Development, story telling for a bit to answer some questions. A few readers have been asking me what books inspired me to write. So, instead of trying to fit it into 140 characters of a Twitter feed – Figured I’d just put them down here.

So, in no particular order, these are the works that have, to this point, pushed me to keep writing. The words in these books often causes me to just put the book down and shake my head in amazement because what the author was doing.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

For me, this is the greatest novel ever written. The structure, tone, characters, dialogue, music, message and contribution to the world that exist in these pages are, quite simply, perfect. It is the story of America in it’s rawest sense – the curtains pulled back and the world exposed.

What I find truly amazing about this book is how it was written to guide the reader through the world of the main character in a way that does not preach, but reveals. I come back to this book over and over again to look for instructions on how to structure a novel. There is a statue of Mr. Ellison on Riverside drive that I often glance up at and talk to – trying to pry the secrets from, but i think that everything he had went into that book.

As the winter comes, it’s a magnificent read to lock yourself down with and the foundation for all literature that comes after.

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton

This was the first novel I ever read and I still remember sitting up ’till 3 A.M. turning the pages – then, being devastated when it was over because I realized there would be no more book to read. I knew then the power of literature. Though it’s a YA novel, it still stays with me today. Love. Heros. Villains who aren’t really villains. The chance that life takes. Action. It really had it all.

Again, it doesn’t preach too much and really gives the reader a world to get lost in. You are forced to pick a side and even ask yourself what side you’d be on, then, with the turn of the page, it would be taken away from you and your world would be flipped open. When I was 15 this made a huge impression on me. Amazing story.

Shantaram, Gregory David Robberts

I remember when I first heard of this book. I was sitting in a cabin at the foothills of Hollywood, CA. A friend of mine was brewing tea of some kind and he had this giant 900 page book sitting on his dresser. He started telling me about it and how he had just finished it and how, it was just about, the most amazing journey he’d ever taken. Told me that if I read the first page, and that if i liked that, well, i’d be hooked.

Read the first page and next thing I knew was down at the bookstore picking up my own copy. Deep into the underworld I went – Half true Half Novel – the 900 pages are nothing when you’re into it. Without a doubt, everyone who experiences this book gives a knowing nod to someone they see reading it. Reading this will make you evaluate every step you take in the world. Amazing.

Black Mama Widow, Iceberg Slim

This is a piece of history most people don’t know about but should. I think this book should be required reading for every high school student in America so that when they enter the world, they realize what kind of world they were entering and how it was built. Now, this is a very hard book to read because of what happens along the way – after all, the story is pretty much all true. However, Iceberg Slim has the unique ability to take the reader through this world and keep them glued in.

For me, a writer is only as good as he is honest – and for that reason, these words are so amazing you can’t believe they were able to be captured and put down. I would say that if you were into Bukowski, you will enjoy this man’s writings. For me, he is one of the great one’s of his era and the words he puts down are as moving and true as they were when written.

Reader beware though – Some of the images will haunt you forever.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

What can you say about this one that hasn’t been said. For me, when I read it, I feel him reading it to me. The place I am – where I’m at in the world, completely falls away and I am with him. You can tell how much he loves to write and how much he feels what he has to say – how he sees the world around him, takes on the most importance. He is in love with his friends and what’s left of the world around him.

So important to read for everyone who wants to write – for everyone who wants to take a chance on life. I read this while traveling to Kansas City and it made my journey all the more amazing. Thing is, after you read it, the ghost of Mr. Kerouac will stay with your forever.

Life is Elsewhere, Milan Kundera

Hard to decide which Kundera book I would say influenced me most. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was the first that I read, and it changed my way of thinking towards what a write can do with a novel. Then, I read Life is Elsewhere and my life got flipped again. He has such a unique voice and his ability to bob and weave throughout the story is remarkable.

The ability to stay humorous, sexy and dramatic, all while telling the history of some extremely important times in the world are heroic.

If there is one living author I would like to sit down and talk with, it would be Milan Kundera. Thank you for deciding to do this with your life.

I read this one on the Subways of Los Angeles when they were first built. Without this book, I would have been in the bright lights and empty cars of the first days of the trains. This is a true novel. What I mean by that is – You are engrossed by the tale throughout, and then, just when you think it is ending – I’m going to leave it at that. It is, quite simply, the best ending to a novel I have ever read.

It is for this reason that I wrote the end to my book the way I did. I feel that if a reader is going to invest in the life of a novel, you better pay it off in the end. There is no doubt this happened. The premise of the book is incredible and so worthy of a book. How can people think of such things. Literature continues to amaze.

Not a novel, but this poem, for me at least, got me into the craft of writing.