This extract does not do this Kate Colby post full justice. However, an extract of hers rarely does. Click over: she always makes us think, so it is worth reading in its entirety:
…I’ve spent several sleepless nights reading and re-reading the perfectly poetic prose of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I’ve spent many an afternoon curled up in my windowsill with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I’ve spent countless evenings imagining myself a faceless extra, one of the glamorous flappers dancing in a party from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby…
…What if that one book is all I get from that author? What if the next is an utter disappointment, undeniable proof that my beloved novel is a fluke? What if I read a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence only to discover that the author I thought understood me at the deepest level is a hack, a con artist, who knows nothing of human nature?
And what if, when I am a published author, this happens to one of my readers?…
Of those authors, I know Fitzgerald best. The Great Gatsby is, by consensus of opinion nowadays, his “masterpiece.” Although his output over his career is uneven, he’s written much else that is satisfying.
His first novel, This Side of Paradise, was a big seller. (Although he didn’t make a huge amount of money himself off of it.) He spent the rest of his (too short) life straining to repeat the commercial success of Paradise. (Clearly based on his own marriage, his second novel did sell very well too.) Gatsby got only mixed reviews at its publication, and became a “hit” only after his death.
My favorite author – at the risk, unlike Kate, of sharing a favorite – remains South African novelist Alan Paton (1903-1988). He wrote only three full novels over the course of his long, full life. His first book, Cry, The Beloved Country, is considered by most critics a “masterpiece.”
All his works contained elements of the historical/ auto-biographical, and Paton also realized he’d probably never produce another Cry. He was right. His second book a few years later was well-received, but has never been considered a “masterpiece.” His third novel, written about 30 years after the second, is considered “very good” also, but we’re also told it’s not a “masterpiece” either.
I don’t care. I liked his third book the best. But what the heck do I know, right?
Like Fitzgerald, like Paton, like others, you may indeed have only a “single masterpiece” in you. But so what? So did they.
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The same overarching issue haunts all “creatives.” I’m a Frank Sinatra fan too. There are some close to me who’ve observed, “All his songs sound alike.”
Yes, I know: Shoo be, doobie, doo. Ugh. True, some of his songs are far better than others; but, to a fan, it’s the totality of his career that makes him what he was. As long as his recordings exist, he will always be with us:
I’m a huge Humphrey Bogart fan as well. Casablanca. The African Queen. The Maltese Falcon. Other greats.
Bogart acted in (and his production company even helped produce) quite a few “indifferent” films too. Some were outright duds that are flat-out often embarrassing to watch today. That should hardly be a shock: no one’s perfect.
So I think it’s vital to explore output over a lifetime. Anyone is going to produce uneven (or even occasionally “bad”) work, but that doesn’t necessarily make those efforts dramatically less worthy of our time investment in terms of the overall. In fact, owing to their “flaws” works labeled “average” or even “poor” are in their ways often even more intriguing than the much-exalted “masterpieces.”
* * *
Kate wonders as well:
Maybe I turn to a series. Series are like reading one story in huge chunks — no risk of variation from an author there.
As someone writing (by accident) a “series,” I have been cognizant of charges of “laziness” in imagination. But I also consider that somewhat unfair. Chances are any “non-series” second and third books would have “resembled” my first effort in innumerable ways anyway.
Why? Because it’s impossible, really, to escape from yourself. The likes of Fitzgerald, Paton, Jane Austen, and so many others…. wrote much “the same” books and stories again and again – only the characters and locales were fundamentally “different.” Novelists (like singers, and even to some extent actors) have a “style” and a “voice” rooted in who they are, and even if they are not penning a clear series all of their works do tend to have touchpoints of obvious similarity.
Recently, I noted the issue of self-doubt among writers. The bottom line is this: write the novels you feel can write well and want to read. No one will write them the same way you do, and most probably if you would want to read them others out there will want to read them too.
Enough theorizing: it’s time to get back to work. Have a good day. It’s Friday! 🙂