I have a friend—call him Tom—who, like me, is a writer. Tom has written many novels over a long and enviable publishing career, and his novel-writing philosophy, related to me over various drinks at various bars, can be summarized as follows: Write whatever the hell you write, whatever concept or character or situation has burrowed under your skin and must be freed. Forget commerce and forget audience—you write for an audience of one, and if an editor or reader happens to find it interesting, all the better. A bestseller, in Tom’s view, should merely be a happy alignment of the world’s interests with your own, a momentary occupation of a dominant paradigm that is essentially unplannable. Or not something to be planned, at any rate.
Tom’s philosophy holds many advantages. It is pure, uncompromised and uncompromising. It presumably results in the best art, at least if you assume that, in theory, the most adventurous art usually takes money the least into account. And it is easily followed, as well, simply by adhering to its lone Thelemic precept: Do what thou wilt.
It is, finally, a comforting artistic position for an artist to hold vis-à-vis commerce. If you are utterly beholden to your artistic impulses, you cannot be surprised or mind much when a piece of art does not sell. You did not create it to sell. If it does, great, but whether it does or not is a simple matter of luck, of spinning the wheel. Further, it implies a retroactively absolving determinism—if a lifetime of artistic work has sold no paintings, no albums, no books, why fret? After all, you were always going to do the thing you were going to do, and you were never going to do the thing you weren’t going to do, and the thing you did do was never not going to be unpopular, QED.
This may be a philosophically solid position, but is it necessarily true? I began to ask this question after the publication and non-success—the anti-success—of my first novel. I wrote the book, as many first-time novelists do, in a kind of prelapsarian innocence, protected from the practical concerns of publication by ignorance and wonder at the odd fact of writing a novel in the first place. In the beginning, I hadn’t even really intended to write a novel, had simply been working on a short story that kept accumulating pages. In the end, it sold to a trade house, and the whole experience had the hazy quality of a dream, an impression strengthened by the arcane inscrutability of the publishing process.
Preparing to write a second novel, I had no such illusions. I had seen the amount of machinery required to make a book, all the stubborn engines of commerce that must be coaxed to life; I had received the distant publication schedules, the important dates that feel imaginary set nearly two years in the future; most importantly, I had a book come out that didn’t do much of anything besides get some nice reviews. These are lessons that cannot be unlearned, and they come with a circumspection about the projects to which you are willing to commit your time and attention. Suddenly lots of market-related considerations crept in that would never have occurred to me the first time around. I began to wonder, contra Tom: Could a writer set out to write a popular book?
In a largely facetious (though slightly more serious than I’d like to admit) attempt to address this question, I decided to take the most literal possible approach and go through several years of New York Times Best Seller lists. After all, to write a bestseller, it would be helpful to know what has sold best. Making the Times best-seller list may seem like casting a broad net, but only counting literary number ones, I was left with, approximately, All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale. So I figured hitting the top ten for a week would do it, over the previous five years. Too much further back and you might run into epochal changes of taste, some forgotten mania of the aughts. Also, I didn’t have the time.
An immediate issue this exercise presented, and a question much larger than the scope of this piece, was deciding what qualifies as “literary fiction.” For my purposes, I included almost anything not having to do with worldwide conspiracies, serial killers, werewolves and shapeshifters and rogue triple agents—i.e. anything not obviously genre. And though they invoke the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series—The Empire Striketh Back, The Jedi Doth Return, I am not making this up—did not make the final cut.
(Before moving on to actual findings, a couple of notes after having spent many man hours going through nearly 300 or so of these weekly lists. First—and I realize this is the summit of trite publishing observation—but holy shit does James Patterson, or The James Patterson Military Industrial Complex or whatever it is, produce a lot of books. I’m not sure I noticed more than a handful of weeks in the last five years in which some Pattersonian permutation wasn’t on The List. David Baldacci, also. Second, Brad Thor may be the only bestselling genre author with a less plausible name than his protagonist, the relatively mundane “Scott Horvath.” You would think his hero should be named something like Odin Hercules, but no.)
Having compiled a long list of recent literary hits, what did I learn? Well, for one thing, start your title with “The.” Around a third of these bestsellers are “The” books. The Goldfinch, The Nightingale, The Martian, The Interestings, The Vacationers, The Girl on the Train. Granted, “the” is a fairly common word in English usage, but I suspect it also holds some subliminal power for prospective readers, announcing a book as official in subject and purpose—the definite article, so to speak. Just imagine how many more copies All the Light We Cannot See would have sold if it had been titled, for example, The Light We Cannot See (All of It), or The Entirety of Unseen Light.
Another smart move is to be famous already. Ideally, have written To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago, but otherwise, at least be a known quantity. This, of course, introduces another chicken/egg problem, i.e., how did these writers get to be known quantities before they were? At any rate, surprisingly few authors seem to make the list from out of nowhere.
More seriously, write one of two types of books: mysteries or historical fiction, both if possible. In either of these genres, you’re in good shape if you can work in something to do with a famous painting or painter or other noteworthy work of art or artist. Anything to do with marriage and travel to exotic locales, as well. Over and again, a combination of these elements popped up, and the obvious common theme is that of escape: escape into the past, escape into a mystery, escape into aesthetics and culture, escape into imagined relationships, and the literal escape from one’s home to parts unknown. It turns out that the escapist instinct that drives genre fiction sales is alive and well in readers of literary fiction—it simply requires (debatably) better sentences and (usually) less fantastic trappings.
With these guidelines in mind, I came up with a few potential novels that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the list. Here’s one: a historical mystery based on the life and death of Paul Gauguin. But told from the perspective of his estranged wife, Mette-Sophie, via a diary she keeps as she travels the world, investigating her husband’s artistically triumphant and morally bankrupt life after leaving his family. Call it The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin. A synopsis of this ghostly book in the style used to query agents is as follows:
When a previously unknown Paul Gauguin painting is discovered in an abandoned apartment in Chicago, art historian Lena Wexler is assigned the job of tracking its provenance; an investigation back through time, and place—from Chicago to Miami, from Denmark to France, from Tahiti to, finally, The Marquesas, all with the help of The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin.
Does this sound like a book people would buy? I think so. I can very easily imagine this book on the coffee table of my mother-in-law, an omnivorous reader of literary bestsellers, classics, and nonfiction who helms a monthly book club. I’m fairly confident that if I queried 20 agents with this synopsis, one or two would request a read. It sounds like a popular book.
The only problem is that for it to exist, I would have to write it. And it’s not a book I can write. Working through this little thought experiment confirmed what I already knew writing a novel requires: an ineffable, personal spark of interest that catches fire and burns steadily enough to not be extinguished by doubt and creative incapacity; a fire that manifests over time as curiosity about the subject, and the project itself, how it all turns out. Lacking this deep interest, an otherwise valid project—exciting, interesting, and commercial—remains a theoretically good idea, like going to medical school or quitting social media.
Since this essay’s inception, I’ve published another novel and have two more in stages of revision, and I’ve fully accepted Tom’s point of view: You have to write what you want to write, even if what you want to write won’t usually be what people want to read. You can’t spend two to five years on something for a theoretical, external reward. Or I can’t, anyway, but maybe some people can—if so, The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin is all yours.
Image: Flickr/Nabeel H
The natural history museum is a buffet of symbolism that writers of fiction find it difficult to resist: shelves upon shelves of animals, rocks, and plants are primed for metaphor, while the gruesome behind-the-scenes drama of pickling, skinning, and other acts of specimen preparation provide copious fodder for allegory. It should come as no surprise then that writers are mining the displays for material, and that the public is enthusiastic about the results. Anthony Doerr’s mega-hit novel All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014, owed much of its charm to the young Marie-Laure, who follows her locksmith father to work everyday at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. There she wanders the halls learning about mollusks, geodes, and fossils before losing her eyesight to cataracts shortly before the start of World War II. Suddenly the boon of bringing a blind child to a natural history museum everyday becomes clear: with her father “continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather,” Marie-Laure’s other senses grow stronger until she is capable of navigating through the museum, and then her Parisian neighborhood, completely blind.
All The Light is one of two books published recently in which the natural history museum plays a crucial role in the characters’ developing identity. The other, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, allots only 20 pages to the natural history museum, but it nonetheless plays a pivotal and altogether different role; Whitehead’s natural history museum is embedded with political messages about the dark past of natural history itself. Both books made The New York Times bestseller list, meaning both reached a large audience with their very different messages about the role of natural history in fiction: one inviting the natural history museum into the discourse of the novel, skeletons and all, and the other allowing natural history to remain as so much window dressing, despite copious evidence of its role in perpetuating the violence at the heart of the novel.
The oldest, most venerable institutions devoted to studying natural history have long histories of exploiting human subjects in the name of knowledge; the same museum in Paris where Marie-Laure learns about mollusks was the site of Georges Cuvier’s hypersexualized examination and dissection of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”) roughly a century prior. In the United States, natural history museums have been instrumental in constructing the narrative of an upstart country with copious natural resources poorly defended and cared for by indigenous tribes—resources that were only properly named, catalogued, and displayed upon the arrival of Europeans. One highly publicized story from the turn of the century—natural history’s boom years— involved Minik, an Inuit boy, who was nine years old when he and his father, Kishu, were delivered to the American Museum of Natural History by arctic explorer Robert S. Peary in 1901. Minik’s father soon died of tuberculosis after living sequestered in the museum’s attic, and curators lost no time in dissecting and preparing Kishu like a specimen, going so far as staging a fake funeral to dupe Minik into thinking they had buried his father with traditional Inuit rites on museum grounds. In reality, the museum kept his bones and, the story goes, young Minik stumbled upon his father’s skeleton mounted in a display case.
Baartman and Minik are just two of the more notorious instances of natural history museums exploiting indigenous people and people of color in the name of science, to say nothing of the hundreds upon thousands of nameless bones that have traveled the world in the satchels of grave robbers cum physical anthropologists. Such histories are latent within every literary natural history museum, whether or not the author consciously engages with them.
In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead confronts the racism of the 19th-century natural history museum head on, and uses it to make a point about the African-American subject in the popular American imagination. Cora, who’s living in a South Carolina boarding house for black women after escaping enslavement on a Georgia plantation, is recommended for employment in the Museum of Natural Wonders by her house proctor (an institution apparently imagined by Whitehead as an amalgam of various 19th-century natural history museums) because she has “adapted” better than her housemates. But Cora isn’t wanted at the museum for her manual labor, as she assumes, but as a “type” to be employed by Mr. Fields, the curator of “Living History.” As a living exhibit, Cora pantomimes an imagined version of her history for a white public in three dioramas: “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” “Life on the Slave Ship,” and “Typical Day on the Plantation.” For hours at a time she plays her part, sometimes across from white mannequins (the white people on display are always dummies, never real people) while museum-goers file past. Having lived the horrors of a plantation while in bondage, Cora questions Mr. Fields on the inaccuracies of his exhibit:
Mr. Fields did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors, at the foot of a slave’s cabin, but countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions. Would that he could fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps.
Mr. Fields’s use of the word “actors” is an interesting shift away from “types,” one that indicates an attempt to rephrase Cora’s job description as one of pure theater. But Mr. Fields cannot shed the discourse of the natural history museum so easily, as day after day Cora endures the “white monsters on the other side of the exhibit […] pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.” The white public, for whom the exhibit is intended, observes Cora as a specimen, which, despite her signs of life, shares more in common with the taxidermied animals and mannequins from “plaster, wire, and paint” than a living person with emotions. Mr. Fields’s employment of black women as living exhibits, coupled with the lack of white types, indicates clearly to Cora, the white public, and the reader that black specimens are to be observed without the veneer of human dignity or respectability, even outside the museum’s walls. Indeed, the logic went, because curators saw African-Americans as more “natural,” and therefore closer to mankind’s shared animal relatives, they were more deserving of display within a natural history museum.
Whitehead’s Museum of Natural Wonders may have been imagined, but Mr. Fields’s practice of displaying people was not. Human zoos were popular sites at World’s Fairs throughout the later half of the 19th century and well into the 1900s, often meant to demonstrate to the public the supposedly uncivilized nature of indigenous and non-white people. Humanity’s position within the pantheon of natural history museum displays has long been fractured along racial lines. Museums are largely products of colonialism and European cultures that sought to dominate “exotic” cultures by harvesting archeological treasures and human remains for the edification and amusement of the general white public. Throughout the late 1800s and early 20th century, eugenics masqueraded under physical anthropology as figures like Aleš Hrdlička erected exhibits of human remains to demonstrate the separation of the races at the American Museum of Natural History and the San Diego Museum of Man.
Whitehead makes the connection explicit; while working at the Museum of Natural Wonders, Cora learns that white doctors are making sterilization mandatory for black women with intellectual disabilities or more than two children. This kind of bodily control is enabled by the politics of display inside the natural history museum, a logic that allowed white doctors and curators to dehumanize the black subject to the point of denying them autonomy over their own reproduction.
Consider the moment when Mr. Fields “gives his types a proper tour of the museum.” As she’s shown around the different exhibits, Cora occupies the position of the white public looking at dioramas depicting scenes from American history: Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the Boston Tea Party, and the supposedly peaceful seizure of indigenous lands. Cora comes to her own conclusions about the history these exhibits portray: “Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” It’s a moment of the black subject functioning as both critical museumgoer and “type” specimen; the living exhibit returning the gaze and critiquing. Cora’s position does not allow her to be behave as a passive observer like the white visitors; having been categorized by Mr. Fields as a member of the collection herself, she has a far more personal stake in the interpretation of said collection. Her taxonomy becomes one of “how are these things positioned in relation to me, and what does it say about my selfhood?” Yet despite all this, Cora’s is never allowed behind a microscope or to give any input on her own display.
For Doerr’s Marie-Laure, it would seem the natural history museum’s politics of display are irrelevant; in fact by the end of Doerr’s novel she has gained considerable agency over the natural history museum’s holdings she once wandered about blindly. Marie-Laure returns to Paris after the war to work in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where she establishes her own laboratory to study mollusks. Doerr informs us that she has published monographs on “the evolutionary rationale for the folds in the West African cancellate nutmeg shells” and an “oft-cited paper on the sexual dimorphism of Caribbean volutes.” Marie-Laure is given authority over an entire subset of African mollusks by virtue of the many hours she has been able to devote to the study of the creatures over her career—a career only made possible by many long hours spent in laboratories and traveling to collect specimens, both activities that Cora, as a “type” whose value only registers within the confines of the museum exhibit, is unable to participate in.
Much separates the experiences of Marie-Laure and Cora within their respective museums, not least of which is a roughly 80-year period during which many of the more grisly activities of natural history museums were curtailed and swept under the rug (although grave robbing remained in good health). Anthropologists have for awhile made their names in softer ways: Franz Boas, who often paid Hrdlička for the skulls he brought back from the southwest and Latin America, gradually moved away from seeking out racial logic in physical anthropology, becoming more interested in the customs and traditions of different cultures. Today, many anthropologists look to philosophy and the social sciences for their conclusions, like Donna Haraway, whose The Cyborg Handbook points out the many ways in which humans and technology are both “natural.” But this is not a comparison of ‘”had it worse,” Cora or Marie-Laure. Rather, I want to examine the choices these writers made in depicting the natural history museum, and how this impacts the message behind both novels.
Take, for example, the treatment of Charles Darwin in All The Light. When the Nazis swoop in and occupy the French town of Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure and her great uncle endure de facto home imprisonment inside his chateau. To pass the time they recite passages from Voyage of the Beagle—“the variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite”—and act out exchanges with Darwin himself, whom Maire-Laure loves to imagine “at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.” It’s a whimsical picture of a naturalist at work, understandably appealing to a child under stress, but one that curiously overlooks the connections between Adolf Hitler’s drive toward racial purity and the mission of many early naturalists and natural history museums. It’s no secret, for example, that the Nazis found inspiration in American eugenics of the sort that permitted Cora’s encounter with forced sterilization; even the eye color charts used by the Nazis can be traced to charts displaying the separation of the races in the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Hall in a 1926 exhibit curated by Hrdlička for the International Congress of Eugenics.
If Doerr intends to draw this connection between natural history, eugenics, and Nazism, it’s ultimately smothered by the overwhelming sentimentality of the novel’s dependence on the natural history museum’s role in preserving Marie-Laure’s sense of wonder at the world. Doerr’s description of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in which “fossilized dinosaur femurs” sit across the hall from “two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs” and “a meteorite on a pedestal […] as ancient as the solar system itself,” sounds strangely similar to Mr. Fields “holding forth on the cross-sections of pumpkins and the life rings of venerable white oaks, the cracked-open geodes with their purple crystals like glass teeth, the tiny beetles and ants the scientists had preserved with a special compound.” Both descriptions collapse time and space and generally confirm the view of the natural history museum as infinite, a place where all corners of the universe, from the depths of the ocean to deep underground, can be intimately known. The natural history museum reduced to a grocery list of specimens to be plucked off the shelf abdicates all responsibility for horrors committed in its name; if just anyone can come along and make their own selection from the vast collections, then it’s no fault of the museum and the curators and anthropologists who built the institutions if those selections are used to fatal ends. But natural history is not just a grab bag; it’s not neutral, and it’s important that in fiction it not be allowed to become a playground where white people, characters, and authors can retreat into an allegorical fantasy land, as it has functioned in real life for hundreds of years with extreme consequences.
Museums of all kinds play their specific role in constructing the broader understanding of the human subject by housing, displaying, and labeling the residue of humanity in a delicate hierarchy. You’ll never find a Jackson Pollock exhibited alongside a woolly mammoth skeleton, just like you rarely find indigenous beadwork or sculpture in the main halls of the Louvre or MOMA, even though they are equally products of humanity’s ingenuity. We assume that anthropologists and curators are more sensitive now regarding framing and positioning, but as I write this, there are articles being published in The New York Times in which scientists are quoted saying that a recent hominid fossil discovery has the face of “somebody you could come across in the Metro.”
Interestingly, Whitehead writes that “the stuffed coyotes on their stands did not lie, Cora supposed. And the anthills and the rocks told the truth of themselves. But the white exhibits contained as many inaccuracies and contradictions as Cora’s three habitats.” Cora backs away from a sweeping statement about the the discipline of natural history in general, even though it’s highly suspect that even a taxidermied coyote, after being killed, skinned, preserved, stuffed, and displayed, has not acquiesced to the great white lie of American domination of nature.
It’s Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who in the early pages of the novel sounds a more complex note:
She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things.
Ajarry comes to her own conclusion, both philosophical and material, that people and nature occupy a muddy space together, but for different reasons than Hrdlička or Darwin. Ajarry’s perspective is born of watching the white man’s scientists carry out their experiments on her very body, the same as they would on cotton and cows. It’s an embodied knowledge born from the experience of being treated as chattel and object, and it’s a perspective that natural history museums, and the books about them, would be wise to explore further.