Most people know Alexandre Dumas for his classics (usually assigned as required reading for class) The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but fewer people are aware of what he considered his masterwork: Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. This giant tome was part memoir, part encyclopedia, part cookbook. Rohini Chaki at Atlas Obscura describes the project as “more than a cookbook. Dumas meant it to be a formidable inquiry into both gustation and gastronomy, utilized by enthusiasts and culinary professionals alike.”
On Thursday, The New York Times published an op-ed defense of prolific writers by one of the modern era’s most prolific writers himself, Stephen King. It was a timely bit of writing for me, a non-prolific writer with a first book deal in the works, for whom the question of appropriate literary output is often debated.
In King’s take, which is certainly worth a read, he basically argues two things. One, that there are great works buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of some writers. (i.e. “Alexandre Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers—and some 250 other novels.”) And two, that for some authors, like him and Joyce Carol Oates, “prolificacy is sometimes inevitable.” He describes the crazy-making clamor of the voices in his head since his youth, all the stories crying out to be written.
The potential for those unwritten works is an interesting point of entry. Like most everyone, I’ve always found a particular romance in the notion of lost works of literature. There are so many different kinds, aside from those that never manage to be written. There are the truly lost, like William Shakespeare’s missing play The History of Cardenio. The nearly lost, like the poems of Emily Dickinson. There are the mostly-lost works that could have died with their authors but were published anyway, like Vladimir Nabakov’s The Original of Laura or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
But lately I’ve been struck by the notion that there might be no books more lost than those buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of authors who have simply published too damn much.
What’s your opinion, for instance, of the William Faulkner novel Pylon? How about Joyce Carol Oates’s Solstice? Larry McMurtry’s incredible doorstop of a novel Moving On? Or the only book in which Philip Roth wrote of a female protagonist, When She Was Good? Any non-John Updike scholars out there recall A Month of Sundays?
No? Well, who can blame you? Faulkner wrote 19 novels. You could hardly be expected to read them all. Larry McMurtry has written over 45 books. Roth, nearly 30 novels and novellas. Updike, more than 20 novels and almost as many short story collections.
Joyce Carol Oates, as King points out is “the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly).” But that’s just the novels. I stopped counting the short story collections listed on her Wikipedia bibliography entry after 20—which just brought me to the early 1990s. Oh, and that entry is listed as “incomplete.” Wikipedia would be grateful for your help in expanding it, though it’s unlikely you could do so faster than Oates herself.
Seeing a bibliography like that I can only wonder, isn’t it possible—even likely, perhaps—that Oates’s best novel is some forgotten, out-of-print book she wrote in, say, 1982, maybe one that hasn’t even landed on that incomplete bibliography yet? If so, most of us will never know it, because her massive output has built a body so forbidding that it deprives us of the experience of her books.
This kind of output isn’t limited to the literary scene, as King’s piece clearly illustrates. In fact, things only get really wild when you start talking about genre. There’s King himself, of course, who is at around 70 books all told. Agatha Christie who, as he points out, published 91 novels. Isaac Asimov, who, King says “hammered out more than 500 books and revolutionized science fiction.” James Patterson—also name-checked by King—has produced (mostly co-authored) nearly 150 books. He released about 15 in 2014 alone. And where would Modern Culture be without Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 romance novels?
Maybe King is right that this kind of output is a good thing. But something about it still makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because, upon discovering a book I love, I invariably feel compelled to track down and devour everything else by the same author.
With some it’s simple. Flannery O’Connor’s entire bibliography basically consists of four books, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Then, if you’re really hungry, there are her letters, interviews, whatever remains of her collected “uncollected” marginalia, and, most recently, a prayer journal. Finish those, and you’ve done it. You know Flannery all the way from “The Geranium” to “Judgment Day,” and whatever else she thought, wondered, or murmured to the heavens. There’s something wonderful about having seen all that an author has to offer, following the progression of her skill, obsessions, the recurring tropes and themes, the trails of subconscious leakage.
The problem comes when I happen upon an author, like one of the above—King included—whose body of work defies, by its sheer heft, that kind of close study without lavishing a truly abnormal amount of time and devotion upon it.
It’s not as if reading a novel is the same as watching a movie or viewing a piece of art. After all, one could see all of Vincent Van Gogh’s 860 oil paintings in a few days if they were physically available. And a cursory appreciation of Johannes Vermeer’s 34 mightn’t take longer than an hour. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography amounts to 13 feature films I could watch in a few of days if I felt like a binge. But it’s not so simple for writers, unless I want this to become my own personal Year of John Updike, Two Years of Philip Roth, or Decade of Joyce Carol Oates.
King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books “because,” he says, “I want to read them.” I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival. Whoever has or does is in possession of far more free time than I. If we were immortal, if our time on the planet was infinite, I’m sure I’d feel differently, but as King wisely points out in his own piece, “life is short.”
And let’s say I wasn’t an obsessive completionist. When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in. If I wish to dig into the oeuvre of Oates, McMurtry, Updike, Roth, or even James Patterson, I’m forced to either choose at random or rely on others to tell me which work is most important and worthy. Which might be fine if the people on whom I were relying had read all of the work themselves, but of course they haven’t—with the exception perhaps of King’s devoted fan base.
I experienced a similar anxiety many years ago at a record store. I had gone there determined to finally delve into Frank Zappa’s music. Unfortunately, it was quite a good record store, and they stocked most of his 100 albums. Finally, after trying to make a decision based on the album art, I gave up and decided to get into punk instead, a lot of short-lived bands that self-destructed after just an album or two, tidy discographies I could learn by heart. Of course there were probably some truly great albums buried in Zappa’s discography, as in the Grateful Dead’s 144-plus record output. But I’ll never know. The volume of work becomes a barricade, a wall that one cannot reasonably scale even if one wishes to.
So it is with novels. It’s true that telling Oates, et al., not to write so much might deprive us of great works, but the net effect is the same either way. Each new book is, for me anyway, another lost in the flood.
Image Credit: Flickr/library_mistress.
Last winter I visited family in the Texas Hill Country for the holiday. As always happens when my cousins and I find ourselves in our ancestral home for any extended time, full of ham and sick to death of Friends reruns, we eventually made our annual pilgrimage to the thrift store. A quick walk down the street from my grandparents’ house, the local D.A.V. is little more than a shack with a cracked concrete front porch and dumpsters full of castoff donations in the back. This isn’t one of those classed-up thrift stores one sometimes finds in cities, full of marked-down designer goods and “hidden gems.” The D.A.V. is a store with a wall of dusty coffee carafes, their matching coffee makers long lost, bins of fuzzy toys still full of fleas, and tables stacked with naked VHS tapes and elementary school dioramas. Everything feels like it came from the home of a retired rancher who also happened to be something of a fashion plate in the ’80s. To say we love it is an understatement.
In the back of the D.A.V. there’s a dark, water-damaged corner with a few bookcases, which someone half-heartedly started organizing five years ago and then abandoned. My cousins and I usually avoid this area — it’s a little creepy, even for our Southern Gothic tastes, and the books aren’t very appealing. Aside from the typical thrift store celebrity memoirs, Christian romances, and cookbooks, there isn’t much selection, and my attention is usually too absorbed in comparing polyester shirts and chipped coffee mugs to even browse. But on this particular trip, I spotted a bottle-green book marked Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels on the first and only shelf I looked into, and promptly added it to my cache of broken and cast-off items. I bought the book for 80 cents, took it home, and immediately forgot all about it.
Three months later, I found it again while straightening up my apartment. Only last week did I actually check through which 101 novels are immortalized as “best.” Collected and printed by Barnes & Noble in 1962, 29 years before I was born, that 101 includes only 56 titles I recognize. I have read a mere 19. Among them are the usual classics — Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Little Women. But there’s also Ivanhoe, which I’ve read, and Ben-Hur, which I haven’t, despite my grandfather’s frequent prodding, and then there’s something called File No. 113, which I didn’t know was a book at all and which frankly sounds awful.
Of course the very idea of a book composed solely of the plots of other books is ridiculous, and I bought it mostly as a joke. Let’s read what they have to say about Moby-Dick, I thought. Try to sum that up in two pages! And what’s Les Mis like in 3,000 words or less?
But underneath that joke was a little sincere curiosity — what is File No. 113? – and more than a little self-recognition. If I was alive and reading in 1962, decades before Google and Wikipedia and Goodreads, I just might have purchased Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels at the original price of $1.75 out of a very sincere and un-ironic impulse to know as much as possible about every book ever published without necessarily taking the time to read them all. I say this because I have that impulse now, in 2015, and because I had it in 1996, when I learned how to read, and if I am lucky enough to make it to 2062 I will probably have it then, too.
I was raised on book abridgments. I hoarded my allowance to buy Children’s Classics at the dollar store, titles like The Three Musketeers and Journey to the Center of the Earth condensed into little 100-page versions, illustrated with loose line drawings and bound in cardboard covers. These “classics” took me only about a day to consume, and as they stacked up on my childhood bookcase I began to feel quite well-read for a child 10 years old.
One of the best of these classics was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with its illustrations of the elegant submarine and the characters’ daring underwater explorations. I knew enough to understand I didn’t have the full story, and when I was 10 I begged my parents to buy me the original novel for Christmas, which they obligingly did. I was thrilled to unwrap the little blue book, with its sober cover and 600 pages, but when I started reading the type was too small and the sentences too long. After struggling mightily through about 50 pages, there was no sign of the Nautilus and I abandoned the new book in favor of my old cardboard version.
My favorite book during these years didn’t come from the dollar store, but it was an abridgment — a shortened version of Ivanhoe, also in a bottle green cover, this time illustrated with a knight on horseback, carrying a shield and a banner. It was longer and more coherent than the chopped-up dollar store books, and I loved the adventure of the story, the castles and tournaments and battles and ladies. So when I was 13, a few formative years after the Jules Verne failure, I set out to read the original version, lengthy exposition, dated language and all. This time I found I still loved the book, though in a different way. True, Ivanhoe no longer offered that sugary high of constant action and adventure, but there was a lingering pleasure that came from a slow immersion in Walter Scott’s long scenes. I spent hours unraveling the relationships that linked his massive cast of characters and reread the climactic battle scene (which was about as long in the original version as the whole novel was in abridgment) several times straight through. The full novel had a complexity that the shortened version clearly lacked, and though it required more work than I was used to, it was also a more rewarding reading experience. I liked reading difficult books, I realized. This was fun. This was better. And though my definition of “difficult” has changed again and again over the years, that enjoyment has stayed.
This is not to say that I’ve outgrown my craving for easily digestible narratives stripped of meaty content. I enjoy struggling with difficult books, sure, but I also Google movie plots constantly, often while watching the movie in question. I read recaps of new episodes of Game of Thrones, though I stopped watching the show several seasons ago, and I skipped the first however-many seasons of Breaking Bad, but made sure to catch the finale. Of course I should know better — what did I learn from rereading Ivanhoe 10 years ago if not to savor the actual work of reading (or, in these cases, watching), to reap the benefits of sustained attention and commitment?
But I have a small stockpile of excuses at the ready, which I deploy on my scornful friends and family every time they fuss at my Wikipedia addiction. These range from the petty (I hate suspense, and feeling left out of conversations, and just generally being ignorant) to the refined (I do away with all that petty plot business up front so that I can focus on the actual art, you know?)
Vladimir Nabokov claimed that there was no reading, only rereading. I’m tempted to agree, and my argument, though different from his, might go something like this: the first read of a given story is often so concerned with plot, with the simple mechanics of a story, the “this happened then this then this,” that it’s difficult to appreciate the story’s craft. It takes at least another reread, and probably more than that, to really appreciate a written work in its full complexity and significance. And here’s where my justification for summary addiction becomes grandiose beyond all bearing: what if I can skip that first plot-driven read by just checking a synopsis so that when I encounter a text for the first time I’m free to notice and appreciate all of it?
Turns out, it doesn’t really work like that, however much I wish it did. Knowing a major plot point beforehand spoils some of the effect. Of course it does. I’m reminded too of a time when I was little and found a book version of the first Indiana Jones film. I was so upset by reading about Indy and Marian escaping a chamber of vipers by smashing through a room filled with mummies and skeletal miscellany that when we watched the movie I cried real tears trying to convince my parents to fast-forward through the scene. They didn’t, much to their credit, and that particular cinematic moment turned out not to be nearly as terrifying or significant as I’d expected. The Raiders of the Lost Ark is still one of my favorite films, and I hate to think that I might have missed it due to summary-induced hysteria.
My plot habit has cost me in other ways, too. Having a decent sense of the overall plan of a book or movie has frequently disrupted the very sense of community I’m trying to create. I read Moby-Dick in one of those dollar store abridgments when I was about 10, and remember in vivid detail an illustration of Fedallah, the dark prophet Ahab sneaks on board the Pequod. Ten years later I read the full Moby-Dick over the course of a college semester and met weekly with a professor and three other students to compare our progress and discuss our thoughts. Part of the fun of this exercise was supposed to be the shared process of discovery — none of us students had ever read all of Moby-Dick before. But when we came to the particularly eerie chapter in which Ishmael sees five shadows dart on board the Pequod (the first foreshadowing of Fedallah’s eventual appearance), I couldn’t join in my classmate’s excitement and speculation. I knew exactly what the shadows were — some of the magic was lost for me. Somewhat similarly, a few of my friends dislike talking about Game of Thrones with me because they know full well I didn’t suffer through any of the show’s horrors, as they did, but simply read about it later on The Atlantic. I’m not a full member of the club, and I know it.
In fact, I’ve begun to worry that plot summaries (and my generally unthinking impulse to read them at the slightest provocation) actually run completely contrary to the purposes of books and film and television. I’m not helping my reading, I’m defeating it; I’m not becoming more well-versed in modern culture, I’m ensuring my separation from it. Yes, by Googling reviews of the latest Game of Thrones episode rather than watching it, I’m protecting myself from the adrenaline-fueled horror of seeing someone be hacked to bits or poisoned or set aflame. I’m encountering the story with a much clearer head than I would have if I were actually watching. But I’m also missing a vital piece of the show — it’s meant to be horrifying. And when I know that Fedallah just snuck onboard the Pequod, I’m missing something there, too: I don’t get the full sense of foreshadowing that Herman Melville intended, don’t feel the full weight of Ishmael’s quiet but growing dread. The moment becomes just another plot point to check off my mental list.
Perhaps this is all just a continuation of a much older and larger argument about why we read or watch movies or enjoy any kind of artistic entertainment. Is it a primarily emotional or mental exercise? Can it be both? By reading the plot summary of any given work, am I choosing the mental by default? By refusing to engage with a work on its own terms, am I negating the exact thing I mean to be enjoying and celebrating? Yes, I think. Maybe I am. Probably I shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s time to watch a movie and be sincerely surprised by everything that happens. Maybe it’s time to finally outgrow my love of dollar store abridgments.
But let us return, one last time, to Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels. What does it have to tell us about Ivanhoe? Nothing at all. The “plot outline,” condensed by some Prof. Fenwick Harris, is nothing more than a page-long excerpt lifted from the novel’s climatic battle scene, paired with a short critical essay on the significance of the Jewish Lady Rebecca. Given this and nothing else, a reader couldn’t possibly understand Ivanhoe. I’m not sure they could tell you a single significant thing about it. Reading the novel for the first time they would encounter every plot point naturally, would feel every feeling, and I wouldn’t dare complain. Perhaps this is the plot summary in its most natural state, freed from all excuses and justifications: mostly useless, a little ridiculous, and ultimately beside the point.
Image Credit: Nicholas Eckhart.
Ad Age recently revealed that McDonald’s is getting into the publishing business. For the first two weeks of November, children’s books with a nutritional theme will replace the toys in Happy Meals. With titles like The Goat Who Ate Everything and Dodi the Dodo Goes to Orlando, the books are processed products through and through, created by the ad agency Leo Burnett, intended to create good press for the fast-food company by signaling its commitment to literacy and nutrition. McDonald’s ran a similar campaign earlier this year in the U.K., which inspired a list of satirical book titles (e.g., Harry Potter and the Deathly Swallows) under a #mcbooks hashtag on Twitter.The hashtag has been revived with the announcement of the new campaign.
This is not, however, the first time McDonald’s has distributed children’s books. In 1979, when I was five years old, living in Wilmington, DE, my family took one of our painfully rare trips to McDonald’s to get Happy Meals for my sisters and me. There were few things more exciting at the time than opening up that iconic box to see what sort of toy was inside. On this visit, however, there was no toy. The counterperson handed over a little paperback with a drawing on the cover of a boy whitewashing a fence.
McDonald’s introduced me — and I would venture thousands of other kids — not only to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but also to the notion of a classic. In 1977 and again in 1979, the fast food chain paired up with the publisher I. Waldman & Son to distribute Illustrated Classics Editions in their restaurants. Waldman had published children’s versions of classic literature, such as The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby-Dick, in 1977 under the brand name Moby Books and, in 1979, the publisher paired with Playmore, Inc. to distribute the series in supermarkets, drugstores, and other retail sites. They released 12 titles that year and another dozen in 1983. The books measured 5.5 by 4 inches and were typically 238 pages long, with each page of text facing an illustration.
Over the next few years, I collected a half dozen Illustrated Classics books, but that first encounter with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the moment when I discovered literature.
Granted, Deidre S. Laiken’s adaptation of Twain’s novel might not count for everyone as literature. Here is Twain’s opening:
“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”
Here is Laiken:
Tom Sawyer was always getting into trouble. He was the kind of boy who just could not resist adventure.
In this textbook example of the difference between writing that shows versus writing that tells, Twain gives us an immediate sense of what Laiken can only report to us. Tom Sawyer in the original is such a miscreant that he does not even bother to show up for the start of the novel that bears his name, while the Illustrated Classics version frames Tom’s character and the entire narrative for its readers, wary of letting us interpret too much on our own.
What really mattered to me in the long term, however, was not the quality of the text but the authority behind it. There were few institutions I respected more than McDonald’s, so when I saw that it had endorsed a line of books grouped under this mysterious rubric “classic,” I knew that this was a work worth reading. More significantly, I learned from McDonald’s that there was a whole class of books out there that were especially worth reading. I read a lot of junk as a kid — loads of books about movie monsters, World War II, and science fiction, plus a mountain of comics — but I took special pride in reading classics and presidential biographies and was thrilled when adults complimented me on my taste and sophistication.
All this reading and complimenting eventually led to a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley, where I learned that what McDonald’s had introduced me to at the age of five was the concept of cultural capital. The term comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and it refers to “forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society.” Speaking Standard English, knowing how to order and eat at a four-star restaurant, and being able to discuss art and music are all forms of cultural capital. They are ways of signaling one’s membership in a class and even of advancing within and beyond it. My primary motive for reading Illustrated Classics, to be sure, was pleasure (as is the case with my reading of literature today), but I was aware early on that some of that enjoyment derived from the sense of distinction I felt in doing so.
I used to enjoy the irony that I have held onto the taste for literature that I picked up at McDonald’s much longer than I did the taste for its food. Nowadays, I feel more wistful for a moment in time when a fast food company thought it could promote itself by providing kids with editions of Twain, Dumas, and Dickens. I am not naïve enough to think McDonald’s did so on account of its pure love of literature. The company entered into this promotion with the same sense of self-interest and desire for synergy that it did when it embarked on it first cross-promotion of a film with the Star Trek Happy Meal in 1979, the year the Happy Meal debuted. And in much the same way that this upcoming publishing endeavor is likely intended to wash away some of the association of the McDonald’s name with junk food and childhood obesity, the Illustrated Classics scheme was probably meant to raise the brow of a company whose main contribution to culture was a mountain of advertising featuring a creepy clown and his oddly shaped friends.
What seems unbelievable now — and even sweet — is that McDonald’s ever cared about its brow enough to try raising it. McDonald’s and I had that in common: we wanted to elevate ourselves by association with the classics, only I held onto that desire long after the fast food chain did. I went to grad school for a lot of reasons, but McDonald’s Illustrated Classics played their own little part in that decision. It’s not a choice I regret, but, in this deeply pessimistic moment for English departments, I cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when literature’s cultural stock was so high that even McDonald’s wanted to invest in it.