Long-Remembered Books Released Within a Short Time

Creative bursts! They can happen at the start of novelists’ careers, or after they become established enough to quit time-consuming day jobs, or after they become parental empty-nesters with more writing hours, or near the end of careers when authors know their remaining years are limited, or because they’re creating series rather than stand-alone books, or for momentum reasons, or for other reasons, or for no discernible reasons at all. Readers are the beneficiaries.

One memorable burst occurred when George Eliot wrote her first, second, and third novels in rapid succession — all classics. Adam Bede in 1859, The Mill on the Floss in 1860, and Silas Marner in 1861. Eliot’s novel-writing career began relatively late — she turned 40 in 1859 — so there was plenty of pent-up literary energy and ideas.

During the same 1859-61 period in England, the prolific-for-more-than-two-decades Charles Dickens penned a pair of novels that were unquestionably among his best: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.

In the U.S. a decade earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne produced The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851) back-to-back.

Hawthorne’s friend Herman Melville churned out seven novels between 1846 and 1852. Only one all-time classic (1851’s Moby-Dick), but all very good — and the last the underappreciated near-classic Pierre (1852). Then came 1853’s extraordinary short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

Also impressively prolific for a long time was Alexandre Dumas — but his two most-famous novels, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, were both completed in a single year! That was 1844.

Still earlier in the 19th century, between 1811 and 1818, Jane Austen’s classics Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey*, and Persuasion were all published — the last two titles posthumously. (*Well, I’m not sure Northanger Abbey is a classic. 🙂 ) Work on some of those novels began well before 1811, but it was still an amazing few years of productivity.

Austen contemporary Sir Walter Scott was 43 in 1814 when he finally became a published novelist after achieving fame as a poet, and proceeded to write a barrage of novels — about 25 — before his 1832 death 18 years later. His two best-known titles, Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, were released three years apart (1817 and 1820).

Moving forward in time, the also-very-prolific Henry James had some creative bursts with his more notable novels — for instance, Washington Square in 1880 and The Portrait of a Lady in 1881. But perhaps his most impressive feat was writing The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904) in three consecutive later-career years. All highly ambitious (some might say overwritten) novels.

Later in the 20th century and into the 21st, some novelists have created canons so copious it seems like much of their respective writing careers have been one creative burst — with some books better than others, of course. Among those fertile “fictioneers” were/are Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Lee Child, and John Grisham, to name just a few.

Finally, we have famous familial fiction frenzies. In that realm, it’s hard to top the three Bronte sisters — with Charlotte’s classic Jane Eyre, Emily’s classic Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s good Agnes Grey all released in 1847. Then came Anne’s excellent The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848.

Any authorial creative bursts you’d like to mention?

The great Canadian podcaster Rebecca Budd, who often comments here under the name Clanmother, invited Russian-literature blogger Elisabeth van der Meer of Finland and myself in Montclair, New Jersey, to a long-distance, three-way conversation about enduring themes in fiction. Among the works we discussed were Pride and Prejudice, The Handmaid’s Tale, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Farm, Lorna Doone, Eugene Onegin, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Lord of the Rings. The podcast can be heard here.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an upcoming referendum for an elected school board — is here.

The 1960s: a Novel Decade

After writing about Stoner a couple weeks ago, I thought about how the 1960s were a very interesting time for literature.

Actually, John Williams’ superb 1965 novel — a character study of an academic who lived and died before the ’60s began — was somewhat atypical for a decade known for Vietnam War protests; the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements; “the sexual revolution”; the counterculture; defiance of authority; and more. Some of the decade’s best-known novels included lots of sociopolitical elements along with memorable characters. I’m thinking of titanic titles such as Harper Lee’s 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird (which addressed racism), Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse-Five (both with war/antiwar themes), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude (which addressed just about everything).

Other excellent but not masterpiece-quality ’60s novels also referenced topical issues in addition to depicting characters that stick in one’s mind. Among them were Margaret Atwood’s feminist debut novel The Edible Woman (1969), Philip Roth’s sexually candid Portnoy’s Complaint (also 1969), and Ken Kesey’s authority-defying One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Meanwhile, the decade saw notable late-career works by several literary giants. They included John Steinbeck’s 1961 The Winter of Our Discontent (with its interesting take on ethics and materialism), Erich Maria Remarque’s 1962 The Night in Lisbon (a mesmerizing World War II novel), Aldous Huxley’s 1962 Island (a utopian counterpart to the author’s dystopian Brave New World), and Daphne du Maurier’s 1969 The House on the Strand (a fascinating time-travel novel).

Other highly regarded novels of the decade (as in the rest of this post, I’m just naming ones I’ve read) included John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey (1960); Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961); Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962); Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and James Michener’s Caravans (1963); Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, and Dorothy Gilman’s The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966); S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare (1967); Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968); and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). That last work was a memoir, of course, but almost feels like a novel.

The book I just started reading is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

Your favorite novels published during the 1960s? Any other thoughts on literature in that decade?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the planned reopening of a historic movie theater — is here.

Very Much Alone

I’ve written about loners in novels before, but what about characters who are literally alone — cut off from all contact with other humans?

Though that situation might seem like a possible recipe for reader boredom, there is actually plenty of potential drama of a tense and poignant nature. How does the alone person handle that dire situation? How does she or he pass the time? How does she or he get out of the situation, if that happens? Etc. We certainly feel sympathy for those without companionship.

All that occurred to me last week as I read The Valley of Horses, the very good first sequel to Jean M. Auel’s great The Clan of the Cave Bear. Cro-Magnon protagonist Ayla is no longer living with the Neanderthal group with which she spent much of her childhood, and is now seeking people of her own kind in sparsely populated prehistoric Europe. The resourceful/proto-feminist young woman ends up being solo for quite a long time, just trying to survive — though, as is the case with some novels of this type, she does find some memorable animal companionship.

Then there are novels in which a character is stranded alone on an island — with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe probably the most famous example.

There are also fictional prisoners in solitary confinement — with one of the most famous Edmond Dantes, unjustly incarcerated for years in an island jail in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

Characters can be stranded in outer space, too; one recent example is Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian. The astro-botanist/engineer becomes The Martian of the title when stuck on The Red Planet.

In the above categories, sometimes rescue or self-rescue will happen and sometimes it won’t. Hope for a happy ending can certainly encourage readers to stick with a grim story line.

Apocalyptic novels in which millions devastatingly die can also find surviving characters alone; the title of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man clearly offers more than a clue to THAT scenario.

Of course, a novel starring a completely isolated character might or might not juxtapose scenes with people living more normal social existences. That’s the case in The Valley of Horses, which alternates chapters spotlighting Ayla with chapters featuring two journeying Cro-Magnon brothers who fall in with a Cro-Magnon clan different than their own. When charismatic “ladies’ man” Jondalar tells brother Thonolan that he doesn’t want to settle down yet because of a desire to hold out for an extraordinary woman, we sense he and Ayla might eventually meet…

Any “aloner” fiction you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about school and pool reopenings, and a welcome new ordinance banning gas-powered leaf blowers for part of each year — is here.

An Appreciation of Underappreciated Novels

Cover image of the character William Stoner.

Real life isn’t fair, and the same goes for fiction. Some stellar novels deserve more reader love, but remain relatively obscure.

Among the many books that should be much better known is one I just read after it was enthusiastically recommended by several of this blog’s frequent visitors (credited in the comments section). The novel is John Williams’ Stoner, and it left me absolutely gobsmacked with admiration. It’s exquisitely written, with a near-perfect authorial voice. Plus one feels such sympathy for the beleaguered, achingly three-dimensional protagonist William Stoner (yes, the 1965 novel’s title is the last name of its lead character, not a reference to being stoned).

So the question is why Stoner didn’t become as famous as other exceptional 1960s novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Catch-22. I’ll offer several theories, while first noting that the reasons for a novel not achieving widespread recognition can be inexplicable — bad luck or something. Or perhaps inadequate initial marketing in certain cases.

Speaking specifically of Stoner, its bleakness might be a turnoff to a portion of potential readers; the book is heartbreaking. Yet I couldn’t put it down; devouring it in a day.

Also, some readers might feel the novel isn’t sweeping enough. William Stoner is a farm boy-turned-English professor who seldom leaves Missouri. Fictional works with that kind of narrow lens, or that are set in academia, are not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, a focus on mostly one life can “contain multitudes,” and the novel does glance at outside events: World War I, the Depression, World War II.

In addition, William is not a particularly charismatic protagonist — indeed, he’s often rather passive. But he’s a decent sort many readers can relate to, and we’re devastated as bad things happen to him (even as his life does have some happy moments). The novel is still inspiring at times as we admire William’s stoicism in the face of what fate metes out, and appreciate his unbending love of learning and literature.

Another novel that doesn’t receive nearly its due is Elsa Morante’s stunning History (1974), whose title conveys how it’s partly a chronicle of the World War II era in Rome even as it focuses on one woman (Ida Ramundo) and her two sons (Antonio and Giuseppe). It sold pretty well in Italy during its decade of publication, but never became very well known outside that country, then or now.

Why? There could be some bias against a female author writing a novel set in wartime. Also, like William Stoner, Ida is a passive character who has bad things happen to her. But Giuseppe is one of the most precocious kids you’ll find in literature, and there’s a memorable dog, too.

L.M. Montgomery’s novel The Blue Castle has periodically enjoyed a modest level of popularity since its 1926 release, but it’s much less famous than the author’s Anne of Green Gables — even as The Blue Castle is just as compelling, poignant, and funny as it focuses on what the feisty Valancy Stirling does after receiving a shocking medical diagnosis. Perhaps part of the reason The Blue Castle is somewhat obscure is that it’s an adult novel and Montgomery is pigeon-holed as a writer for younger readers.

Sometimes a novel is grossly underappreciated when it’s first published, before later capturing the public imagination. Such is the case with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), which initially sold poorly and was dismissed by many critics. Perhaps it was just too deep (pun not intended) for its time — plus people who had read Melville’s earlier, less-complex sea sagas may not have been prepared for the author’s leap into masterpiece territory. It wasn’t until decades after Melville’s 1891 death that Moby-Dick deservedly became a phenomenon.

Any great novels you’d like to mention that aren’t as known as they should be? (Not an easy question to answer, of course, because there’s less chance we’d have heard of a book if it’s underappreciated. 🙂 😦 )

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a return to school, an immigrant jail, and library funding — is here.

When a Book Title’s Words Return

Tommy Orange and his novel.

Amid the big pleasures of reading fiction are some small pleasures, and one of them is when a novel’s title appears in the body of the book.

I’m of course not talking about novels whose titles are a person or place; those names will inevitably be mentioned multiple times in a book’s pages. I’m talking about the more evocative matter of novels with titles you might initially puzzle over, or with titles you’re kind of familiar with but are curious how they’ll be used in the book.

I just read There There, whose title can be interpreted in various ways. Tommy Orange’s impressive, compelling, VERY painful 2018 novel focuses on about a dozen contemporary Native-American characters — mostly residents of Oakland, Calif., and its urban milieu. Many of the characters are struggling with racism (at the hands of the white power structure), poverty, broken families, addiction, and other problems. They are “accidents waiting to happen,” which happens to be a line in Radiohead’s 2003 song “There There” — a song Orange mentions in the book. Later on, the author also mentions Gertrude Stein’s famous quote “There is no there there” — about…Oakland, Calif.

On top of that, Orange constantly bounces the narrative from one character to another, or, to put it a different way, from one household (there) to another household (there). Finally, we think of “there, there…” as a phrase expressing sympathy — something many of Orange’s characters can use, especially during the novel’s shattering climax.

Another impressive, compelling, VERY painful recent novel — Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give — has a title many readers have heard somewhere before. Sure enough, the book mentions rapper Tupac Shakur’s concept of “THUG LIFE”: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” The traumatic events in Thomas’ 2017 novel — about a white cop’s murder of a young black man and what ensues — certainly bear that out.

The two words in Zadie Smith’s intriguingly titled White Teeth show up more than once in her multiethnic novel. Those words refer to how people of all types are essentially the same (most originally have white teeth) yet have some differences (teeth can turn yellow or be in various other conditions). And one way racism is historically mentioned in Smith’s novel is via the horrid memory of racist/murderous white soldiers spotting vulnerable Africans in the dark by the contrast of their white teeth and dark skin.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has a title that of course conveys the anger of exploited, impoverished people (including the Joad family) treated badly by such entities as American big business and law enforcement. But will those four words, also known for being part of the 19th-century “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” turn up in the novel? They do, in this memorably striking passage: “…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

In some cases, readers think a title means one thing but it turns out to mean something else when the words pop up in the novel — an ambiguity often crafted deliberately by the authors. For instance, the latest Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child and Andrew Child is called The Sentinel and one of course thinks of someone who stands guard. But we eventually learn that “The Sentinel” is the name of a software program pivotal to the novel’s plot.

Any examples you’d like to offer that fit the theme of this post?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at allegations of mayoral conflicts of interest — is here.