I’m reading a Dickens biography (Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph, by Edgar Johnson, Simon and Schuster 1952), and found a remarkable thing. Dickens’s first novel was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, written — as were most of his novels — as a serial. He wrote each month about 12,000 words, and this formed a chapter that went into a monthly magazine.
Here’s the rub. The first four issues — even, for a while, the fifth issue — of The Pickwick Club did miserably. Johnson reports that things were so bad that even for the fourth installment, which eventually took off, they printed 1500 issues for provincial distribution, and 1450 were returned to the publisher.
Then something happened. People fell in love with the character of Sam Weller, who appears in the fourth installment. Word got around. People started requesting the earlier issues. And it was all good news from then on. Eventually, Pickwick was such a sensation that there was even an explosion of Pickwick merchandise (Pickwick hats, Pickwick canes, etc.), along with endless copies, knock-offs, and theatrical piracies. But for four months, even into the fifth month and installment, Dickens’s novel looked to be a certain failure. Only a more patient time, and Dickens’s immense force of will, together prevented its cancellation long before its explosive success.
It is hard not to notice that today, The Pickwick Club likely would have been a failure. The big bookstores would pull a book before it racked up four months of bad sales (suppose, for example, that The Pickwick Club had been intended to appear as a trilogy of volumes, which was also a common practice then). Sure, a genius like Dickens would try again. But maybe not with The Pickwick Club, and so a comic masterpiece would be lost.
The economy of art has become accelerated; works must be instantaneously successful. (Perhaps this is a trend throughout the economy; nowadays, employees are not supposed to be trained, they are supposed to arrive at their job already experts.) The question, of course, is what might we lose — and what have we already lost — to such demands?
Today I finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and thereby finished a long project to read all 17 of Dickens’s novels.
Dickens is for me the essence of the novel. I admire most of all his genius for character. A character speaks two sentences, and you feel you know him, and could pick him out of a crowd. It’s a mysterious skill, akin to the mystery of Shakespeare’s poetic invention.
Reading the novels together, you also get a sense of a complete world, with surprising insights into human nature, and into its most enduring features. I was repeatedly amused by the things that had not changed, how some of our news is not really new at all, but recognizable to the reader of fifteen decades ago. (Random example: there is a Bernie-Madoff-like character in Little Dorrit — shockingly like our own Madoff, except that he has the decency to feel guilty in the end.)
I’m sad that there is not another discovery before me, another Dickens novel to be read for the first time. I have seen the arch of his genius, up to the unfinished termination. Still: I can always go back to the Pickwick Club, and begin again.
Just returned from the annual SFWA meeting, AKA “the nebs.” I was delighted to receive the Anlab award for short story for my “Julie is Three.” Here’s the crew of 2012 Anlab winners:
- Best Novella: “With Unclean Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (11/11)
- Best Novelette, tie: “Jak and the Beanstalk,” by Richard A. Lovett (7-8/11), “Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms,” John G. Hemry
- Best Short Story: “Julie is Three,” Craig DeLancey (3/11)
- Best Fact Article: “Smart SETI,” Gregory and James Benford
- Best Cover: December 2011 (for “Ray of Light”) by Bob Eggleton
All I can think is: I won an award that Clifford Simak and David Brin won!
I took a tour of the Smithsonian Air & Space museum led by astronaut Mike Fincke, a true Ubermensch, who answered all those questions writers want to ask, like, are the gloves stiff on those suits? (Not in the American ones.) Is it noisy in the shuttle while you’re going up? (It was a smooth ride after the solid rocket boosters were ejected.) Do you get nausea in microgravity? (Everyone does, but for different folks it lasts more or less time.) And I learned lots of details I didn’t even think to ask about: the yanks breathe pure oxygen in their suits, and that it gives you a wicked dry throat. And so on.
Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet legends (Stan Schmidt! Gregory Benford!) and lots of soon to be legends.
End of semester rush. Trying to finish philosophy book on consciousness. All is compressed. But: did find time to discover and buy and read a new edition of “Roadside Picnic,” which is out on Chicago Review Press in a very nice paperback, with an introduction by Le Guin and a fine afterword by Boris Strugatsky and — most importantly — a new translation in between. If you’ve not read — nor even heard — of “Roadside Picnic,” you must go read this edition. It’s a milestone of SF.
Is this a trend? A few minutes at Duotrope will show you how many magazines have response times of 180, 270, 360 days. Many of those magazines actually “require” a no-simultaneous submissions policy. The story is worse for presses. Most don’t take unagented submissions, of course, but those that do take 6 or 12 or 18 months to reply.
I don’t blame these folks much. I assume that editors, agents, and others who manage the channel are drowning in unsuitable submissions.
But how does the math work? Dune, Harry Potter, The Forever War, nearly any decent book you can think of took 15 or 20 or more submissions before being picked up. If those were serial submissions under a no-simultaneous submissions policy, that would mean about 15 or 20 or more years, plus 2 years for production, until those books appeared on shelves.
Generally presses don’t have a no simsubs policy. But mags do. And I’ve had stories that were well reviewed after they appeared, but that took three or four or five submissions before they were accepted. So must such works now take 3-5 years to find a home?
Afterthought. A friend just told me “The Dark Forward” had a formatting error (big chunks of text appeared centered) that didn’t show up on my Kindle but showed up on his Kindle Fire. Arg. Good news is that it’s fixed now.