Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Sophomore Jinx and Novelists

I just returned from a writers’ conference where I had some success with the literary awards, taking a few second places as well as making the top ten in an anthology they published, so for a few days I had a modicum of notoriety, congratulated many times by many writers.
Then I come home to my loving wife who is more impressed with my ability to remember to take out the trash on Thursday than she is on any awards or publication credits I happen to amass. Ah—literary fame, a huge high and then a big downer, kind of like illegal drugs and sex, though less dangerous.
From the few conversations I have had with New York Times Best-selling authors, it seems their biggest fear after achieving fame with the success of their first book, is the sophomore jinx. It’s because the only thing worse than publishing a book and having it fail is publishing a book and having it succeed. A successful book now means you have to follow up with another, just as successful, otherwise you feel you are a failure. Take J K Rowling for example. She followed up the mega-hit Harry Potter series with a ho-hum novel about local politics, the forgetful, Casual Vacancy. Gag me with a spoon.

Other examples of well-known authors who have a big hit for their debut book and then limped home for the rest of their career:
  • To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee: Never wrote another book.
  • Catch 22 -  Joseph Heller – A one hit wonder after writing a novel that has ingrained its title into the English language,
  • On the Road- Jack Kerouac- One book - then zip.
  • Catcher In The RyeJ D Salinger. He wrote the book, then holed up in a bomb shelter somewhere and never surfaced.
  • The Bell Jar – Silvia Plath – Okay, she had an excuse. You can’t write another book when you’re dead.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde: Wrote the best book he could and then became preoccupied, if you know what I mean – Nudge-Nudge, Wink-Wink.
  • Jane Eyre:  Charlotte Bronte – I guess she was no Jane Austen
  • Moby Dick: Herman Melville- He may have bored himself so much writing the first novel that he couldn’t take another.
Here's a list on the web:

All have had their share of fame but couldn’t beat that sophomore jinx with a successful or even decent follow-up novel.
Okay- some trivia. What novelist sold more books than anyone between 1898 and 1915 while having the most number one bestsellers those years? A riddle and a hint- you’ll recognize the name yet not the author. Huh? Give up? Okay, it’s Winston Churchill. But wait, JJ, you say. I know Winston Churchill and he wrote only one novel so what’s up with that?
Glad you asked. It ‘s not that Winston Churchill, it’s the other Winston Churchill. Now that you’re totally confused, I’ll explain. The Winston Churchill I’m talking about is the American author, who in his time, was a rock star of novelists and yet no one remembers him anymore, and all because the British Winston Churchill moved into the limelight during World War II and stole the poor yank’s thunder. It’s like being a famous scientist named Adolph Hitler in the eighteenth century, dwarfed by the evil dictator in the twentieth.
If the poor American Churchill had used a nom de plume instead of his real name, he would still be fondly remembered, like Dickens or Poe. Such is life.
I hope to God that if I sell a number of best sellers sometime, some guy in the future named John J. White doesn’t get elected President or assassinate a president because then all my hard fought fame will go the way of the American Churchill and my descendants will be pissed.
Lesson learned: Pick your pseudonym wisely and enjoy your fame while you can.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Obama vs. Romney--Choosing a President Based On The Books They Read

After the recent televised debate, pundits and viewers alike may have been swayed for one candidate or the other based on Obama and Romney’s beliefs, plans, and rhetorical skills, but I believe the essence of a man (or woman) is in the books he reads.
I have eclectic taste in books, from comic books to Joyce’s, Ulysses, with a tendency toward the eccentric. I would make a lousy president with my inability to decide anything. If I had a choice, I would choose not to have any choices but therein lies the rub, since I would have to choose not to choose. See. I told you I’d make a lousy president.
Okay, so let’s choose the next leader of the ‘pretty close to the greatest country in the world’, depending on whether the greatest country is determined by the number of IPhones owned by its populace. First, let’s go over a list of books the candidates say they have read recently. I will analyze their choices afterward. That will be a guess on my part, but I believe the candidates released these lists to influence the public’s perception of them. They want us to be impressed by the titles they chose. Whether they actually read them or not, who knows. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I’m an expert in psychology because I write my own blog, which makes you an expert at everything. Let’s start with the incumbent’s list:
  • Team of Rivals- Doris Kearns Goodwin:
  • Unequal democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age- Larry M. Bartel:
  • Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001- Steve Coll:
  • Collected Poems 1948 to 1984- Derek Walcott:
  • FDR - Jean Edward Smith:
  • Lincoln-The Biography of a Writer - Fred Kaplan:)
  • Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet- Jeffery D. Sachs:
  • Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why we Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America (Thomas Friedman):
  • The Way Home (George Pelacanos):
  • Plainsong (Kent Haruf):
  • Lush Life (Richard Prince):
  • John Adams (David McCullough):
  • Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (Gordon M. Goldstein):
  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Morris):
  • A Few Corrections (Brad Leithauser):
  • Tinkers (Paul Harding):
  • Freedom (Jonathan Franzen):
  • President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (Lou Cannon):
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell):
  • One Kind of Traitor (John Le Carre):

And now, let’s take a look at Romney’s choices:

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain):
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini):
  • Battlefield Earth (L Ron Hubbard):
  • The Purpose Driven Life (Rick Warren):
  • What it Takes (Richard Ben Cramer):
  • The World is Flat (Thomas L. Friedman):
  • Holy Bible
  • Term Limits (Vince Flynn):
  • Twilight (Stephanie Meyer):
  • The Law of Nines (Terry Goodkind):
  • Decision Points (George W. Bush):
  • East of Eden (John Steinbeck):
  • The Business of Winning (Robert Evangelista):
  • The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11 (Lawrence Wright):
  • America Alone (Mark Steyn):
  • The Rustlers of West Fork (Louis L’Amour):
  • Dragonflight (Anne McCaffrey):
  • Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
  • Theodore Rex (Edmund Morris)
  • 1776 (David McCullough):
  • The Battle for Peace (General Tony Zinni):
  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Bill Bryson):
  • China Inc. (Ted C. Fishman):
Okay, Obama’s choice in literature is a little more predictable than the challenger’s. It’s a list one would expect of a man who has a Harvard law degree who also taught law at the University of Chicago. He must have made his choices by both the length of the title and the ability to use the book as a sleep aid. Unequal democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age?. I fell asleep reading the dustcover. Surely Michelle rips it from his hands and suggests a night out at Chuck E. Cheese once in a while.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why we Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America---Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001-------Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. Come on, Barack, lighten up. We get it already, you’re a serious fellow. Even your selections of novels are depressing. No genre for you. Literary only. I believe he chose these books to emphasize and justify his administration's policies. Read these books, America, and you know where I’m coming from.  I bet if I looked under his mattress I’d find Tom Clancy’s latest.
Now it’s Mitt’s turn. Two points off already for a stupid first name. Geesh, what was your mom thinking? Mitt’s trying to tell us with his selection that he’s not one of those millionaire elitists, he’s one of us. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn-----The Holy Bible-----The Rustlers of West Fork---Twilight? Hell, he covered the entire cross-country spectrum of the population from religious to Senior Citizen to YA. It’s like he’s trying to please everyone. Despite that, I can relate to Romney better than Obama as far as literature goes. I’ve read more books on Romney’s list than on Obama’s.
So,then, who gets the edge for President based on their tastes in literature? Obama with his ginormous selection of boring books that only a closet nerd would find interesting? Or Romney with his common-man selection of mixed-genre novels, a little literary, and a lot of conservative reading?
Well, I’d have to say it’s close but the edge goes to Obama. Why? Because of one of Romney’s choices that leaves me with a nagging and uncomfortable feeling. Do we really want a man who likes L Ron Hubbard’s, Battleship Earth, to have his index finger inches from the nuclear football?  Hell no.