Given the opportunity, I will say to almost anyone that I think novelists take themselves far too seriously, and for that matter, some even expect to be regarded with awe. The creative engine, though a mighty machine, is easily thrown into reverse. I do not, by the way, exclude myself from this. In a few short weeks since Ignatius Press published my novel Everywhere in Chains, I have become expert in many things I previously barely understood. Just ask my wife.
That said, I think regular exercises in humility and perspective are good for a novelist’s soul and may even help with the writing, and so now and then, before sitting down to compose, I turn to an old text for help with a morning meditation, not as you might expect, an Epistle from St. Paul – useful as those can be – or even Ecclesiastes. Instead I turn to a dictionary of the English language to ponder what company the word novelist keeps.
This is not quite as secular as it sounds because my method originates with a grade school teaching Sister who never missed a chance to caution her charges about the influences of companions, especially bad ones. “One bad apple can ruin the whole barrel,” she would say. I have never actually seen a barrel of apples, but who can forget a caution like that? Ask anyone educated by teaching nuns: whenever matters moral or reverential come up, what do they think of first? Believe me, they will not quote a bishop or even a Pope: it will be something Sister said just before recess in fourth grade, etc.
All this comes to mind as I discover nearest novelist in my dog-eared dictionary the word nova, “a star that will brighten intensely and then gradually dim, in the end often becoming invisible.” I am sure that my priest character Father Luke Ulrich could turn that one into a slam-dunk homily. In my less homiletic view of things, a nova sounds like many best-sellers: in the shop window today and on the discount table next week.
Another of my teaching Sisters once said she never read anything that had been published more recently than fifty years ago. If it had survived that long, in her opinion, there must be something worthwhile about it. Proof, among other things, that nuns can keep Darwin at hand even while teaching creation.
Next after nova in my dictionary, I find novel whose first definition is not the thing novelists do, but is instead an adjective describing anything new and unusual, often with the connotation of something transient about it, as in the case of “a passing fad or fancy.” At this point, I attempt a rebuttal with an imagined heckler by suggesting that all novels, without exception, are simply the re-telling of old stories. There is nothing new about any of them regardless, not really, except for their dust jackets. It has all been told before somewhere, again and again, in different words and languages.
This turns out to be an unfortunate move, for my imagined heckler counters with a parable from another Luke, in this case the Evangelist (5:36-39): “No man having drunk old wine, desires new, for he knows the old is better.” Here is yet another argument for sticking with the literary classics. We would find ourselves reading the Iliad and the Odyssey over and over and perhaps after a long lifetime arriving at Don Quixote. Not much in the way of reputation and royalty checks for new authors to be found in that direction.
I move quickly beyond this discouraging thought, only to discover something yet more disillusioning in my dictionary. Consider the word novelty: a noun for something new, and sometimes – in its plural form – “small cheap things, especially toys, etc.” I am reminded of surprises in boxes of Cracker Jacks, not the ones these days but of the sort my nostalgic druggist character Ralph Corrigan would remember from years ago when Cracker Jacks came in a wax-coated box.
Perhaps this explains why in the aftermath of being published, I have yet to be asked to speak somewhere despite my new-found expertise in a surprising range of obscure subjects. I am hounded by characters who won’t let go even after I have let go of them, and appear to be talking to myself a lot. It is always risky to make friends with one’s literary characters. Soon enough they think you can not get along without them still hanging around somewhere expressing their opinions uninvited.
Thank God for the word November on the next line down in my dictionary, simply and elegantly the eleventh month of any year, even all the years before I was first published. I grow wistful.
With your permission, I mention in passing novena, novice, novitiate as self evidently ego-deflating, all near neighbors of novelist and looking smug knowing my route is blocked by Novocain, “a local anesthetic used chiefly by dentists and out-patient surgeons to deaden pain.” Some hope lies here, for novels, especially of the sort called ‘page-turner’ fantasies have been known to have the same effect.
Nova, novel, novelty, the eleventh month, nine days of prayer, and a dentist’s chair – thus my meditation and inner debate concludes as Father Ulrich steps forward to have a few words with me.
In case you have been reading along and wondering a bit about the peculiar style of all this: it is a rough imitation of that used by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in an essay collection with the title The Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table, quite well-received at the time (1858), but seldom read these days. I stumbled upon a battered old copy in a used bookstore a year or so ago, eleventh printing, fifty cents. “Sic transit . . .”