Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Melville's Too Hard? (Part 4)

Sena Jeter Naslund

A few final thoughts about Melville and Sena Jeter Naslund and literary popularity.  As many of you know, Moby-Dick bombed at the bookstores.  Sold very few copies.  And, later, the remaining copies burned in a publisher's warehouse fire.  Melville's career was reaching its nadir.  His earlier travel memoirs--Typee and Omoo--had done well, and readers wanted him to keep doing that--writing stirring adventures about places they'd never been.  Moby-Dick took them places they'd never been--and they never wanted to go there again.  Melville did publish again, but he never again achieved any popularity with readers--and, as we know, died in obscurity in 1891 in NYC, forty years after Moby-Dick.

Sena Jeter Naslund began her career with serious intent.  She published stories in The Paris Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review and was teaching in the MFA Writing Program at Vermont College and at the University of Louisville, where she edited The Louisville Review, which she co-founded.  Her first two books were with Ampersand Press, the imprint of the Creative Writing Program at Roger Williams College in Bristol, RI--not a major press, of course, but an exciting moment for a young writer.  That first book.  That second book.  She seemed destined for a career among the literati.

Her third novel--Sherlock in Love (1993)--began her move to a different audience.  She had found a more substantial publisher--David R. Godine in Boston (a publisher of important works, usually).  And there are Sherlockians who will read (or go see) anything related to the famous detective--and who could resist a love story involving the fellow?  What will happen when Eros wanders into his life?

She begins that novel playfully--evoking Dickens: Sherlock was dead: to begin with.  And--later--there's a winking allusion to Virginia Woolf, age 4, chubby, on a train.  And Einstein.  And then Incest arrives ... never a welcome party guest.

By the time The Disobedience of Water (1999) appeared--also with Godine--the flyleaf was already advertising Ahab's Wife.  The stories & novellas in Water are still serious literary works--or attempts at such.

But Ahab's Wife changed all.  An enormous bestseller with William Morrow (and the paperback with HarperCollins), the novel propelled the little-known Naslund into the spotlight.  She followed Ahab's Wife with Four Spirits (2003) a novel about the Birmingham church bombing of 1963 (I haven't read it) then Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette (2006), then Adam and Eve (2010), which I also have not read.  Adam was an Oprah choice (an endorsement that generally turns on a cash spigot.)  But by then I had  just flat lost interest in her work.

Still ... on 12 October 2006, Naslund was doing a presentation and a signing up at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (RIP) in Beachwood, so Joyce and I drove up to meet her.  She was out promoting her French Revolution book.  She read a little, took some questions.  But only about a dozen people were there--a surprise, as I noted in my journal that night.  (Well, she got seven more folks than I did at the Hudson Library!)

She was surprised at the signing.  I plopped down on her table the first printings of her earliest books, and she regarded them with the look of a parent who's not seen her oldest children in the longest time.  I just checked on ABE: Ice Skating at the North Pole, signed, is going for $400--and Animal Way is not available at all, though some Amazon sellers have a few unsigned copies, it seems.  So maybe we can nudge our retirement income northward one of these days.  Who knows?

I don't want to sound too--what?--elitist? (dirty word these days)--in these remarks.  I did admire Naslund's ability to propel a story--and she clearly knows what readers want.  Those are not flaws or failures.  But I've often wondered if there was a moment in her career, a moment when she realized that she didn't have to be all that serious--or good--to be popular.  Was there a moment when she thought about Melville?  And realized she did not want to end her life as an anonymous customs inspector in NYC?  Did she think that Melville's mistake was that he stopped writing for his readers and started writing for himself--and Hawthorne?  (Who, by the way, rarely saw Melville after Moby-Dick.)

Novelists these days have tough choices.  So few people read literary fiction nowadays that it's almost masochistic to write it.  Melville said screw it and died unknown--not a fate that many of our species crave.

Herman Melville

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