Successful writers claim to have one in their desk drawer. Usually it is being “looked at again” with an eye to “working on it” now that the writer is a success. First novels, if all the calls publishers receive about them really reflect the existence of manu-
scripts, may be Canada’s largest resource. Proceeding painfully page by page from the typewriters of the Great Undiscovered, the first novel is reemerging as both a hot literary and commercial property.
Five years ago the attitude toward new novelists was cool. “Of course I’ll read it,” replied Anna Porter, then editor-in-chief of McClelland & Stewart, in answer to one aspiring writer’s tremulous call, “but an unknown has a much better chance in nonfiction.” That was before Canada’s publishers had recognized the paperback and subsidiary rights values of a good story and established mass-market paperback divisions of their own. Today Porter heads up Seal Books where the value of a good read has translated into the $50,000 annual first-novel hunt. In the United States the movie studios are optioning still-to-be-written first fiction with a cheque-book-and-cigar largesse that comes straight out of one of their own 1930s flicks. Explained one movie mogul to Publishers Weekly: “We’re optioning because a book writer creates a trend. Screenwriters tack onto existing ones.”
This week American author Walter Murphy’s first novel The Vicar of
Christ (Collier-Macmillan) will hit the stores with pre-publication paperback and book-club sales worth $600,000 and movie rights still to be negotiated. In February, Lucian K. Truscott iv’s first novel Dress Gray (Doubleday), a winning combination of sodomy and slaughter at West Point, brought $800,000 for paperback rights and “a good sum” for the movie sale. Ever since the 1976 appearance of Judith Guest’s best-selling first novel Ordinary People, publishers have been treating unsolicited manuscripts with new respect. Which is not to say that all is rosy. Canadian fiction writers still find their manuscripts disappearing into publishers’ memory holes. “Macmillan has had my novel for 13 months now,” laments journalist Gary Ross, “and they were the ones who asked for it.” First novels often suffer from shortcomings that experience eliminates from a writer’s work. But writing novels is not like learning to land airplanes. You may do very well right off the bat, but you don’t necessarily get better with practice. Some first novels illustrate the point: Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne, Richard Wright’s Weekend Man or, in the great masters’ league, Goethe’s Werther, Proust’s Du côté de chez Susann, and Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western
Front. And though every generalization has its exception, Canadian first novels seem to suffer more acutely than their European and U.S. counterparts from the tricky syndrome of “thinly veiled autobiography.” Given the happier limitations of Canadian experience—no recent wars, plagues, famine or labor camps—this has tended to limit both the literary and commercial interest of our novels. And while a marvelous story can be told about life on the University of Toronto campus or growing up Jewish in Winnipeg, it has to be through the treatment alone. A fascinating or bizarre setting, on the other hand, can go a long way in grabbing interest even if the craftmanship of a Remarque is missing from the writer.
Take William Wharton’s Birdy (Maclean's, Feb. 26). Set in the bleak lowerclass world of ’30s Philadelphia, Birdy is the story of a boy who wants, simply, to become a bird. The writing is uneven, at times the prose becomes almost grotesquely amateurish, but Birdy has a raw power that deals in an original way with ambitious themes. In a sense Birdy illustrates perfectly what the word novel really meant originally: something novel or new whether in subject or treatment. Similarly Truscott’s Dress Gray grips not because of the quality of its prose or even the suspense of its story—the investigation of the murder of a young cadet—but because of the reader’s immersion in the novel world of a military school.
Fourteen years ago Walter Murphy began The Vicar of Christ, the 650page-plus book that chronicles the life of Declan Walsh, a Korean war hero who becomes in rapid succession chief
justice of the United States, supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church — and possibly God. It is an extraordinary piece of work, complex, perhaps irritating in its reflex-liberal assumptions about secular and church law, but a gruelling workout for anyone interested in ideas. Murphy’s own background as a decorated hero of the Korean War and a professor of law is clearly at play here, but fashioned into an outrageous piece of fiction that does what even a novel of ideas ought to do—takes the leap of imagination that propels the reader into unknown constellations.
Canadian first novels seem to prefer to tiptoe into fiction. There are exceptions of course—John Ralston Saul’s 1978 novel Birds of Prey and now Jack McLeod’s marvelous Zinger & Me (McClelland & Stewart). McLeod’s novel is a series of letters between an ambitious young assistant professor at Toronto’s Chiliast University and a series of his friends including Francis Z. Springer, an irresponsible sex-crazed journalist who acts upon his impulses to print and practise lechery with a regularity that should qualify Zinger for immortality on our next set of Canadiana stamps. Other novels stay closer to home. Katherine Govier’s Random Descent (Macmillan) cleaves to the Canadian experience and gives it to us in much detail and undeniably fluent
writing. This is the story of a fairly unremarkable Canadian family traced back four generations. As a historical or sociological piece of Canadiana the book is vastly superior in quality of prose and detail to any textbook. As a work of fiction it all seems rather pointless except perhaps as therapy or practice for the author. Sondra Gotlieb’s autobiographical novel True Confections (Musson), on the other hand, covers a multitude of ordinariness with a generous helping of humor. Growing up Jewish in Winnipeg is not in itself an “Open Sesame” to a world of entertainment. But Gotlieb writes with much economy and a genuine sense of comedy. What remains to be seen is whether writers like Gotlieb can overcome what Tom Wolfe calls “the first novel crisis” in which an author pours all of his experience into the first book leaving himself high and dry for the second. Such pitfalls are not eased by government policies that make some literary grants, for example, conditional on writers setting their books in B.C. to qualify for a B.C. provincial writing grant. If we can wean our promising authors away from the confines of their prairie homesteads or high-school scrapbooks and into the fluid shifting geography of the world of the imagination we may have better luck in developing Canada as a good literary address. Barbara Amiel
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