I just read a new work of fiction by an established writer; it is his ninth book. But, I am feeling a little sad about this new release, the only one of his books I have read. The story has left me somewhat concerned about the state of fiction in 2017.
While the book is decently written what bothers me is what the American book editor Max Perkins of the publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons would have said about the book if he would have read it in 1917? The Max Perkins who I appointed as my role model after I studied the way in which he managed new authors and their work. This was when he worked at Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York from 1910 until he passed away in 1947.
A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of a Genius was a book that taught me invaluable lessons during my quest to glean author relations and book editor techniques from Perkin’s successful career. Perkins was instrumental in grooming such new authors as Ernest Hemingway, Scott F. Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe among others.
What would Max feel about this new release that I can see on my bookshelf and I still feel uncomfortable about; the novelist depicts a chapter in the life of a divorced mother in her late 40s and her only son, a teenager.
This novel fulfils its role; the definition of a novel is a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism. Another dictionary defines a novel as a long fictional narrative which describes intimate human experiences.
This new work of fiction certainly succeeds on one level. The definition of a novel, I feel in this instance, requires a little more exploration such as ‘What is the purpose of a novel?’ and ‘What does the reader expect from a novel? Writers ask these questions of themselves or they are asked them by their agent, their publisher and sometimes a brave reader and definitely by a writing instructor or book manuscript coach and right now I am asking these questions as an essayist. There have to be answers to these questions for these questions are about intent, motivation, and delivery of a product, a book, that has to give something to someone. Writing can also be an altruistic act.
While in the past a reader may never be privy to an author’s intent overall today there is a tendency through author publicity and social media for an interested reader to find out more about an author if they are interested in a book before or after they read it.
Sometimes the writer’s motivation and intent aligns with the reader’s expectation and satisfaction; the reader gets what the writer wanted to give. Sometimes the reader is left baffled. There are all sorts of reasons readers read books and those reasons can change at any time depending on circumstances. Reasons can include a desire to detach from their own world and escape into another reality as a means of respite or adventure; the reader might not like their own reality and be only too happy to live in another dimension in the reading experience. Any writer that can give this absorbing reality to a reader is a popular choice. The reader may come to a book with a conscious or subconscious prayer; I hope this book inspires me, teaches me something I don’t know, enlightens me, entertains me, guides me, gives me something so significant I feel different after I read it, and then this reader is either pleasantly surprised or marginally or desperately disappointed.
All of us readers have some sort of feeling or opinion before, during or after reading anything especially works of fiction and absolutely nonfiction which by its very nature prompts us to think, feel and form a response in words and action.
Regarding Mrs. Fletcher, while this work of contemporary fiction may be categorized today as Modern Realism by a Professor of English Literature, I feel we are slipping if we call it anything other than Reportage Nonfiction packaged in a book jacket designed for the universal female reader to recognize an image similar to herself on the cover. Product and people recognition goes a long way today; the jacket of this book depicts a woman in bed with one of those addictive phones shining on her face.
The author seems also to be intent in this narrative with mirroring the lives and times of people in our society today who seem to lead ordinary recognizable lives. Will this make it easier for the average reader to find themselves on the page so they feel at home in the story and their lives are affirmed and acknowledged in the process? When a person feels acknowledged they tend to cleave to the source; is this why a recent Scribner’s release looks and reads like an ordinary snapshot of life in new fiction?
Personally, I found the story a little dull, a little predictable, and distasteful; the issue with this type of book that is going to achieve a lot of attention is the protagonist will be perceived as a cliché and forever more people may speculate that behind closed doors the typical divorced single mother in her late 40s and her only teenage son must be similar to this depiction.
This, of course, is not true but look at the issue with the Fifty Shades trilogy; the majority of readers cannot fail to assume that the majority of women want what she is having (even if they would never admit it), just like the lady in the diner wanted what Sally had in American writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron’s classic movie When Harry Met Sally (1989). The implication being that all women – and men- really want is sex. When in truth men and woman only want love but sex not necessarily intimacy – which can be different – is often the only option for the time being but it invariably does not provide a solution to the long term issue of getting the love you want, learning to give the love that is needed or nurturing love and sustaining it forever.
Mrs. Fletcher lacks everything I found so appealing and enlightening about a lovely find of a French film I discovered only the other day called Family for Rent (2016). It is directed by Jean-Pierre Ameris who co-wrote the screenplay with Murielle Magellan. The film tells the story of a single, shy, lonely wealthy man who initiates a live-in contract arrangement with a single parent with two children as a way to pay off her debts and as a means to give himself a first-hand appreciation of family life. This endearing film is funny and deeply emotional. The two children of the single parent also offer up inspiring contributions in the story. If Mrs. Fletcher had achieved this level of impression and impact on the page I would have been more satisfied as long as the intimacy needs of the protagonist and her son had been managed with more grace and intelligence. Family for Rent is modest and yet so much more effective and special than what is on offer in some of the more explicit books today.
You will never have me recommending a book that contains pornography. I feel intimacy is a private affair that should be kept within the privacy of a relationship that is modest, sacred and based on the right values. Overall, the world over, what people do in private or public is their business. In this blog, it will become clear to you if you read my others posts, all I care about is quality fiction and what we can do about raising up authors to write worthy fiction of substance that will last the long haul. Therefore do not expect me to enter into any debate to support overt intimacy in fiction. What concerns me after reading this new release is the state of fiction because of this book. More to the point, the state of our lives depicted in fiction; do we really have to go where Mr. Perrotta takes us in Mrs. Fletcher? Surely, Mrs. Eve Fletcher’s business can stay her business because her business is simply reportage nonfiction, or fiction playing at nonfiction or Modern Realism or whatever term you want to give it, for it is just a story of one divorced woman’s life and her son’s too and their frustrations and their sexual encounters and their ordinary intimacy issues. Surely today’s fiction should be giving us more?
Let us look back for a moment; we need to do this for me to emphasize my point.
The 17th centuries gave us the dramatist Shakespeare.
Some critics argue that Daniel Defoe gave us the first novel in English Literature with Robinson Crusoe (1719). Others will say Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (published in English in 1612 and 1620) and Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) could claim an equal share in the first novel category. Then there is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740).
The 19th century gave us so much variety and depth of meaning in English and world literature there is not enough room to list the quality authors and the quality work produced then, and that is still read and revered today. I am talking about authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conon Doyle, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells and so on. If you are not very familiar with the titles of some or all of these authors and more from this generation just consider a literary life today without Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, A Portrait of a Lady, Around the World in Eighty Days among hundreds of others; it seems incomprehensible.
The 20th century gave us all of Charles Scribner’s & Sons author’s works as well as thousands of others including L. Frank Baum, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Margaret Mitchell, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and so on. Titles such as: To the Lighthouse and all Woolf’s writings, A Passage to India and all Forster’s writings and so on including A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Alice in Wonderland, and most of Agatha Christie’s 76 novels and again imagine life without these books, it would be awful. I would have nothing to read.
I cannot see where Mrs. Fletcher would fit in beside any of the above-mentioned authors.
While it would seem Mrs. Eve Fletcher has more in common with 17th-century protagonists than the characters created by later authors, at the moment I feel more sympathy for Tess in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) than Eve in Mrs. Fletcher.
Here, I do sincerely apologise to the team at the Scribner Imprint – which is now part of Simon & Schuster – you have no idea how much I love to read, how committed I am to supporting the work of new authors, how much I love literature, and how disappointed I was while reading Mrs. Fletcher. I am sorry Mr. Perrotta, I need more in my fiction than overt ordinary realism that borders on pornography that prompts me to worry about the prospect of literature in the 21st century. Where are the Woolf’s and Austen’s of today, and the Hemingway’s, and the Fitzgerald’s?
Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Daisy Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby was more vivid and compelling and intriguing and purposeful than Mrs. Eve Fletcher in this new release. The Great Gatsby is also an exciting, memorable read.
Santiago, the adventurous young Andalusian shepherd boy seeking his Personal Legend – his personal truth and a sacred treasure – in Paulo Coelho’s classic The Alchemist holds more interest for me than Mrs. Eve Fletcher’s University drop-out son Brendan. This is one of the most outstanding novels of the hero in search of self. What was Scribner’s thinking? What would Max and Charles and all his sons think about the newest release from the holy Scribner’s imprint? Where do Eve and Brendan Fletcher’s search of self-take us; deep into the internet and personal desire. Is this where we want the future generation of readers to dwell and future writers to orbit?
Can we do better? Where are all the marvelous authors who have been raised on the marvelous authors of the past? How can a serious writer of nine published books who is part of the marvellous literary cannon produce something as base and seemingly shallow as Mrs. Fletcher? Yes, is a well-crafted novel. Mr. Perrotta can write. But where will his story lead the reader and other authors and book editors in the future? Where will Mr. Fletcher stand in the literary canon in one hundred years’ time; in one’s year? In two or three months? Mrs. Fletcher is not Mrs. Robinson. The Graduate by Charles Webb published in 1963 is a timeless classic that was made into a timeless movie released in 1967.
I sense Max Perkins would be as disappointed as me in Mrs. Fletcher or maybe I should seek some virtue in Mrs. Flecther. I must find a little bit of good in the book because that is gracious and I am a gracious person who loves literature and fiction and appreciates and values the hard work and efforts of authors and publishers and agents. Perhaps this ninth book of Mr. Perrotta is indicative of the times and therefore it is supposed to be a portrayal of the seemingly empty and disappointing lives many people sadly lead due in part to addiction to technology and unmet personal needs.
The question I ask is why do we need new works of fiction given to us in this format; an ordinary rendition of a chapter in one woman’s life and that of her son? Surely today new works of fiction should have more substance. What is the point of the book; what purpose does it serve the reader and an aspiring new author or editor looking to the book as a role model for excellence?
I am sorry Mr. Perrotta, I want more from you, and from fiction for the sake of literature. Surely the public deserves more than simply staring in the mirror or peeping into the home of someone else’s life. How will current, and future new writers, raise themselves up on books like Mrs. Fletcher?
Max Perkins invested in authors of literary substance.
Where are the Max Perkin’s of today; editors who are grooming serious writers who will seriously contribute to the literary canon of today and tomorrow?
Mrs. Fletcher will come and go like a little leaf carried away in the autumn breeze. Where are the cedar trees; where are the strong and durable, solid editors and the solid authors who will protect and honor fiction now and in the future?
Photograph credit; Max Perkins.
Recommended reads; some lists of fiction from 1700 to 2017.